Freedom and Democracy According to Margaret Thatcher

“You cannot have freedom without a rule of law… And if you don’t have it, what you tend to get is corruption and that is death to freedom, it’s death to truth, it’s death to honour, it’s death to democracy.” Margaret Thatcher, 1st October 1996.

Recently, the government of the UK has said it was going to break international law. Theirs is a statement of intent from the Conservative and Unionist Party, the governing party in the UK. Theirs is a party that venerates Margaret Thatcher but is prepared to ignore her about a critical issue.

Breaking international law will have dire consequences
for the UK in negotiations and has led to some resignations from honourable people, but not from the Prime minister, Alexander Johnson, known as Boris, nor from his Cabinet.

On the first of October 1996, Thatcher made a speech to the European Foundation on “Freedom, Economic Liberty and the Rule of Law”. I intend to critique this speech. The full text can be found at https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/108365. Quotations from the address and elsewhere will be in “”.

Thatcher delivered her speech at “a dinner which is called ‘the Freedom Dinner'”. In her speech, she claimed that “as every empire has broken up, in this generation, into component nations—not into new federations, please note: each with their national pride and their national character”. Many of those new nations were federations, for example, India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Nigeria, formed from the former colonial powers with few of them having national pride and character. Notice that she is approving nationalism, while in the UK, she opposed the national pride and national character of the component regions and nations of that Union. The Scots are distinct from the English, from the Welsh, from the Irish. The northern English are distinct from the southern, as distinct, for example, as the Danes are from the Swedes and the Norwegians.

Thatcher claimed that “there are only 75 countries [out of 180] that are truly democracies. And so we have a great deal more work to do” in establishing democracies I suppose she means, but she passes
swiftly to another point dealt with in the next paragraph, but we do need to pause here to discuss a topic already raised. I assume the figures are approximate, but near correct enough not to be bothered with making more accurate. The important things are her claim that there are 75 (or so) that are ‘truly’ (sic) democracies, which hinges on what true democracies are. She gives no examples, but given the occasion, we may be justified in assuming that France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the UK are examples. Of these, I would dispute the claim that the UK is a true democracy. It has democratic elements to be sure and has, since Thatcher made her speech, through devolution created parliaments and assemblies that are more democratic than that of the UK government. No self-respecting political commentator of the 19th century of the Common Era would have said that the Westminster government of the UK was democratic but would have declared it a mixed constitution with Monarchical, Aristocratic and Democratic elements. The monarchical element is not as powerful as it once was, but the Queen of the UK still decides who is the person to be Prime Minister and who then forms his/her Cabinet. UK people are still not citizens, but are called subjects and lessens our dignity (We used to be citizens of the EU; now we do not have the dignity to be called that). There is a still the unelected aristocracy taking decisions that an elected body should take; this aristocracy has many elements; the old heredity lords, which are now restricted in number to far fewer than the actual number of hereditary peers, the Church of England Bishops, who represent a minority religion, and serve no other purpose, several celebrities and businessmen seemingly being rewarded for some vague service to ‘the country’, some former members of the House of Commons and others. The UK House of Lords even has the ultra-wealthy son of a former officer of the KGB, who, having first looted his own country, settled in the UK. There is within the House of Lords some useful people (mainly former holders of high office) who can review legislation and from their experience critique this. Such people should be employed as civil servants in my opinion, and their views should be respected in rejecting legislation that is illegal or unworkable. The House of Commons may not be regarded as democratically elected as the electoral system is by the majority of those who can be aroused to vote, so that minority views (and even majority views) can be ignored by the party in power, who may have only a minority of the popular vote, but will have a possibly large number of MPs. This leaves open the possibility of elective dictatorship, that is, a system where voting does not count towards the choice of government, but is seen by the authorities as an endorsement and legitimisation of their rule. The preceding would be an example of the anarchist criticism of voting for your own oppression.

I have deliberately chosen Denmark and Sweden above as examples of democracies, and the reason will be apparent when we look at further parts of this speech.

Thatcher by her denial of the formation of federations is laying down her opposition to federations, and this is one direction that the EU could take, as a United States of Europe, rivalling the USA, which Thatcher admired. She was also opposed to a federal UK.

