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Margaret Thatcher

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Margaret Thatcher

8 April 2013

The Passing of Margaret Thatcher

By Gwynne Dyer

Margaret Thatcher was the woman who began the shift to the right that has affected almost all the countries of the West in the past three decades. She died in London on Monday, 34 years after she became Britain’s first female prime minister and 23 years after she was driven from office, at the age of 87. But it is an open question whether even the crash of 2008 and the ensuing prolonged recession have finally ended the long reign of her ideas in Western politics.

“This woman is headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated,” wrote some minion in the personnel department of British chemical giant ICI, rejecting young Margaret Roberts’s application for a job as research chemist in 1948. She was fresh out of Oxford University, 23 years old, brimming with self-confidence, and absolutely full of opinions. She probably frightened the job interviewer half to death.

But she landed a job with a plastics company in Colchester in 1949. She joined the Conservative Party and stood for parliament in the 1950 election (she was the youngest candidate ever), and married businessman Denis Thatcher in 1951. Margaret Thatcher, as she then became, finally made it into parliament in the 1959 election.

She entered the cabinet of Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1970 as the “statutory female” (as he gallantly put it). But she had the last laugh in 1975, replacing Heath as party leader after the Conservatives lost the 1974 election. She took a very hard line from the start, both in domestic and in foreign politics. Her open hostility to the Soviet Union led a Soviet newspaper in 1976 to dub her the “Iron Lady”, a title in which she reveled.

Her real impact, however, was in British domestic politics, where she broke the welfare-state consensus that had dominated all the major parties for the previous thirty years. “It is our duty to look after ourselves,” she said, and the political orthodoxy trembled before her onslaught.

An American diplomat in London, in a confidential assessment of the new Conservative leader in 1975, captured the essence of Thatcher’s revolutionary politics. She was, he wrote, the “genuine voice of a beleaguered bourgeoisie, anxious about its eroding economic power and determined to arrest society’s seemingly inexorable trend towards collectivism.”

That was what carried her into office in the 1979 election, and as prime minister she acted on her convictions. After she had fought and won the Falklands War against long odds in 1982 her popularity was unassailable, and she used it to break the power of the trade unions and privatise state-owned industries. More than that, she made free-market ideology for all intents and purposes the state religion.

So it remained for thirty years, long after her harsh and confrontational style had lost her the support even of her own party. She was ousted as Conservative Party leader and prime minister by her own colleagues in 1990, but the Labour governments of 1997-2010 were also in thrall to her ideas. Their influence abroad, particularly in the United States, was equally great.

Yet her greatest contribution to politics, and the foundation of the right’s political success over recent decades, was not ideological but tactical. She was the first politician to grasp the fact that with the decline of the old working class, it had become possible to win elections on a platform that simply ignored the wishes and needs of the poor. There weren’t as many of them as there used to be, and the poorest among them usually failed to vote at all.

This insight was key to the success of President Ronald Reagan in the United States in the 1980s, and to the triumph of conservative parties in many European countries in the same period. It continues to be a major factor in the calculations of parties both on the right and on the left down to the present day: you cannot count on the poor to win an election for you.

Margaret Thatcher was made a baroness after she relinquished her seat in the House of Commons in 1992, and continued to sit in the House of Lords until ill health forced her to withdraw from public life entirely in 2002. In her last years she suffered from dementia, and she finally succumbed to a stroke on Monday.

Her influence lives on, at least for the moment, but it may not last much longer. The powerful middle class on which she founded her political strategy has been hollowed out by the very success of the free-market policies she promoted. Once you allow for the effects of inflation, average middle class income in the United States, for example, has not grown at all in the past three decades.

