To what extent did Thatcherism embrace a neo-liberal approach to citizenship

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Last updated: March 27, 2019

Thatcherism employed the new right perspective that developed following the post-war consensus, believing that paternalism had caused Britain to fall behind the rest of the developed world. Thatcher wanted to undo the makings of Keynesian style economics, roll back the state and free the market once again.

This would create more ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Consequently Thatcher’s government would need to make good use of the state’s police force to prevent the underclass from trying to unlawfully acquire the increasing wealth of the middle classes.This is in summary is the Thatcherism model of citizenship, which embraces the neo-liberal ethics of a free market and a strong state. Throughout the course of this essay I will argue that Thatcherism, did in fact embrace a neo-liberal approach to citizenship to an enormous extent. However, incorporated within Neo-liberalism is a compassion for traditional Conservative values.

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Neo-liberalism is however more ideological and radical; which explains why Thatcherism was driven more by Neo-liberalism than any other approach to citizenship.I will begin with an outline of Hayek’s influence on Thatcherism and explain how his book the road to serfdom inspired Thatcher to employ strategies of a neo-liberal nature in her approach to citizenship. I will highlight the tendency in Thatcherism to embrace a neo-liberal approach to citizenship by illustrating examples of notions that are central to and common to both neo-liberal ideals and Thatcherism. All such issues will focus primarily around the free market and the need to protect the free market.This equates to Thatcher’s central approach to citizenship in Britain, which is the need for a system of “free economy: strong state”.

This idea is central to all Thatcherite aspirations such as the free market, anti-collectivist ideas, the idea of individualism and the necessity of inequality. Thatcherism embraced the idea of a neo-liberal society, were people take individual responsibility for their own actions and if they don’t work hard enough to earn a decent living then they should suffer the consequence. Hence Thatcher’s theory of a dependency culture will be examined.I will explore how Thatcherism embraced the neo-liberal approach to keeping the underclass and working class in line, with the aggressive force of the strong state. The influence of Hayek is important to understanding how Thatcherism embraced neo-liberal approach to citizenship.

Hayeks ideas reflect the approach of neo-liberalism in the economic sense that they embrace the free-market. Faulks (1997) asserts that Hayek’s work is a brand of neo-liberalism.Willets (1992) argues that Hayek actually embraced a Conservative approach and that his essay “Individualism: True or false’… ust be regarded as a Classic Conservative text. “(Willets 1992:182) Hayek although representative of neo-liberalism, actually embraced Conservative values of society and moral fabric; what he did not embrace was their means to these ends, his argument of Conservatism according to Gamble was that “All manner of evils, including protectionism, cartels, closed shops and industrial subsidies, could be justified on ‘pragmatic grounds. Conservatives could not be trusted to protect freedom” ( Gamble 1988:143) These values are clearly embraced by Thacther.

She embraced traditional Victorian social values but wanted to achieve these by radical free market economics, not by paternalism or collectivism. Thatcher acknowledges in her memoirs how Hayek’s book was a starting point for her strategies as prime minister. Thatcher explained how Hayek’s book The Road To Serfdom (1944) “left a permanent mark on my own political character, making me a long term optimist for free enterprise and liberty”(Thatcher 1993:12) Thatcher was particularly fond of Hayek’s disregard for socialist politics and any kind of collectivist action.It is clear from Thatcher’s opinions about the post war consensus among political parties that she too is equally critical of any collectivist style of politics.

Thatcher was distraught by the state of the British economy when she came into power and believed this to be the effects of collectivism, particularly by the paternalism adopted by Ted Heath’s government which she described as “the most radical form of socialism ever to be contemplated by an elected British government” (Thatcher 1993:7).Thatcher’s view of the state of the British economy at that time, is clearly influenced by the neo-liberal perceptions and anti collectivist values asserted by Hayek. This leads to the important Thatcherism ethic that the economy and society would be better off financially and socially without government intervention, that creates a public sector that is ‘draining away the wealth created by the private sector’ (cited in Thatcher, 1995:251-4 from Faulks 1997:81) Gamble identified three key propositions of Thatcherism, all clearly emphasise the importance of the free market.The first suggests, “The public sector is an unproductive burden on the wealth creating sector in general and taxpayers in particular”(Gamble 1980:15). This draws upon the idea of rolling back the state to decrease the burden on the taxpayer.

The second implication is that “The chief aim of economic policy should be maintaining price stability by firm control of the money supply…

. money supply can be controlled if governments steadily reduce their borrowing”(Gamble 1980:15) This embraces the neo-liberal approach, that argues public spending should be controlled so as not to affect market relations by imposing unnecessary tax on traders.The final proposition is that in order for the previous two to function, there needs to be security of property and enforceability of contracts. This highlights is a very important link between Thatcherism and the neo-liberal approach to citizenship, which was mentioned earlier in this essay and will be drawn upon in more detail in later sections. Thatcher strongly agreed with neo-liberal approach to citizenship, that people should be free to trade as they so please and nobody especially the government should prevent them from doing so.

