Thatcher's blame game

Over the holidays, many cinema goers have seen The Iron Lady, the affectionate and mostly sympathetic portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, the divisive British prime minister who held office between 1979 and 1990.

She was credited with turning around the economic fortunes of the United Kingdom, and giving Britons reason to be once again proud of their nation. But unemployment and poverty increased markedly during the Thatcher years, and the gap between rich and poor widened significantly.  

Thatcher always defended her social policy, and insisted it was up to the poor to help themselves. She believed the poor choose poverty, and said as much in a 1988 speech to the Church of Scotland General Assembly on the theme that Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform. 

'We are told we must work and use our talents to create wealth. "If a man will not work he shall not eat" wrote St Paul to the Thessalonians... Any set of social and economic arrangements which is not founded on the acceptance of individual responsibility will do nothing but harm. We are all responsible for our own actions. We can't blame society.'

The idea that the poor can be cast adrift to sink or swim in the market economy, and do not need any protection from the state, is consistent with the thinking that brought on the GFC and the eurozone crisis. In a recent article in Thinking Faith, the Irish Jesuit professor of philosophy William Matthews alluded to Thatcher's role in the initiation of the 'contagious ethos of the deregulation of finance from political control'.i

'This school of thought was convinced that a free global market economy would make the world a much better and prosperous place for all. What resulted over time was a dysfunctional shift in power relations with the financial world gaining unprecedented control.'

Matthews suggests Thatcher and the other architects of the free market system that allowed the calamitous binge behaviour that led to the current crises, should be held responsible in the way that engineers are culpable when their misjudgments lead to injury or loss of life.

'We are now suffering from the consequences of their carelessness. You never design an air traffic control system or a nuclear power station without the highest level of built-in safety features. To ignore those features and cause public harm could result in prosecution.'

Perhaps the best comments on Thatcher and the current public adulation she is enjoying are those of Meryl Streep, the actor who plays her in the film. Speakingon the ABC's 7.30, she made it clear that she 'still disagree[s] with many, many, many of [Thatcher's] politics', but that the politics need to be put into perspective with Thatcher's humanity.

Comparing her role as Thatcher now to playing Lindy Chamberlain many years ago, Streep said:

'Maybe there's a pattern in my life that I want to sort of defend the humanity of people that we've made into emblematic figures of one sort or another, figures of hatred or saints.'