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Politics, Psychology

Battling Maggie

The following is an extracted chapter from the book I am working on, ‘The Integration of Desire’. It is a case study, in this case of the effects of desire not being integrated, both at a personal and political level. Anyone who has seen the recent film ‘The Iron Lady’ will also recognise this picture strikingly dramatised there.

Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK between 1979 and 1990, was a commanding presence who changed the whole tone and direction of British politics in the 1980’s. After the relative consensus of the post-war years, she created a large political gap as she moved the Conservative Party further to the right, whilst her opponent Michael Foot moved the Labour Party to the left. There has been no period in post-war British history when politics was so polarised, and thus political integration further away. The Miner’s Strike of 1984-5 and the Poll Tax Riots of 1990 also illustrated the close relationship between this political conflict and social class conflict.

The relationship between this political polarisation and Thatcher’s own psychology is made abundantly clear by Thatcher’s biographer, John Campbell.

One of Thatcher’s defining characteristics as a politician was a need for enemies. To fuel the aggression that drove her career she had to find new antagonists all the time to be successively demonised, confronted and defeated. This is unusual: the normal instinct of politicians the world over is to seek agreement, defuse opposition and find consensus….Mrs Thatcher actively despised consensus: she needed always to fight and to win. She viewed the world as a battleground of opposed forces – good and evil, freedom and tyranny, ‘us’ against ‘them’. The overriding global struggle between capitalism and Communism was reflected at the domestic British level by the opposition of Conservative and Labour, and more generally in a fundamental distinction between, on one side ‘our people’ – honest, hard-working, law-abiding, mainly middle-class or aspiring middle-class taxpayers, consumers and home owners – and on the other, a ragtag army of shirkers, scroungers, socialists, trade unionists, ’wets’, liberals, fellow-travelling intellectuals and peace campaigners. All these anti-social elements had to be taken on and beaten to make the world safe for Thatcherism.[1]

We do not have to look very far to find conflicts in desire, that in this case were kept continually repressed by a fierce wilfulness. Thatcher in childhood identified very much with her father’s austere and industrious Methodist values, with little regard for her mother. An identification with the masculine and repression of the feminine is a common feature of her life: for example, she gave little time to her children due to the overriding priority of her career, but then treated them quite indulgently in compensation[2]. There are also many accounts of her suddenly flipping out of combativeness into maternal concern for others, and the way she combined aggression in cabinet with kindness towards her immediate staff[3].

Metaphysical beliefs helped Thatcher to maintain this repression. Her father was a fundamentalist lay preacher who always stressed individual responsibility before God[4]. However, her religious attitudes became increasingly conventional in later life, and the fundamentalism was directed towards political and economic ideology. The habit of overwhelming confidence in her current left-brain representation was never tempered by education.

What Oxford did not give her was a liberal education. She did not mix very widely or open herself up to new views or experiences. She arrived in Oxford with her political views already settled and spent four years diligently confirming them. Undoubtedly her scientific training gave her a clarity and practicality of thought very different from the wishful woolliness of much arts and social science thinking. At the same time she read little or no history at university; and neither then nor later did she read much literature. This amounted to more than a gap in cultural knowledge. More important, she did not receive the sort of education that delights in the diversity of different perspectives or might have exposed her to the wisdom of philosophic doubt. She left Oxford, as she went up, devoid of a sense of either irony or humour, intolerant of ambiguity and equivocation.[5]

Thatcher thus clearly illustrates the pattern whereby conflicts in desire are repressed by a strong egoistic will, and this repression buttressed by metaphysical beliefs. The stronger the repression, the more essential and unquestionable the metaphysical beliefs have to be, and vice-versa. Her position as a pioneering woman, the first woman prime minister of the UK, can only have reinforced this pressure to repress anything that she perceived as weak either inside or outside herself.

Politically, Thatcher expressed this certainty through a combative relationship with her cabinet, and a string of dismissals or resignations continued through her time in office as she sought to repress dissent from within her own party by silencing its voice in cabinet. Her style increasingly became one of prime ministerial government rather than the cabinet government traditional in the UK, again as consensus was replaced by imposition.

Thatcher’s attachment to policies also reflected this repressive approach, as even doubts, let alone the admission of mistakes, were not admitted either to herself or to her colleagues. It is this kind of dogmatic adherence to principle that led her to fight a disproportionate war over the Falkland Islands in 1982: a territory with a population of 1831[6], the equivalent of half of which, 908, died in the conflict[7]. Even if one argues that the task force sent to recapture the islands was justified on grounds of principle despite this disproportionality, it is hardly grounds of principle that justified the sinking of the General Belgrano – an Argentine destroyer that posed no threat because it was heading away from the islands, and was torpedoed at Thatcher’s command with the loss of 323 Argentines.

She took a similar approach in her 1984 conflict with the miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, insisting that there must be no compromise in the fight to close 23 pits, even though this was on grounds of the economic performance of these mines rather than them being exhausted. This conflict was extremely divisive socially and politically, and Thatcher refused to consider that the decision might be made on any other grounds than profitability[8]. Similarly she responded to conflict with the Labour-led Greater London Council by abolishing it[9].