Citizenship to Neo-liberals, is the state’s role to protect the rights to trade freely and to protect ones own property. The citizen’s role therefore is to effectively employ these rights to achieve individual success. This is the model of citizenship Thatcher sought to preserve and to enlarge to accommodate all in British society. This is clarified further by Thacther’s economic strategy of rolling back the state to protect the individual’s market rights.

The minimising of the state was the necessary means to achieving such ends as freedom to trade.This was considered of up most importance especially in the early years of Thatcher’s government when the state “was so large and wieldy after its expansion in the two world wars, the British government very soon jammed a finger in every pie. ” (Thatcher 1993:6) Thatcher discusses endlessly in The Downing Street years of how she minimised the state, she even uses small savings in her personal expenses to illustrate how she didn’t waste ‘taxpayers money’ as a means of rolling back the state. Minimising the state is central to Thatcherism and a reflection of how Thatcher embraced neo-liberalism in her approach to citizenship.To Thatcher this was necessary to stop the problem of high taxes affecting the natural course of business affairs. This is a view obviously influenced by Hayeks notion that if the government taxes business they have to increase prices and this an infringement of peoples right to ” be free to sell and buy at any price at which they can find a partner to the transaction and that anybody should be free to produce, sell and buy anything that may be produced or sold at all. “(Hayek 1944:27) Thatcher embraces this neo-liberal approach to citizenship to a very large extent.

Thatcher believed that by employing this lassez-faire style of politics to the market that she was empowering the masses to be free. She believed that this was a great thing to do and that it would improve the existing order of citizenship because of the gratitude people would have towards the state for allowing them to be free to spend their own money and not rely on the state. She explains this by stating “I indicated that we would initiate all-party talks ‘aimed at bringing the government closer to the people’.In the event we did so by rolling back the state rather than by creating new institutions of government. “(Thatcher 1993:36) This notion of empowering people by allowing them the freedom to take responsibilities for their own actions is a blatant embrace of the neo-liberal approach to citizenship.

Thatcher embraced this idea whole-heartedly and believed it was the best way to improve citizenship. Thatcher argued that previous governments in the post-war period had played a part in undermining the relationship of the people and the state by implementing ‘accomodationist’ styles of politics.Thatcher reasoned that the welfare state had grown out of control because it was accommodating people experiencing poverty, unemployment, large families, old age, misfortune, ill-health and family quarrels. People where deprived of right to individual responsibility and in times of crisis; “when some people preferred to rely on their own resources or on the assistance of family and friends, the Government would run advertising campaigns to persuade people of the virtues of dependence”(Thatcher 1993:6)Thatcher believed that it was in the best interest of citizens to take control of their own lives, without being heavily taxed and lured into the tempting world of dependency. Socialist policies only created a nation of weak, inferior, lazy, work-shy, dole scroungers. Thatcherism was concerned with creating a nation of strong, dynamic people who stood on their own two feet and by leaving people alone Thatcher believed she was helping citizens to become part of an ‘enterprise culture’. Thatcher famously said in 1987 that ‘there is no such thing as society’ (interview in Womans Own 31 October 1987 in Faulks 1997:85) Faulks correctly states that this sums up the Thatcherite’s view of society, also they believe that the “primary duty of individuals was to themselves: duty was others was not an act of citizenship, but of charity” (1997:85). These ideas are obviously derived from atomistic view of society adopted by liberals and embraced by Thatcherism.

When Thatcher employed the ideas of individualism and a free market, she was aware of the need for inequality, which allows the former two ideas to function. Inequality is very important in Thatcherism. Similarly to Hayek’s view of events in The Road to serfdom, Thatcherism mocks socialist notions of equality and any egalitarian styles of politics; because they undermine the free market relations. Thatcher was very aware that while allowing the minority to prosper in the free market and live a prosperous life free from intervention and high taxation, others would be made redundant and live in poverty.Thatcher argued that the problem with the British business when she took over parliament was that trade unions had coerced workers to work in ‘overmanned’ conditions and “participating in industrial action against their better judgement”(Thatcher 1993:8) Thatcherism believes this to be unnatural because it neither allows the business men to prosper or others to fail. Thatcherism embraces neo-liberal approach to inequality as it is perceived as not only natural but necessary.

