National Voices

Thursday, Apr 11 2013 11:00 PM

MICHAEL GERSON: Margaret Thatcher, moralist

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    Michael Gerson

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Post-World War II Great Britain was the full, fearless application of modern liberalism -- what Margaret Thatcher called "those banal and bureaucratic instruments of coercion, confiscatory taxation, nationalization and oppressive regulation." The result was dysfunction, decay, drabness and demoralization. Distinguished men of the left had seized their moment of promise, and the promise had lost. "Wherever (Chancellor of the Exchequer) Sir Stafford Cripps has tried to increase wealth and happiness," said journalist Colm Brogan, "grass never grows again."

Thatcher refused to live quietly amid the ruins. She developed a critique of democratic socialism both rowdy and libertarian. At Oxford, she read F.A. Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom," a critique of state planning that became a lifelong influence. Later, she encountered Karl Popper's "The Open Society and its Enemies," which she credited for exposing the fraudulent "science" of socialism. Thatcher embraced these free-market theories with cheerful, disruptive exuberance. When Aneurin Bevan accused Conservatives of being "lower than vermin," Thatcher and other young activists took to wearing "vermin" badges, featuring a little blue rat.

But alongside these libertarian beliefs -- or perhaps beneath them -- ran a strong religious current. Thatcher described Methodism as her "anchor of stability." Through C.S. Lewis -- who "had the most impact on my intellectual religious formation" -- she was exposed to the idea of a Natural Law accessible by reason.

During her early career, these libertarian and religious tendencies went largely unreconciled. In her autobiography, Thatcher admits to absorbing the "unanswerable criticisms of socialism" long before comprehending the full meaning of "a limited government under a rule of law" -- the first made her a free marketeer; the second a moralist.

As a young MP, Thatcher supported the decriminalization of homosexuality and legal abortion in the hardest cases -- which she regarded as redressing "anomalies or unfairnesses" in the law. But she later concluded: "I now see that we viewed them too narrowly. ... Taking all of the 'liberal' reforms of the 1960s together they amount to more than their individual parts. They came to be seen as providing a radically new framework within which the younger generation would be expected to behave."

Surveying the cultural wreckage of family breakdown, welfare dependence and crime, Thatcher argued that "a functioning free society cannot be value-free." "Freedom will destroy itself if it is not exercised within some sort of moral framework, some body of shared beliefs, some spiritual heritage transmitted through the church, the family and the school." This is less Hayek or Popper than Edmund Burke: "Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their appetites."

Thatcher's primary concern was not the heroic Christian virtues but the useful Victorian ones -- "thrift, self-discipline, responsibility, pride in and obligation to one's community." While these can come from a variety of nonreligious sources, Thatcher found it "difficult to imagine that anything other than Christianity is likely to resupply most people in the West with the virtues necessary to remoralize society in the very practical ways which the solution of many present problems requires."

Thatcher developed this message most fully in her "Sermon on the Mound," a polished gem of the speech delivered in 1988 at the Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland, perched on a steep hill overlooking Edinburgh. To an audience of silent, disapproving clerics, she defended free markets and democracy as being most consistent with a Christian view of moral responsibility. "Any set of social and economic arrangements which is not founded on the acceptance of individual responsibility will do nothing but harm."

But freedom, in isolation, is not sufficient. "The truths of the Judaic-Christian tradition," Thatcher said, "are infinitely precious, not only, as I believe, because they are true, but also because they provide the moral impulse which alone can lead to that peace, in the true meaning of the word, for which we all long. ... There is little hope for democracy if the hearts of men and women in democratic societies cannot be touched by a call to something greater than themselves."

It is the great paradox of modern life that free markets depend on responsible, self-reliant, moral citizens, while modern, consumer capitalism -- of the kind Thatcher unleashed in Britain -- is a solvent of traditional bonds and norms. Freedom requires virtues it does not produce, and may even help undermine. Which is why Thatcher the free marketeer needed to be Thatcher the moralist.

Email Michael Gerson of The Washington Post at michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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