Two stories leaped off the screen at me this morning:
“What we learned after the last election is that there are a number of policies we had on the books that no longer made sense and were not fitting the needs of the times,” Wildrose leader Danielle Smith said Monday.
Beyond personal inspiration, though, you will be hard-pressed to find any trace of “Thatcherism” in the world today. As a set of political ideas, a tool kit of ways to run a country and organize the world, Thatcherism ended with Mrs. Thatcher’s political career.
Tell me if you've heard this one before:
Auld Jock is attending the funeral of his wife; it's a sparse ceremony because the man has spent the bear minimum. The man's friends, family and children weep in mourning as her body is lowered into the ground. The man himself, however, is dry-eyed; in fact, he looks a little bored. Eventually, the presiding Minister comes up to him and asks, "Jock, are ye not sad? Yer wife of forty years is gone!"
With a bemused look, Auld Jock turns to the man of God and replies "Aye, but it's not like she was a blood relative."
I'm reminded of this joke by a tale from the political annals of Margaret Thatcher. Her staff were recommending the inclusion of a riff on Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch in a speech. The humour of the joke was beyond her; she couldn't understand why anyone would find it funny. Instead of trying to understand the concept, she instead turned to her assistant John Whittingdale and asked this: “John, Monty Python – are you sure that he is one of us?”
Margaret Thatcher remains an iconic figure to representatives of the Randian political right. She was a proud ideologue who set about casting off the shackles of big government, cleaved the wings off the Trade Union dragon and made her country stand out less because of anything inherent in Britain but because she herself was such an unrepentant force of nature.
Without question, the Irony Lady needed every ounce of unrelenting strength and forcefulness to rise above the fray. Undeniably, Thatcher leaves a personal legacy of strength, discipline and tenacity that any individual would be well-served to learn from.
The tools of single-minded aggression she needed to succeed personally were reflected in her policy; the state of the nation became less a reflection of the well-being of Britons and, as is always the case with ideologues of the political right, more about the institution of Britain. This isn't to say Thatcher lacked empathy; she did indeed care about the well-being of people who enabled her work, like Cynthia Crawford. It's just that empathy was afforded to those she knew were "one of us" - people she could understand or relate to.
Those who were not of that mold, though, were too-often viewed as disruptions, threats or irrelevancies. In this sense, Right to Buy was typical Thatcherism; great for many but detrimental for Britain's most vulnerable. This pragmatic disregard for the lowest tier of society informed her approach to Apartheid or the unification of Germany; as PM of Britain, the well-being of the institution of Britain mattered most. The foreign policy stuff had to serve that mandate; if it didn't, she wasn't interested.
There was nothing personal in her approach - it was all just good business. The highest compliment she could pay a person, then, was this: "I like Mr Gorbachev, we can do business together," If you put the business case first, her approach makes total sense; a unified Germany, for instance, has eclipsed Britain's dominance over the European policy market.
Good business Thatcherism may have been, but despite what some leaders try to tell us, you can't sustainably run government like a business. In business, you can carve off unprofitable ventures and forget about market share that will never be able to buy what you sell, but government has to be more all-encompassing than that. When they don't, things fall through the cracks that society best not neglect.
Witness Canada's pulling out of the UN anti-drought treaty because, in the view of the Stephen Harper government, the business case wasn't compelling. This singular-focus approach has made Canada look unsympathetic to the plight of impacted communities in the Sahel region and ignorant of the impact of climate and poverty on the growth of terrorism. This one move has even damaged Canada's own business case to the US over the Keystone pipeline, undercutting the message that the Canadian government would be safe ecological stewards of Alberta's Oil Sands.
Tying Foreign Aid to commerce is a variation on the same theme - other nations will be more constrained in dealing with a country that isn't seen to have a moral centre and, therefore, can't be trusted to commit.
Which brings us back to Auld Jock, the man who didn't care about his wife because she "wasn't one of us."
U of Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper sounds a bit like Jock when he suggests “There are permanent conflicts between Alberta and the rest of the country. That’s not going to go away just because a bunch of people from Newfoundland and Quebec are living here.”
