April 12, 2013

“U turn if you like. The Lady is not for turning”

There is much we can learn from Thatcher and Thatcherism – both the person and the policies. 

By the time I met Baroness Margaret Thatcher of Kesteven, she was a plastic, former politician on the speaker circuit. We exchanged a polite greeting and then posed for the customary photograph. I had imagined that in the meeting we would be able to speak for some time and that she would opine in her measured but definitive tone about some foreign policy topic or the other.  Despite the anti-climax of the meeting, my admiration for her convictions, her style and her accomplishments remain undiminished to this day.


Time and the prevailing trend of the day tend to paint important historical characters in different hues. The financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath have not allowed for positive tones in most obituaries that appeared last week for Mrs. Thatcher. Having lived through that era and seen the changes in the United Kingdom and the United States of America (make no mistake the US restoration under Reagan owed a good deal to Thatcher), I must confess to being very impressed with what she achieved given a chaotic starting point.

She was a tough lady going to battle in a tough time in her country. While her tone alienated many, her policies did good to a country that was bordering on chaos when she became Prime Minister in 1979.  She served as Prime Minister until an unceremonious revolt within her party over Britain’s role in the European Union forced her out.  Interestingly with the European Union’s difficulty today, it is possible that she might have been right on this issue as well.

Thatcher had little direct impact on India and its government during her years. She did visit India and Mrs Indira Gandhi during her stint as an opposition politician, and then again in 1985, when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister. She gave an unremarkable speech in Pakistan when Zia-ul-Huq was dictator and President. Yet, we can learn from Thatcher and Thatcherism – both the person and the policies.

Conviction versus Consensus: Thatcher was a self described “conviction politician”.  She had so much conviction in her ideas that she was able to not only support her actions but also provide support to others such as Ronald Reagan. Now, India is the self-described land of consensus. Ostensibly there is not much to learn from Thatcher on this except that when the time comes in any country for action, strong and clear action is required.  Wavering, or to use a Thatcher term, ‘wobbling’ doesn’t get the job done. Thatcher was Britain’s answer to the Winter of Discontent in 1979.  Faced with a balance of payments crisis, India under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao did not wobble in 1991-2. We have enjoyed the fruits of that one decisive moment for more than 15 years since. Once again, India finds itself in macro economic difficulty — more than a year now of discontent. Is it time for some conviction-based decisions?

True Patriot:  Friend and foe alike have described Thatcher as a ‘Great Briton’.  Many people have disagreed with her tone and style but almost universally there is agreement that she was a patriot.  This is a major lesson for our politicians who must put the interests of the country first.

Small Government:  Thatcher was a firm believer in small government.  She was in favour of backing private enterprise. In a famous speech to the college of Europe in 1988 she said, “The lesson of the economic history of Europe in the 70s and 80s is that central planning and detailed control do not work and that personal endeavour and initiative do. That a state-controlled economy is a recipe for low growth and that free enterprise within a framework of law brings better results”.

In India we have an ambivalent attitude towards private enterprise. While we adulate large successful companies like Infosys and Hindustan Lever, we are wary of the class of enterprise as a whole. The sins of government are often forgotten, but the sins of a single private company invites recrimination against the whole class rather than the specific firm. It is better to trust private companies and tighten implementation of regulation than to entrust government with more and more areas of execution.

Fiduciary Responsibility: Famously, Thatcher was a zealous guardian of public money.   She paid for every personal thing she used as Prime Minister. As leader, she was skeptical about the costs of the welfare state. India may be a very different country than Britain. But it is always worth asking some Thatcher questions – where will the money come from? Will the service not be better if there was competition? As Thatcher did in the Britain of the day, India would do much better with free and fair competition in health and education and a myriad other areas.

The success of Thatcherism at that time, even at the cost of Thatcher’s personal decline eventually led to the idea of New Labour- with Bill Clinton in the USA and Tony Blair in the UK standing for private enterprise, fiscal conservatism and prudent monetary management. India sorely lacks a liberal, democratic party that represents this philosophy. One day, perhaps, India will have just such a party and that will be to our favour. When and if she does, we should doff our hat to Lady Thatcher.

Photo: Narayan Ramachandran

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