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Artillery Row

Reflections on the counter-revolution in Finchley

Britain cries out for a leader with Thatcher’s (counter)revolutionary spirit

The thirty-odd years since the Reagan-Thatcher 1980s have not been a happy time for elected administrations on the Right. They have been allotted more years “in power” than the Left, by voters wanting them to fight their traditional corner. They certainly did not vote for the cultural dismemberment that actually happened in those years, but most tend nevertheless to accept all the “woke” nonsense around them with a shrug — a bit like they accept the weather. A new, fiercer wind is blowing in conservative journalism, particularly in America. Exasperation at a decades-long failure to stand up to the great Progressive Leviathan is behind it. The words “counter-revolution” are in the air. The notion comes in various strands, all of them impeccably non-violent but not necessarily all entirely “democratic” (in the usual political sense). One envisages a kind of Gramscian long march in reverse

A big obstacle needs to be addressed if anti-“woke” thinking is to be turned into political rhetoric with a broad appeal. Thanks to the internet, there is (unlike in the 1980s) now a wealth of journalism, of impeccable probity, investigating and interrogating the prevailing left-liberal narratives on race, gender and much else. Now any open-minded person can, if the will is there, find persuasive refutations of those mainstream media narratives with their wilful seeking of “discrimination”, emotional “trauma” and minority victimisation stories often diametrically opposed to evidence. If the will is there — therein lies the rub. As Saul Bellow put it, “a great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.”

Anti-Woke journalism can often seem directed more to the already persuaded than to a wider, semi-apolitical public. To move the political dial — amongst people who are not journalism junkies, but simply bewildered and bemused by the new mass-mediated “reality” that surrounds them — a different kind of rhetorical register would be needed. This April is the tenth anniversary of the death of Margaret Thatcher. More than thirty years since she fell from power, her record as an interrupter and repulser of that progressive leviathan is unequalled in any major Western nation: a counter-revolutionary template. She was Ron DeSantis on steroids. Her Joan-of Arc-like unstoppableness — much more than any specific policy successes — is the real reason why she became so enduringly internationally famous.

I am myself a case of what one might call the “Thatcher Counter-Revolutionary Effect”. I still remember the day in 1981 when I first looked at her without my BBC leftist blinkers. At the UK college of vocational training where I was working at the time, I was in a staff meeting, listening to yet another barrage of outrage around the table at what “Thatcherwas doing, when I had a sudden epiphany: I don’t agree with this. In fact, I kind of warm to her somehow. I was circumspect enough though to keep this thought to myself, to just nod and keep my mouth shut. But it was time to rethink my career in the Liberal Studies Department of the college. 

“Liberal Studies” as a curriculum was conceived in the 1950s by UK Education mandarins to inject a bit of culture — Shakespeare, Beethoven, etc — into the lives of working class apprentices. I doubt if it ever survived its first brush with reality, but by the time I started in the mid-70s it had become (in accordance with O’Sullivan’s Law) a case of surplus humanities graduates peddling fashionable soft-left prejudices to a largely unreceptive audience of butchers, bakers, hairdressers and motor mechanics. If there had, in those distant days, been “gay pride” flags to wave, any knee-bending to be done or some facts about the demographics of violent crime to be in denial about, we Liberal Studies teachers would have been right out in front.

She would have called a spade a spade, and damn the consequences

Thatcher was not an intellectual and perhaps not even a deep thinker. What made her electable — despite a personality and set of values anathema to the grain of her time (and ours) — was her unlikely visceral appeal to lower middle class and skilled working class voters (the C1s & C2s). Many of them were not even quite sure why they were switching their vote to her. They could sense that, unlike the normal type of “higher-ups” of both Left and Right, she was (although she would never dream of using the term herself) not full of crap. She was the genuine article with no “side” to her. She was not loved, but she was admired (rare for a politician) by people who saw life as a serious business — one that you just needed to get on with to the best of your ability. Such people saw self-reliance as a virtue, even as they recognised the role of the state as protector of the weak and vulnerable. They who had no patience with the mealy-mouthed or those who wanted to have their cake and eat it, too.