Thatcher’s economic policy also reflects this repressiveness, through her unfaltering commitment to the value of the free market. To unleash the power of the free market she privatised many state enterprises, deregulated economic activity, and limited the protections of employees. This meant taking the side of employers against employees (as in the miners’ strike) and cutting public spending even when the public valued public services and wanted them to be supported. The effect of this was a steep rise in income inequality. The Gini coefficient for the UK, which measures income inequality, rose from 26 in 1979 to 35 in 1990[10]. This alone would be enough to mark the Thatcher period as the most socially divisive in recent UK history.

Her final dogmatic downfall, though, was the Poll Tax, where she persisted in the introduction of an inequitable local government tax, charged with little relationship with ability to pay and widely perceived as unjust.

Back in 1985 Mrs Thatcher had been slow to be convinced that it was practicable. Once sold on it, however, she set her face against the swelling chorus of opposition and determined to stake her own position and the electoral prospects of the Tory Party on forcing it through. She elevated support of it into a test of loyalty to herself, with ultimately fatal results.[11]

Although the very poorest living on benefits were given substantial concessions from the poll tax, it was nevertheless perceived as highly inequitable to those living on low wages. Thatcher was soon facing opposition within her own party, followed by riots across the country, and refusals to pay as high as 50% in some areas[12]. It was this, together with splits on Europe and a slide in Conservative support, that led Michael Heseltine to issue a leadership challenge against her in 1990[13], with the effect of her resigning after a humiliating showing in the first round.

The most difficult question to assess in relation to Thatcher’s career is why she was as successful as she was, given the degree of her repression, and hence the conflicts her policies created and the great extent to which they failed to address conditions. To this day Thatcher is often seen as a successful prime minister: after all, she survived more than ten years in office, maintained popular support for most of that time, and was more often respected for what was seen as the courage of her stands on principle than disparaged for her dogmatism.

I think the answer to this must come from a consideration of the context in which Thatcher came to power. Her context was one of highly consensual democratic politics, on which she counter-dependently relied. She was completely unlike most politicians around her in her uncompromising stances, and thus appeared refreshingly straightforward and decisive. However, we cannot imagine a successful Thatcher government made up of more people like her, for they would compete in a way that would greatly undermine the effectiveness of that government. Thatcher was balanced out in the sense that her lack of balance was rebalanced by her advisors and cabinet colleagues. Being a prime minister rather than a dictator, Thatcher’s elective dictatorship was thankfully limited in the damage it could inflict upon the UK, because she had to constantly work against a system that cushioned her actions. Thatcher’s adversaries – for example, the unions, the academics, the civil service, the teaching profession – all finished her decade in power weakened, but not destroyed. Her external adversaries, such as the EU, were actually strengthened when her government signed the Maastricht Treaty and passed the Single European Act.

Her power was in practice limited, but nevertheless the image of ‘battling Maggie’ was one that could gain support from the electorate because they could identify with it. Our egos wish to destroy what they cannot incorporate into their identifications, and when voters lack power to overcome what they themselves have rejected, they can easily substitute a figure that they believe will do so. Democracy, being only imperfectly a tool for integration, in this case allowed the propagation of a fantasy: the projection of a hero archetype.

Due to the distortions of the UK’s first-past-the-post voting system, too, Thatcher was able to remain in power – and indeed command a large majority in parliament – on 42 or 43% of the vote. The majority voted for parties that were against her, but the opposition was split between Labour and SDP/Liberal Alliance, resulting in her continued ascendancy. One cannot even conclude, then, that the majority of the British people bought into the heroic archetype that she offered. Rather the political context allowed her a degree of power to make unprecedented changes in the UK, and in the process create renewed class divisions in British society, to an extent that would have been impossible under most other constitutional arrangements.

Thatcher’s conflicts of desire, then, were inflicted on British political life in a way that was unprecedented, but thankfully limited. She appeared to make little or no progress during her life, and remained on a fixed dogmatic trajectory rather than learning from her mistakes. Thatcher, then, is not a good illustration of the integration of desire, only of its absence. It is her successors, Major and Blair, who were charged with the task of trying to integrate some of the conflicts she had created: a task that could only be accomplished to a limited extent. The measures of subsequent governments, for example, only succeeded in partially arresting the trend towards inequality that Thatcher started, with the UK having a Gini coefficient of 40 in 2010.

Thatcher offers an overwhelmingly good example, however, of the interrelationship of personal and political conflicts of desire. Thatcher’s psychological conflicts are not something that can be quietly tidied away into her private life, of idle interest only to biographers. Thatcher’s conflicts are now all our conflicts in the UK, and the delusions of the British people created and supported Thatcher’s delusions. Above all, the role of metaphysics in creating and maintaining conflicts of desire is all too evident at both individual and political levels.


[1] John Campbell (2009) The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher from Grocer’s Daughter to Iron Lady (Vintage, London) p.311

[2] Ibid. p.26-7

[3] Ibid. p.128

[4] Ibid. p.4

[5] Ibid. p.15

[7] 650 Argentine military, 255 UK military, and 3 Falkland civilians: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17580449

[8] Campbell (2009) pp.313-321

[9] Ibid. pp.321-3

[11] Ibid. p.398

[12] Ibid. p.398-401

[13] Ibid. p.463

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About Robert M Ellis

I am an independent philosopher, with a Ph.D. in Philosophy, and a distance tutor in Critical Thinking, Philosophy and Politics. I also have experience of Buddhist practice. I developed Middle Way Philosophy to apply what I see as the central insights of Buddhism in an entirely Western context.

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