What are these permanent conflicts? Cooper could have said something about the NEP and the problematic notion of a resource-rich west supporting an industrial east, but he didn't. He focused on the Albertan equivalent of socialists and separatists taking up space in but not being part of his definition of Alberta. It's the flip-side of the Harper government's tweaking immigration policies to focus solely on people they feel "are one of them" - it comes with an implication that everyone within national or provincial borders who doesn't think the way do simply don't matter. After all, if you can't do business with them, they're not worth consideration.
The fatal flaw in this ideology is that the people who aren't like you do matter - they spend money, use services, share the same streets and might even get out to vote. Unless you can remove or replace the portions of your population who disagree with your approach, you have to deal with them. That's the challenge and the opportunity of democracy - lasting solutions must be shared solutions and political success comes as a result of broader public appeal.
Which brings us to Danielle Smith.
Danielle Smith tried being an unrelenting ideologue in the last Alberta election - she said she was committed to unrestricted free speech and stuck to that, even when comments from her own candidates began to hurt her chances of victory. Seeing that victory is again within the realm of the possible next election, she and her Party brass are undertaking a review of various policy positions to make sure what they present to the public is palatable enough to get them into office.
Stephen Carter puts it thusly: “As a political operative, you try to present policies that people actually agree with. Wildrose’s problem has been that it’s so ideologically committed it’s not looked and seen the true ideology of the province is not theirs.”
Lots of people try to ape the Thatcherism approach assuming that if the model worked once, it can work again. They invariably find that in reality, it's just not possible. Reagan couldn't do it. Stephen Harper hasn't been able to do it. Harper is particularly worth looking at, because he doesn't face term limits the way American Presidents do and therefore, has to take a slightly longer view to how he plays his politics. Every time Harper has tried to go big and bold, he's been shot down and backed away; whether this is an indication that he doesn't have the iron edge of Margaret Thatcher or that he's simply more strategic, wanting to build a legacy that lasts is an open question.
Of course, the world of Margaret Thatcher is not the world of today. Margaret Thatcher was the first significant Western leader and an unstoppable force; this earned her a level of respect in comparison at a time where women leaders weren't so common and certainly weren't seen as iron-willed. Women leaders are, thankfully, much more common these days, ranging from Angel Merkel in Germany to the Premier Danielle Smith seeks to unseat, Alison Redford. Being a strong woman, a woman in power or an ideologue simply doesn't buy you the street-cred it did when Thatcher broke ground.
Social media has also changed the political playing field dramatically. Formerly voiceless, faceless protests can now materialize as clever, personalized tweets or Facebook campaigns that last longer and have a more sustainable impact. I imagine that if Margaret Thatcher were entering political life today, her career trajectory would be much different (and likely much shorter) than it was.
Then, there's the resource reality. Despite Harper's best efforts, the Alberta Oil Sands haven't served him in the same manner Northern Oil served Thatcher. The economic reality of today stubbornly refuses to let industrialized countries that have theoretical minimum standards for social well being coast along with cheap labour and a singular focus on natural resource sales. You can either try to reduce wages and the availability of social services, lowering the bar for social well-being for the good of the realm, or you can add value through increasingly-coordinated supports for individual citizens. This includes raising the social standard, expanding access to training and a focus on innovation.
Innovation, though, is the social equivalent to biological reproduction; if you only listen to those who you consider "one of us" you end up with inferior end products. It's the confluence of ideas and the combination of differing approaches that creates lasting results.
You may consider Thatcherism to be principled, focused and effective and feel it was right to ignore external interests, but would you say that it lasted? It didn't, because it couldn't. Danielle Smith seems to have learned the lesson that ideology isn't a ticket to success in an increasingly integrated world - as such the Wildrose Party is evolving, adapting to the reality of modern politics.
Coincidentally enough, so too has Alison Redford. She is also softening her iron demeanour, flavouring it with a bit of charm.
Thatcherism, like many a political experiment before it, has run its course. As politicians across the world pay homage to the person, it's time for them to bury her ideology as well.
I bet they'll find they weren't all that married to Thatcherism in the first place.