Five things liberals love that Thatcher invented

From safe sex to incapacity benefit, today’s shrill Thatcher-bashers are actually continuing Mrs T’s worst work.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Left-leaning liberals love to depict themselves as the yin to Margaret Thatcher’s yang, the Luke Skywalker to her Darth Vader. She is everything they detested, and they aspire to be everything that will keep her spinning in her grave for the next 50 years: socially aware rather than individually grabby, and fashionably unsure about economic growth rather than heartlessly capitalistic.

Yet for all this ostentatious oppositioning, the fact is that evil Maggie is responsible for many of the things and ideas that the modern liberal set holds dear. She’s the mother of much of their political outlook just as surely as Darth Vader was dad to Luke. Here are five things liberals love that they have Thatch to thank for.

Safe sex

The right-on sections of society are the most fervent promoters of ‘safe sex’ – joyless, disease-conscious, sheath-covered bonking. You can’t set foot in a trendy rock festival or have so much as a five-minute chat with a caring-eyed social worker without having a condom pressed into your hands, accompanied by that most buzz-crushing oxymoron of modern times: ‘Play safe!’ In the health-aware set’s eyes, having sex without a condom is as much a sin as having sex with a condom is to the likes of Pope Francis.

Well, thank Thatcher for this. In the late 1980s, during the Great AIDS Panic, she pretty much invented the modern idea of safe sex. Everyone bangs on about the terrible falling-out between Thatcher and gays over Section 28, but few mention the far weirder love-in between Thatcher and gays during the AIDS crisis. They were at one over the need to promote caution and condom-wearing. Thatcher sent leaflets headlined ‘AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance’ to 23million homes, with graphic chatter about semen, vaginal fluid, anal sex and the need for condom use. Her health secretary, Norman Fowler, arranged for condoms to be advertised on TV for the first time and boasted that he was ‘responsible for putting the word “condom” back into English usage’.

For the Thatcherites, the AIDS issue represented a glistening opportunity to foist their staid sexual mores and Victorian values on to a fearful public, though it all got dolled up in the lingo of awareness and safety rather than restraint and chastity. As one author puts it, AIDS became a platform from which the likes of Thatcher could hector people about ‘promiscuity and fast-lane lifestyles’ (1). Now, that Victorian project disguised as radical sexual awareness is still being vociferously pushed forward by those who define themselves as Anti-Thatcherite. Great work, folks!

Incapacity benefit

Modern-day leftish observers with cushy jobs love nothing more than fighting for the ‘right’ of poor people to be treated as permanently sick by the state and to be given a pauper-style handout to live on. Any attack on incapacity benefit, which is received by around two million Brits, all of whom are defined as ‘incapable’ of working, has these caring souls seeing red.

Thatcher would have agreed. She was the mother of incapacity benefit. Back then it was called invalidity benefit, and it was actually introduced by Thatcher’s Conservative predecessor, Ted Heath, but it was Maggie who rolled it out to cover those miners and manufacturers she threw on to the dole queue. In 1978/79, when Thatcher came to power, 612,000 people were on invalidity benefit; by the start of the 1990s, after 10 years of supposedly wicked, welfare-cutting Thatcherism, the number had increased by 190 per cent, hitting a whopping 1.8million. Who were all these people who had fallen suddenly and terribly ill? They were the simply unemployed, working men and women made non-working by Thatcher; but they were rebranded ‘sick’ and ‘incapable’ rather than ‘unemployed’ because, in the words of one social historian, Thatcher and Co. were keen to ‘keep unemployment figures down’ (2).

In essence, Thatcher naturalised unemployment, turning it from a social predicament brought about by the failure of modern society to provide all with gainful employment into an individual’s own problem, caused by his physical or mental ineptitude. You are unemployed because you are sick, not because society is sick. As one observer says, Thatcher used invalidity benefit to ‘minimise the fallout’ from her policies (3). Today, the depiction of working people as having been failed by their own bodies rather than by society, the cynical writing-off of vast swathes of the potentially working classes as unfit for public tasks, is cheered by implacable anti-Thatcherites. These unthinking incapacity benefit cheerleaders are continuing their nemesis’s job of convincing capable men and women that they are incapable. Excellent stuff, liberals!

