Sent: 23-04-2013 13:20:02
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Lessons from the Thatcher Years
The death of Margaret Thatcher reopened old wounds inflicted by the memories of 1980s policy debates. For many among the current generation of UK politicians Thatcher's most confronting legacy is the need to choose between conviction and consensus as a political style.
In the UK House of Commons, an eight hour debate memorialising Margaret Thatcher had members talking about economic and industry policy, fiscal priorities, the role of Europe and a single currency, the end of communism as a world philosophy and the routing of despots in South America and the Middle East. This was not just a description of the times of Margaret Thatcher. These were events in which the daughter of the Grantham grocer was deeply involved.
Her personal role in any single one of these major public policy issues would have been enough to define a normal politician. Incredibly, she was a part of them all.
Parenthetically, the House of Commons debate also highlighted one of the strengths of politics in the UK. The debate was about a politician who, some would say, was among the most divisive Britons since Cromwell. And, yet, Labour politicians joined those on the right to recognise an unusually effective leader who left the nation, including the British Labour Party, changed for the better by her presence on the national stage.
A very few, like Glenda Jackson, barely had a kind word. But they still thought Thatcher was sufficiently significant to take the time to acknowledge her passing. Most on the Labour side acknowledged considerable strengths. Some even endorsed at least a part of what she had done to modernise the UK economy. Many lauded her foreign policy successes.
Common among politicians on both sides was the belief that Thatcher had been one of the last conviction politicians. The absence from the national stage of similarly strong willed and clear minded leaders was widely mourned. There were disparaging references to the influence of focus groups on policy. By common consent, Thatcher would never have abided a focus group as a source of policy ideas.
Thatcher has a continuing influence on British policy through the people who were encouraged to seek election by her example. This was especially true among female members of the Conservative Party who make up nearly a quarter of today's Tory parliamentarians compared with less than 5% when Thatcher became prime minister and who attribute their presence in the parliament to her trail blazing.
Symbolically, one of the most striking features of the House of Commons debate was the presence of Opposition leader Ed Miliband sitting on the frontbench, for some time unaccompanied by a single labour backbencher, as the debate moved into the nighttime hours. David Cameron did, too, but you would expect him to have acted in deference to his current members if not to the Thatcher memory. Miliband has been widely praised for his conduct in the Thatcher debate.
The forms of the British parliament contrast with the sometimes overt brutality of the Australian version of the same institution. And yet ideological differences and policy divisions are typically more pronounced in the UK than in Australia. The UK, too, has had to work with a minority government. Regional divides have been far more pronounced in the UK. Immigration and climate change are among the big issues for which solutions have been needed.
British civility seems to bind. In debate, members universally address the speaker of the House of Commons not individual members across the chamber as is becoming the habit in Australia. Everyone is referred to with deference as the honourable or right honourable member.
Codes of behaviour serve to bind everyone to a common purpose even where their backgrounds differ. People of west Indian, African, continental European and Asian descent spoke in the Thatcher debate as did former Yorkshire miners and refugees from the troubles in Northern Ireland.
Even as diversity has diminished, with political professionals playing a larger role in parliament in Australia, rowdiness, unpleasantness and aggression has crept into the proceedings to such an extent that these are becoming characteristics of national debates and not aberrations.
Many of the national security issues in which Thatcher was engaged, such as the Falklands war, how the government dealt with Irish terrorism and the attitude to European communism have had the support of both sides of the house. Divisions and controversy came over the hollowing out of the national economy especially through the closure of mines and, to a lesser but not insubstantial extent, manufacturing
The loss of jobs raises anger in communities in northern England and Wales even 20 years on. Some on the left expressed understanding that some restructuring had to occur. Some on the right believed, with the benefit of hindsight, that more should have been done to ease the pain of adjustment. So, with some irony, Thatcher the model conviction politician has helped create a consensus about the role of government and how change should be effected.
Meanwhile, in this past week, as the British have been contemplating their political evolution, Australia was still battling to find a way through some of the old issues that no longer preoccupy UK politics.
Telecommunications has been fully re-nationalised in Australia now that the opposition parties have endorsed public ownership of the national broadband network (and land line telephones are of little future consequence). Far from being charged with its demolition, as he once was, Malcolm Turnbull has been dubbed 'Mr Broadband' by his leader. Very little conviction there.
Australia's fight to retain a car industry was also evident this past week with Holden announcing cuts to employment and former global Ford boss, Jac Nasser, opining that one day Australia would not have any car manufacturing. In a week in which university funding was cut for the sake of more money for schools, ongoing Treasury payments to failing car makers with diminishing appeal to local buyers legitimately caused questions about whether Australian politicians could take hard decisions.
Clear and purposeful agendas of the sort attributed to Margaret Thatcher have been in short supply. Strangely, highly divisive language has frequently ended up in compromised policy. Climate change, the mining tax, national broadband are recent examples. Perhaps the most recent example is a very fast train that cannot be built in less than 40 years - some countries would do it in ten - and must have 16 stops scattered between its four primary destinations to appease non metropolitan interests.
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