Capitalism’s Champion

April 11, 2013

Multiple Pages
Capitalism’s Champion

Margaret Thatcher had some direct impact on my life in three ways that I can recall.

One. In January 1979, four months before she assumed office as prime minister, I left England for a trip to the Far East. I was quite affluent at the time (sigh…) and was planning a long nonworking stay out there, so I needed to take money out of the country. This was NOT ALLOWED under postwar Britain’s bureaucratic managerial state. A Briton wishing to take money abroad had to take his passport to a bank, tell them how much he was taking, and write this in on the passport for the bank to certify. If the Customs Service at his point of departure happened to search him and found more cash on him than was listed in his passport, he was liable for prosecution.

Unbelievable? I have documentary evidence. Here is the relevant page from my British passport of that time. It shows that on the January 1979 trip I had registered to take £300 out of the country. Caught with more, I’d be breakfasting on Her Majesty’s porridge for a year or two. That was characteristic of the system under which we lived. Britain in 1979 was halfway Sovietized.

I did what everyone did: I stuffed wads of high-denomination bills into my shoes and underwear. Those were the days before rigorous airport security screening. The chances you’d be searched by Customs were small, and people accepted the risk. It meant that the bills, by the time you got to spend them, has acquired a certain, ah, bouquet, but it was worth it to get out of Britain for a few months.

“There is nothing creative in the Thatcher-haters’ cruelty. It’s just purposeless malice.”

One of the first things Margaret Thatcher’s government did was to remove exchange controls. It was a small thing but a blessing for ordinary people like me. (For the rich there had always been ways to move money across borders. Governments of any party rarely inconvenience the rich.)

Two. The normal living accommodation for working-class Britons in the postwar years was the “council house” or “council flat.” (A flat is an apartment. Hence the ESL teacher’s favorite illustration of a sentence that means entirely different things in British and American English: “I’m mad about my flat.” The Brit is thrilled with his apartment; the Yank is angry at losing a tire.) These were properties the local municipality or county owned and rented out to poor people. 

My parents got lucky. They reached the front of the council-house line—there was always a waiting list for these properties—in 1948. That was during the socialist government voted in at the end of WWII. The government’s Housing Minister was a flaming Welsh orator named Aneurin Bevan, who had declared that nothing was too good for the working man. The council houses built under his patronage were really nice houses.

I grew up in one such house, and my parents were still living in it, and still paying rent to the town, when Mrs. Thatcher came in. Early in her administration she got a law through Parliament allowing council-house tenants to buy their property at a discount depending on the length of time they’d been resident. At 33 years my folks qualified for the maximum discount of 50 percent. I financed the purchase of their house at £12,000. Thus in March 1982 my parents, aged 82 and 70, lived in a property they owned for the first time in either of their lives. (That house would sell today for $190,000-$200,000.)

Another win for the little people. And this was Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher, the heartless tool of moneyed interests?

Three. My grandparents on both sides were coal-mining people. It was filthy, lousy work, but when everyone else in the village was doing it and there were babies to be fed, it was what the men did. By bearing the hardships together, people drew strength from each other and found meaning in their lives.

The socialist government nationalized the coal mines in 1946, with inevitable results. By the early 1980s the industry was over-unionized and under-productive. It needed some dramatic downsizing.

That, however, meant the destruction of those old mining communities, the ones in which my grandparents had lived and labored. I could see the necessity of it, and I supported Mrs. Thatcher in the great miners’ strike of 1984-5.

Not all my relatives agreed, and there was civil war in the family. My favorite aunt—she died just a few days ago at age 95—took up placards on behalf of the striking miners. I, meanwhile, had become an enthusiastic Thatcherite. I had actually joined the Conservative Party and was out on the streets campaigning for them. My aunt was derisive, calling me “Terrible Tory Twit.” We kissed and made up eventually, but it was painful at the time. She’d been a second mother to me in my childhood.

Now my aunt’s gone, closely followed by the woman she hated. A great many other people hated the Iron Lady, too. They have been holding celebratory street parties in Britain’s leftist precincts. It seems nasty and vindictive to mock a dead person like that. We’ll all be dead some day, don’t they know? They I suppose would say that Mrs. Thatcher was cruel when she gutted those old close-knit communities.

The two things don’t balance, though. In romantic relationships, as every cheerleader knows, you have to be cruel to be kind. Political leadership works the same way. Capitalism, like dentistry, is a matter of creative destruction. There is nothing creative in the Thatcher-haters’ cruelty. It’s just purposeless malice.

Still, I understand. There is a sense in which human beings are natural socialists. (Karl Marx called the condition of prehistoric man “primitive communism.”) Properly run, though, capitalism under a sensible political order—monarchical or republican—maximizes human fulfillment and liberty. Margaret Thatcher was its champion. May she rest in peace. You too, Auntie.


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