Inequality reflects natural ability and therefore inequality is desirable and reflects natural ability.Thatcherism adopts the liberal idea that the market should be freed because it cannot be coercive, people naturally rise or fall1 and as Magaret Thatcher stated she wanted to “Let our children grow tall and some grow taller than others”(Hayek cited in Wilson, cited in Faulks 1997:87) Clearly under these ideas good citizens would take advantage of the opportunity to trade freely and would prosper and bad citizens who could not motivate themselves properly deserved to fail. This embraces the neo-liberal values of liberty and Conservative values of hard work and thrift.Thather’ predicament after her policies had given individuals the freedom to fail in the market place, was how to deal with these failures. Should they be given help so they too could prosper in the market? Should we help them financially until they can find more work? These were not priorities of Thatcherites, because they had embraced the neo-liberal approach that argued we should not help those who get themselves into a position because of their own failure; as much as people should be free to succeed others should be allowed to fail.Neo-liberals argued against the notions of social rights. Social rights disrupted the natural order and the market and “Citizens will become increasingly reliant upon the state for their material well-being. Therefore individual innovation, invention, and personal responsibility will be undermined” (Faulks 1997:67) Thatcher embraced these ideas with much vigour and argued that citizens relationship with the state should one of responsibility not dependence.

Thatcher voiced her opinions about the unemployed quite frequently, thus reinforcing her neo-liberal approach to citizenship. As previously mentioned Thatcher argued the state should allow individuals to be accountable for their own actions otherwise “If irresponsible behaviour does not involve penalty of some kind, irresponsibility will for a large number of people become the norm. (Thatcher 1993:627) Thatcher of course argued this had already happened as a result of socialism that had created a dependency culture. Thatcher spoke very lowly of what she referred to as the dependency culture. She argued that social rights were no longer restricted to helping those in genuine need but were used to give welfare to those who had lost either the will, or fallen out of the habit of working.Thatcher argues that young girls, who “were tempted to become pregnant because that bought them a council flat and an income from the state”, also abuse social rights (Thacther 1993:629) Comments like this illustrate how Thatcherism embraces the agency based, liberal notions of individualism that asserts people reach their place in life through their own choice, ability and effort and chooses to ignore rigid social structures affecting people’s life chances.It is issues such as these that clearly distinguish Thatcherism as more neo-liberal in it’s approach to citizenship and completely moves away from the paternalistic attitudes of Conservatism.

Throughout Thatcher’s time as Prime minister her treatment of people especially the working class and the underclass upset a lot of people. Thatcher’s policies generated great amounts of inequalities, caused people to loss their jobs and undermined their social rights. Thatcher was aware before she implemented her policies of any potential upset and disorder that may be caused by outraged citizens.Thatcher planned for this by drawing on the neo-liberal emphasis of protecting the market by strengthening the physical, oppressive apparatus of the state and weakening the trade unions. Hall argues that central to the neo-liberalism is the law and order society required to protect the property of the wealthy, “Make no mistake about it: under this regime, the market is to be free; the people are to be disciplined” (Hall 1980:4) In a society based on neo-liberal principles of a free-market; those who fail may try to take the wealth of the successful by either burglary or street theft.This causes a need to take steps to prevent people trying to illegally take other peoples property or possessions.

This is how a society based on neo-liberal values functions. Faulks (1997:73) gives the best example how such as society functions by using America as an example. America is a society that whose workings are more influenced by neo-liberalism than any other and consequently has larger gaps in the incomes of the lower and middle classes. Consequently greater lengths have to be taken to protect the large estates from the vast amount of underprivileged members of society.Faulks points out that “Wealthy people in such places are increasingly turning to barb-wire-written passes for visitors, and outsiders” (Faulks 1997:72-73) This is the ideal strived for by Thathcerites, a society were once inequalities are created by the market the people who do not succeed and make up the lower classes can be kept as far at bay as possible. This is best achieved by not only barbed wire but by employing more police to physically subordinate the lower classes and to increase prisons and to captivate more criminals.This need for a strong state to protect the free market and those who benefit from it was emphasised largely by Hayek and the similarities between his ideas and Thatcher’s policies demonstrates how Thatcherism embraces a neo-liberal approach to citizenship. Thatcherism is not only concerned with keeping the undesirables away from the property of the wealthy, but with employing the legal system to prevent the workforce from acting as bad citizens.

As Hayek described, ” in order that competition should work beneficially, a carefully thought-out legal system is required”(Hayek 1944:28) Hayek argued for the use of s strong state as protection of the market, he saw it as insurance or an investment. Providing competition was not affected, Hayek argued that some legal preventive measures though costing money to implement save money in the long term by improving productivity; he mentioned for example that To prohibit the use of certain poisonous substances, or to require special precautions in their use, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary arrangements is fully compatible with the preservation of competition”(Ibid. ) Thatcher clearly embraced this ethic to security particularly with regards to trade union activity amongst the manual workers of Britain.