Thatcher claims that “[o]ur form of government [that is democracy] is not just a miscellaneous collection of policies: it is founded on fundamental principles, which Winston [Churchill] called “the title deeds of freedom”. And he said this: “The people of any country have the right and should have the power by constitutional action, by free unfettered elections, with a secret ballot, to choose or change the character of the form of government under which they dwell”. That’s choosing the government.’ [See https://histobron.nl/churchill-ijzeren-gordijn-speech-1946/ for the full Churchill speech, which is in English; the introduction is in Dutch.]

Churchill was, of course, an imperialist and it is quite stunning that this opponent of the self-determination of the peoples of the British Empire should suddenly become an unapologetic convert. But we should not judge statements by who said them, but by what is said. The context was the building of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe. The doctrine he is expounding is democratic and the basis of any democratic country which begs the question of what is a country. For example, is Poland, or is Silesia or is Czechoslovakia or just Slovakia? What defines a country? Is it adherence to a ruler? Is it a people with a common culture, a supposed likeness to one another or perhaps it is a community who want a common form of government?

Churchill, if he is sincere, had moved from being an imperialist in 1945 (when he stood for reelection to the UK parliament) to a committed democrat in 1946 as Thatcher further listed from Churchill’s speech necessary components: freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of religion (to which should be added freedom from religion), “freedom to have independent justice by independent judges, freedom to choose your government” to which she added, “every four or five years, so that your government is answerable and accountable to the people”. To all of the preceding, I can have, and can see from other people, apart from Anarchists, no objection.

If Churchill’s conversion is sincere, then it is an example of democracy in action, someone being persuaded by the peaceful means of argument that a previously held opinion is incorrect and replacing that position with another. The new opinion may also be incorrect, of course.

However, Thatcher brings in an element not considered by Churchill. Thatcher claims that “[y]ou could not have, in fact, political freedom unless you have economic liberty” and then continues to defend her addition. Her argument is “wealth is not created by government”, but “by the talent and enterprise of individuals” and it is these individuals who create wealth (“build up the wealth”). The whole argument is questionable. Wealth can and has been created by various governments, although it may not be the primary purpose of such an institution. Thatcher is notorious for her comment that there is no such thing as society, and the second quote seems to fit with that. For her, there appears to be government and individuals. Putting aside the argument that if there is no society, then a government is nothing more than a tyranny over those individuals, then, Thatcher has baldly stated that wealth can only be generated by what appears to be an elite, who have talent and enterprise, although these words are not defined. A musician has talent, but doe s/he generate wealth? A bank robber may have both talent and enterprise.

The notorious statement on society can be found at https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689 (again from the Thatcher Foundation) and places it in context. It seems to be a sloppy remark as Thatcher attempts to set up an analogy with a tapestry, that clearly is a representation of society.

Returning to the main speech under consideration, Thatcher goes on to claim that, in effect, any other economic system than the ‘free enterprise’ one is socialism or creeping towards it. For her, socialism is where people serve the state, which sets up socialism (remember anything other than free enterprise) as a straw man. Her socialism covers such a broad swathe of economic systems that one argument against cannot cover all.

She claims “[i]f you look … at the regulation … [and] the level of taxation, [then] the freest countries, … [which are] the most prosperous and most successful …, are countries like the United States, … Japan … [and] the United Kingdom”. Lowest on her list of free countries are Denmark and Sweden, because of their high taxation. Denmark and Sweden regularly both now and in the 90s top or are high in the polls of most indices of freedom, but Thatcher is not concerned with that. It is this economic freedom that is her obsession, and nothing else at this point seems to matter. As can be seen from ‘Carry on Laundering’ [Private Eye No. 1531 pp 21-23], this economic freedom of little or no regulation has corrupted “economies, governments and societies” and sustained “despotic regimes, organised crime and a worldwide tax-dodging industry”. A corrosion of those freedoms that Thatcher seems to have had little regard for.

Eventually, Thatcher returns to the subject of freedoms other than the economic; “we can’t have freedom without a rule of law. … [that is, there is no] unconstrained freedom … [and it is distinct from] oppressive law[s]”. The rule of law is “having wise judges who decide fairly and whose decisions are taken and honoured. It’s having your laws made in a parliament which is accountable to the people and which you know are going to be honourably administered.” “And if you don’t have it, what you tend to get is corruption and that is death to freedom, it’s death to truth, it’s death to honour, it’s death to democracy.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s