Of course, this putative counter-revolution cannot simply invent a Thatcher just because it needs one — but it can recognise the template. This was the substance of a Washington Post op-ed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at the start of the Trump presidency. He opined, “Margaret Thatcher, much more than Ronald Reagan, is the real model for the Trump presidency. Six years on, it is a fair bet that history will judge her time in power a greater force for good than his but (and this may be an unwelcome observation to many) the two leaders did have one vital thing in common. Neither would — in the face of unprecedented media hostility — back down. People notice this. The great majority of politicians think it politic to dance a kind of tango with the media, to come across as emollient. Both strategies have their upsides and downsides but, in terms of inspiring fierce loyalty, uncompromising wins.

It is why the far from emollient Margaret Thatcher is still remembered across the globe as one of the great inspirational political figures of the 20th century. In her time she was revered not only in the chambers of the US Congress but also in the Supreme Soviet and (in some accounts) even in the Chinese Communist Party. Presidents of small nations would interrupt their plans to rush to the airport on learning that Mrs T was passing through.

She died before the Western liberal establishment had begun to convulse itself over such things as whether our culture was “transphobic” and whether young people needed to be protected from harm “triggered” by its great works of literature. In fact, thanks to a long mental decline — the unlucky consequence of repeated mini-strokes, she missed out on having her say about much of the cultural transformation effected in the 21st century West by its university-educated progressive clerisy. What would she have had to say had she been in her prime in 2023?

We can hardly doubt she would have called a spade a spade, loud and clear, and damn the consequences. One can readily imagine her delivering the admonition in the manner of a strict mother wanting to curb our nonsense for our own good. I doubt she would have fallen into the rhetorical rabbit hole of trying to frame arguments against “identity politics” using its own tendentious terminology. 

Asked to discuss issues relating to the LGBT+ community, she would probably have told the interviewer to stop talking such nonsense. She would have said it insistently and would not have shut up however impolitic the subsequent verbal joust became. Asked to comment on “systemic racism”, she would likely have wagged her finger and asserted that Britain was the least racist society that had ever been and how crazy to have lurched — in a couple of generations — from racism against coloured people to racism against white people.

She was loathed and disdained as a kind of bad joke by most of the arts and media establishment and the public-sector middle class. She was loathed because she seemed the embodiment of petit bourgeois values that the 1960s had “freed” us from. (Cynics might say those values may always have been honoured as much in the breach as in the observance, but that need not invalidate them as a moral code.)

Her great naivety was that enterprise could be injected into the bureaucracy

To a small minority of intellectuals, she was a breath of fresh air blowing through a Britain suffering from quasi-socialist constipation. When playwright Ronald Millar first met her, she struck him as “a kind of senior girl scout with a freshness about her …as though she had stepped straight out of The Sound of Music”. To a lot of semi-apolitical folk further down the food chain, her slightly unsettling appeal lay in the sense that she was expecting you, the voters not just the politicians — to up your game. She seemed like the kind of prime minister who might like to get the house reasonably tidy and all the dishes done before setting out on the day’s political tasks. As she strode the international stage, she seemed like the kind of invitee to major global events who preferred to make her own bed in the morning …because she was that kind. 

Eventually, she was the kind to incite exasperation amongst her more timorous fellow Tories by exclaiming “No! No! No!” at the water’s edge of their cultural Rubicons. So she was politically assassinated.

Now after decades of hesitant and emollient centre-right administrations, the kind of people who loathed Margaret Thatcher and metaphorically danced on her grave are now in the ascendant. To millions of men and women across the Western world, they are the loathsome ones. The typical reaction of those millions has been one of bemused resignation, however, in the face of its seeming inevitability. 

Margaret Thatcher would have stirred them up to give real voice to that loathing. She would never have sanctioned any expression of it that departed from standards of decency, but she would not have minced her words. Normal politicians on the other hand (certainly all British politicians) will reflexively show “concern” and “understanding” and “remorse” in response to any kind of grievance, however absurd.