The time may be coming when gaining the votes of the poor, including the growing numbers of the “new poor”, will once again be essential to win elections.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“An American…collectivism” and “Margaret…Monday”)



Getting Radical About Climate Change

14 December 2006

Getting Radical About Climate Change: The Shape of Things to Come

By Gwynne Dyer

Here’s the plan. Everybody in the country will get the same allowance for how much carbon dioxide they can emit each year, and every time they buy some product that involves carbon dioxide emissions — filling their car, paying their utility bills, buying an airline ticket — carbon points are deducted from their credit or debit cards. Like Air Miles, only in reverse.

So if you ride a bike everywhere, insulate your home, and don’t travel much, you can sell your unused points back to the system. And if you use up your allowance before the end of the year, then you will have to buy extra points from the system.

This is no lunatic proposal from the eco-radical fringe. It is on the verge of becoming British government policy, and environment secretary David Miliband is behind it one hundred percent. In fact, he is hoping to launch a pilot scheme quite soon, with the goal of moving to a comprehensive national scheme of carbon rationing within five years.

Ever since a delegation of scientists persuaded prime minister Margaret Thatcher, a scientist herself, to start taking climate change seriously back in the late 1980s, British governments of both parties have been in the forefront on the issue, but Miliband’s initiative breaks new ground. It has, says Miliband, “a simplicity and beauty that would reward carbon thrift.”

Previous emissions-trading systems — the sulfur dioxide system mandated by the 1990 Clean Air Act in the United States, the 25-country European Union scheme for trading CO2 emission permits launched in 2005, the system for trading emission allowances at national level among developed countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol — all envisage large industrial organisations or even entire countries making the deals. Miliband is bringing it down to the personal level.

A huge share of total emissions is driven by the decisions of individual consumers. Miliband thinks that the least intrusive, most efficient way of shaping those decisions is to set up a system that tracks everybody’s use of goods and services that produce a lot of greenhouse gases, and rewards the thrifty while imposing higher costs on the profligate. And there is no time to lose: the world’s carbon emissions have to stop growing within ten to fifteen years, he says, and Britain must cut its total carbon emissions by 60 percent in the next thirty or forty years.

“We are in a dangerous place now,” he told the Guardian newspaper on 11 December, “and it is going to be very difficult to get into a less dangerous place. The science is getting worse faster than the politics is getting better. People know the technology exists to get a lot of this done…but there is a huge chasm of mistrust between countries about how to do this….The developing countries won’t take on any carbon reduction targets until they believe the countries that have caused the problem do so.”

The science certainly is “getting worse,” in the sense that every forecast is worse than the one before. The most recent assessment of the state of the Arctic by the International Panel on Climate Change, whose full fourth report is due next year, was published early in the journal “Geophysical Research Letters” last week because its forecast was so alarming.

If current trends persist, the scientists reported, the Arctic Ocean will be entirely ice-free in the summertime not in 2080, as previous forecasts suggested, but by 2040, just thirty-three years from now. Then the dark ocean surface absorbs much more heat than the reflective ice did, and another element of feedback kicks in, and the speed of warming increases again….

Those in the know are very frightened, but there is still that “huge chasm of mistrust.” The developing countries that are only now beginning to emit large amounts of greenhouse gases look at the mountain of past emissions produced by the developed countries, the source of most current climate change, and they want the rich countries to cut back very deeply – deeply enough to leave the developing countries some room to raise their consumption without dooming us all to runaway climate change.

That’s where the long-range target of 60 percent emission cuts for Britain comes from. Britain only produces 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, so a 60 percent cut in Britain alone is still only a drop in the bucket, but the aim is to set an example: see, we can do this without impoverishing ourselves, so other developed countries can, too. And if they do, then a deal to control the growth of emissions in the developing countries is within reach.

So individual carbon credit accounts for all, and if you want to do things that produce more carbon dioxide than your annual allowance, you pay for it. The frugal and the poor can sell their unused credits back into the system — and every year or so, as the average carbon efficiency of transport or food production or power generation improves a little bit, the size of the free personal carbon allowance is reduced a little bit. It is, I suspect, the shape of things to come.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Ever since…level”)