By restricting their right to strike, the economy would not lose as much money. Thatcher displayed her ruthlessness at all major strikes by drafting in thousands of police all over the country and arming them with weapons and horses to prevent strikers, stopping productivity.The heaviest use of the police used against workers was during the miners strikes in South Yorkshire.

In The Downing Street Years Thatcher boasts of how she draughted in 3000 police officers from 17 forces in the UK to stop strikers picketing. “Mob violence can only be defeated if the police have the complete moral and practical support of government. We have made it clear that the politicians would not let them down.

We had already given them the equipment they would need, learning the lessons of the 1981 inner-city riots. More recently the police had shown themselves skilled in tackling violence masquerading as picketing”Throughout this essay I have given examples of how I believe Thatcherism favoured a neo-liberal approach to citizenship. Writers such as Willets argued that Thatcherism actually embraced Conservatism. Willets argued “those who try to identify what is singular about Thatcherism by presenting it as the rejection of traditional conservatism are quite simply wrong”(Willets 1992:52). I believe this has some truth in so far as Thactherism embraces Conservatism because her radical changes broke away from egalitarian style of politics and restored old order and returns to Victorian values of which she fesses to being particularly fond of.The previously mentioned American model of a neo-liberal society, an ideal embraced by Thatcherites illustrates a step back towards a Victorian style society, where poverty was also very rife and law and order kept the lower classes subordinate. Writers such as Letwin and Gamble believe that Thatcherism did not embrace neo-liberal ideas of citizenship, but “revitalised the Conservative message by making it relevant to contemporary problems and concerns” (Aughey 1983:395) Other interpretations include Gamble’s idea of “Conservative individualism”.The alternative argument of such theories is that the individualism of Thactherism is not based upon liberal ideas but embraces Conservatism because of the interests of whom it protects; “It is though, a powerful populist theme and it does appear to appeal to the personal experience of taxpayers, householders, those frustrated by bureaucracy and those who want to spend their money as they see fit.

The roots of this philosophy lie deep in the Conservative Party. “(ibid. )This lends weight to the argument that Thatcherism does embrace a neo-liberal approach to politics, but neo-liberalism is actually similar to authoritarian conservatism. Thatcher’s emphasis on the role of law and order represents a strict authoritarian style regime. Thatcherites also demonstrate little enthusiasm for the ideas of democracy; people should be informed of decisions and not consulted. This clearly represents a keeping with old authoritarian values of conservatism that perceive people as generally not intelligent enough to make decisions of a political nature.

This also supports the neo-liberal position of democracy as argued by hayek. Faulks (1997:90) asserted that Thatcher’s desire to prevent democracy was based on the view that the government needs to be actively “maintaining a strong coercive state to prevent interference in the market by the ‘envious’, ‘lazy’, ‘criminally minded’, or ‘weak’. This is the position of Hayek, which was adopted by Thatcherism. “(Faulks 1997:90) The example of the strong state is a value adopted by both neo-liberals and Authoritarian Conservative beliefs, this illustrates how Thactherism embraces a hybrid of values within Thatcherism .I believe that generally Thatcherism is a fusion of values. Within Thatcherism, conservative values fit into what is predominantly a neo-liberal programme of politics. As I have mentioned previously and throughout this essay, Thatcherism embraces a neo-liberal approach to citizenship to a great extent.

Therefore whilst acknowledging the validity of arguments from writers such as Willets (1992) and Gamble (1988), I agree with suggestions from writers such as Faulks (1997) that neo-liberalism is the dominant force behind Thatcherism.Until Thatcher’s government, Conservatives had previously embraced ideas of slow evolutionary change and distrusted innovative ideas such as major changes in the structure of the government. This was not a position adopted by Thatcher, as she had stated; “My background and experience were not those of a traditional Conservative prime minister. I was less able to depend on automatic deference, but I was also perhaps less intimidated by the risks of change. “(Thatcher 1993:10)I believe there is too much speculation surrounding the issue of Thatcherism’s embrace of neo-liberalism, for writers not to credit the idea at all.

The main objective towards improving citizenship from a neo-liberal perspective is to maintain individualist values. By individualist neo-liberals are generally referring to wealthy landowners, this objective is clearly compatible with Conservatism, because Conservatism also seeks to preserve order in the interests of the wealthy.Aughey highlights the fusion of these values by Thatcher by stating “the distinct vision of Mrs Thatcher was non other than the vision of the propertied middle class”(Aughey 1983:393) Thatcherism claeraly embraced a neo-liberal approach to citizenship in that it sought to improve citizenship by lessening the responsibilties of the sate and delegating them to the market and the individual. This can be seen in all Thacther’s memoirs, speeches and government policies, it is also visible the extent to which traditional and authoritarian Conservative values are upheld in the implementation of a neo-liberal approach to citizenship.

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