Comprehensives galore

For some reason, nothing riles modern leftists more than the idea of choice or variety in education. Any school that isn’t entirely state-bound, such as free schools, and any university founded by private individuals, such as AC Grayling’s proposed humanist college, drives them nuts. They think private schools should be abolished and that grammar schools are super-duper unfair because – horror of horrors – they necessitate the testing of 11-year-olds and the separation of the clever from the… how should we put this… sporting. This is a crime against self-esteem or something. They’d prefer to see everyone in a samey comp, being definitely not taught Latin and being fed strictly Jamie Oliver-okayed grub while learning by rote the most life-affirming quotations from Anne Frank’s Diary.

How Thatcher helped their narrow dreams to come true! For all the claims that she was a state-circumscribing monster, and for all her own personal agitation about comps, she was the mistress of comprehensivisation. Reading the infantile ruminations on her legacy, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only thing she did as education secretary in Heath’s government of the early 1970s was snatch milk from the mouth of babes; but she also ‘closed more grammar schools than any other education minister’ and increased the percentage of children attending comprehensive schools from 32 per cent to 62 per cent… in the space of four years! (4) This wringing of independence from the education sphere and plonking of more and more kids in often ill-equipped, Shakespeare-shunning, horizons-squishing comps is now led by Thatcher’s self-defined foes. Way to go, Thatcher-bashers.


Of course, Thatcher didn’t invent anti-German sentiment, which has been a feature of British politics for ages. But she was midwife of the modern version of it, the version which says that post-Cold War united Germany is far too much of a political and economic colossus and thus threatens to destroy modern Europe and its values. You know, the version now promoted by left-wing loathers of Angela Merkel, who was recently described by the implacably anti-German liberal magazine the New Statesman as ‘the world leader [who] poses the biggest threat to global order and prosperity’.

Anti-Thatcherites love to hold up the EU as yet another dichotomous issue between them and Maggie: they’re pro, she was a bit anti. But both Mrs T and the anti-Ts shared a suspicion towards Germany and its ambitions. When the postwar partition of Germany ended in 1989, Thatcher said this ‘reunited country would represent an unacceptable concentration of economic power, and therefore of all other kinds of power’. ‘Nothing good could ever come from the Germans’, she declared. Such Kraut-bashing has been inherited by the modern left, both of the trade union and liberal-leaning variety, who now describe Merkel-ruled Germany as a ‘bully’ and even mention it in the same breath as Nazism.

Where Thatcher fretted that Germany would threaten Britain’s interests, many on the modern left fear it will ‘destroy the European project’. In both cases, fears for our own futures and standing get projected on to those weird, power-grabbing sons-of-Nazis over there. Carrying Thatcher’s fantasy refighting of the Second World War into the twenty-first century… well played, leftists.

Political environmentalism

‘Thatcher was all, like, grow the economy, and I am all, like, grow nature and the future instead!’ A lot of Thatcher-bashing can be boiled down to that level of boneheadedness, where Thatch is depicted as the single-minded pursuer of industrial stuff, while her critics are more concerned with saving the planet from humanity’s deforming rapaciousness. But of course, it was Thatcher who made environmentalism respectable in political circles, especially Conservative ones, through recognising later in her tenure that the best way to cover up one’s failure to achieve meaningful economic growth was to say: ‘Hey, I’m more interested in saving the Earth.’ Her very green late-80s speeches insisting that human beings do not have a ‘freehold’ on the planet had the effect of, as one author puts it, ‘dramatically heightening the prominence of environmental issues and [giving] unprecedented respectability to their articulation’ (5).

Today, Mrs T’s eco-miserable view of the planet as fragile and humans as potentially toxic is promoted by her so-called foes. These people splutter and rage against Thatcher while keeping alive the worst horizons-lowering, fear-spreading, planet-worshipping ideas that fell from her head. It isn’t anti-Thatcherism; it’s Thatcherism in anti-Thatcher drag.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here

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Topics Politics


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