Whether Mrs Thatcher’s particular “voice” would still resonate today is debatable. On the one hand, her essentially anti-establishment, confrontational approach would be as stimulating now as then. To what extent 21st century publics could relate the aforementioned petit bourgeois values is more questionable. The reservoir of citizens who remember life before post-60s “permissive” cultural norms has shrunk massively. People — even those who eschew TV news and talking-heads-type politics — have now imbibed three decades worth of TV dramas subliminally depicting a normality quite at odds with their real-life experience. This is the by now ubiquitous genre of storytelling: where boy meets girl is not particularly the norm, where only white people are capable of serious crime, where black people are often accused but never actually found guilty, where female police officers can physically subdue violent male offenders and yet still be victimised … and so forth.

A counter-revolution would also need its intellectual underpinnings. Margaret Thatcher’s record was, in this sense, less impressive. She (along with most of the West’s conservative-leaning politicians and commentariat) failed to fully appreciate that, out of sight of media scrutiny, Rudi Dutschke’s dream of a long march through the institutions was progressing nicely. It was progressing irrespective of the nominal political complexion of elected administrations. 

She saw the philosophical enemy as primarily Britain’s reflexively left wing local government bureaucracies whereas it was, in truth, much broader than this — anywhere the progressive intelligentsia had its fingers in the public purse, in fact. There has arisen a view of Margaret Thatcher, in conservative historiography, as an unwitting handmaiden of the 21st century managerial state. There is some truth in this but, weighed on the scales, more untrue than otherwise. Her great naivety was the notion — pursued with the passion she brought to everything — that an enterprising mentality could be injected into the bureaucratic megalith.

These new progressive causes were much less threatening to one’s bank account

Her political antennae also failed to fully pick up on some other things already stirring in the decade of her premiership. Threats to her idea of liberalism were gestating in the petri-dishes of the academy. They would, in the long term, prove bigger than her bête noirs of European bureaucratic federalism or even quasi-socialist economic paralysis. Even as the Right was basking in its Reagan-Thatcher transformation of economic orthodoxy, the sands of leftist ideology were shifting. They were retreating from a focus on class and economic inequality towards new (and overwhelmingly middle class) obsessions with race and sexual “identity”. This reinvention would prove highly seductive to the well-healed middle classes, in part because these new progressive causes were much less threatening to one’s bank account. 

If free-market Ron and Maggy were still alive in 2023, they would be appalled to witness something that virtually no-one foresaw: that, once egalitarian ideology had been reinvented as an essentially performative middle class pose, then capitalist enterprise culture would embrace it too — as yet another sales tool.

She appears not to have immersed herself deeply into the analyses of intellectuals like Christopher Lasch, that post-60s liberalism might intrinsically carry the seeds of its eventual degeneration. By the early 90s, intellectual forewarnings were beginning to appear about the naivety of expecting electoral pluralism to ensure the survival of common sense liberalism. Pat Buchanan’s The Death of the West was prescient about the left’s long march, warning, Gramsci’s idea on how to make a revolution in a Western society has been proven correct.Myron Magnet’s The Dream & the Nightmare showed (with copious statistics) how the “liberating” post-60s middle class unravelling of traditional norms was having disastrous consequences further down the social scale. 

More recently, intellectuals like Christopher Rufo have argued that conservatism might have to use the principles of the Gramscian left ….to organise a kind of counterrevolutionary response to the long march through the institutions”. This kind of talk could prove energising after long years of party-political inertia and effective defeatism on the centre-right. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to defund “all DEI and CRT bureaucracies” in Florida’s public universities such that they “will wither on the vine” suggest that this strategy is bearing fruit. Set against this however are some trenchant assessments that give pause to such optimism, like this one: “Conservatism is to a large extent self-eroding. A philosophy that (rightly) salutes enterprise will not attract enough people who want to serve in the culture-shaping institutions.”

My own hesitation is that notions like “cultural Marxism”, the “woke regime” and its “Gramscian conspiracy” can seem like a shying away from an even more disturbing reality. In my own country, you could say that “the regime” counts amongst its adherents easily 50 per cent of young-to-middle-aged professionals — more or less on board with such notions as the supposed problems of white racism, systemic bias in favour of men and the ever-urgent ongoing need to advance the interests of “the LGBT+ community”. Amongst those emerging from “higher education”, make that 90 per cent. 

If any force could be unleashed that might knock some realism into such people, it would be some kind of re-invented 21st century Margaret Thatcher avatar. 

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