Balance sheet on Thatcherism: an interview with Shirley Williams

Shirley Williams agrees with Peter Jenkins (see review on this page) in seeing Margaret Thatcher as far outside the postwar Conservative mainstream, with its moderate, consensual views on the welfare state and a unified society. A former leading member of the Labour Party's right wing, and a founder of the Social Democrats in 1981, Ms. Williams has spent most of her life in British politics and stands as an insider, well placed to chart the trajectory of both rising and falling stars. She spoke to the Monitor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, where she is now teaching. Williams regards Thatcher's extraordinary zest for power as holding definite dangers for British liberties, and she points to recent prohibitions on freedom of speech by the outlawed Irish Republican Army and its sympathizers, and on the right of IRA suspects to remain silent. ``We don't have a written constitution, as you do,'' says Williams, ``nor do we have a Supreme Court. Governments can encroach on civil liberties, should they care to, as Mrs. Thatcher does.'' The turning point in Thatcher's striving for power was the Falklands war in 1982, according to Williams. Thatcher was not doing well early in that year: ``She had the lowest poll ratings of any prime minister since 1945 - 20 percent or so.''

Then ``she had this amazing stroke of luck - the Falklands crisis - combined with amazing boldness on her part. The luck was the stupidity of General Galtieri; the boldness was her grabbing the opportunity, which was an extremely high risk. If one more [British] capital ship had been sunk, that would have been the end. But if she hadn't seized that opportunity, she would have been finished. And she knew that.''

What is the balance sheet on Thatcherism? Shirley Williams says: ``She's done a good job in making people aware of competition, and a very good job in reversing trade union abuses of power, essentially destroying the union stranglehold of the economy. And she's succeeded in holding inflation.''

``She has not, I believe, helped create a modern management - or a modern technologically trained labor force. We have in Britain a 19th-century management, with some exceptions like Imperial Chemicals. And the old school management is rejoicing because it's back in the saddle, but it's still riding a horse: There's little evidence that British management can run an information-based society.''

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