Thatcher, Whitlam and the curse of the inflated legacy

Illustration by Eric Lobbecke

Illustration by Eric Lobbecke

2013-04-24 04.49.50 am




First published April 22, 2013

WE might not always agree with despots, but boy can they get things done. Bucharest would still be lined with medieval and renaissance architecture had it not been for Nicolae Ceausescu, a dictator who was never afraid to unleash the bulldozer if there was a palace in it for him or a boulevard he could name after his wife Elena.

If an administration is measured purely by what we now call “outcomes”, the dictator trumps the democrat every time, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted while in America in the early 19th century. “The men who are entrusted with the direction of public affairs in the United States are frequently inferior, in both capacity and morality, to those whom an aristocracy would raise to power,” he wrote. American politicians may frequently be faithless and mistaken, “but they will never systematically adopt a line of conduct hostile to the majority”.

Just as the great man theory of history collapses when confronted with facts, so too does the myth of the great woman. Besotted conservatives who eulogise Margaret Thatcher do her a grave disservice. When the dust settles on her legacy, probably around a century from now, she will not turn out to be the she-devil her opponents imagine, nor will she have been received into the company of saints.

Alexander Downer compared Thatcher to former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping on these pages recently, claiming both “gave prosperity to hundreds of millions of people”.

Well sort of. In 1990, the year of Thatcher’s retirement, Britain’s per capita gross domestic product was a little under $US18,000. Last year, it was $US38,500 which, offset against inflation, makes the average Brit a little more than $US10 a week better off, less than the price of two pints of lager and a packet of crisps. China’s GDP, on the other hand has risen by almost 1800 per cent over the same period.

To be fair, Deng ran a one-party totalitarian state while Thatcher led the rabble known as the Conservative Party. Deng inherited an under-developed country; Thatcher a post-colonial, post-industrial rust bucket. Yet Downer remembers a less fallible Thatcher than others would recognise.

He recalls Thatcher as education secretary when he was in Britain in the early 1970s, taking on socialist student unions. He does not mention Thatcher’s role in the introduction of comprehensive education, a system that condemned the smart and the dumb to wallow together in a pool of educational mediocrity.

Comprehensive schooling was an early strain of the bacteria we now recognise as social inclusion. There would be no bell-curve in comprehensive school heaven: every child would come top of the class and of dunces there would be no more. It was one of those philosophical contagions that muddle the thinking of the political class every now and then. Once it took hold, it proved impossible to eradicate. In Australia, it mutated into the Gonski report.

Neither side of British politics was immune in the late 60s and early 70s, although Labour-run local authorities were among the proudest defenders of grammar schools where a diligent working-class child could find a path to university. Britain’s Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, went to the 1963 election declaring that grammar schools would be abolished “over my dead body” but changed his mind in government declaring that Labour’s comprehensives meant a grammar school education for all.

When Edward Heath defeated Wilson in 1970, Thatcher took up the baton, closing more grammar schools and opening more comprehensives than any other education secretary. Of the 3600 proposals she considered only 325 were rejected.

In later life, she regretted her decision. “The view that a utopian, monolithic structure could be devised and implemented without trauma was also exploded time and again as I heard the experience of individual parents,” she wrote in her autobiography. “People living on a crime-ridden council estate with a comprehensive ‘community school’ were often desperate to get out.”

In the legacy-construction business, full disclosure does not reduce the stature of good politicians, it simply makes them human and leaves less room for their detractors to undermine achievements in other areas.

The best example of an Australian prime minister whose legacy demands a more honest assessment is Gough Whitlam. Just as Thatcher’s blue Tory cheer squad make her the sole author of late-20th-century reform in Britain, so Whitlam’s admirers attribute every social and political achievement of the 60s and 70s to him.

In their imagination Whitlam pulled combat troops out of Vietnam, ended the White Australia policy and started the Australian film industry. He did none of these things, nor was he the father of higher education, multiculturalism or environmentalism, yet to simply state the historical facts confronts the sensitivities of his defenders.

As the many Whitlam myths are re-evaluated, as they surely will be, those who have perpetrated them will be exposed for their disservice to the legacy of a remarkable Australian statesman, a leader who gave his nation and his party a crash course in modernity. He strengthened community institutions that have provided lasting benefit; Medibank and universal funding of primary and secondary education were enduring legacies of his government.

Whitlam, like Thatcher, would have been a better prime minister if he had met firmer resistance, but neither can be blamed for the intellectual and moral weaknesses of their opponents.

Nick Cater’s book The Lucky Culture is available in bookstores and online.