It is clear from the breadth of last week’s commentary that a consensual and inclusive distillation of Prime Minister Thatcher’s legacy is impossible. But perhaps there is one aspect of her political and personal philosophy that is largely beyond debate. She was a woman who despised those reactionaries of every class who had a vested interest in the continued post-war ossification of British society. Much has been written about her messianic dismantling of an obdurate trade union movement. But she was equally heavy-handed with the entrenched privilege of the cadre of ‘old boys’ that ran the City and much of British business. Thatcher believed, above all, in the legitimacy of individual promise and the reward for individual effort. More than any other political voice, she understood the necessity of creating such a meritocratic society if Britain was to survive the competitive onslaught of the nascent globalisation that was taking shape in the 1980’s.
It is commonplace nowadays for us to see our country as one that has fully embraced the meritocratic principle. But I am not so sure. The language we use has only subtly changed. We still divide society by income and purchasing power - the ‘strivers’, the ‘squeezed middle’ - rather by than by ambition, fortitude and work ethic. There is still a distressing paternalism to Tory attitudes to the less well off. The Lib-Dem’s entire political philosophy seems to promote wealth redistribution as a societal panacea whilst withholding the redistribution of opportunity (through Grammar schools for instance). And Labour’s intellectual demise has given rise to a policy strategy that is best summed up as ‘we think the opposite of what the other parties think’.
One place where meritocracy is hard at work and thriving is in the tech community of Shoreditch and its environs. It is attracting a humblingly bright and motivated community of young workers from across the globe. And on a global scale, it is becoming a tremendous success story. But whilst the government lauds its presence to the news cameras, in practice it undermines its continued success. The government is keenly aware that this community relies heavily on immigration from outside the EU (we do not produce anywhere near as many IT graduates as India, for instance). But tough immigration sanctions play well to middle England. And so government is content to strangle the workforce of this community for the sake of keeping voter approval high in the demographic constituencies that pollsters tell them they need to please. They have also increased capital gains tax by more than half. Those entrepreneurs who succeed, often having risked everything, now get to contribute more to the state coffers to help government keep out the workers they so desperately need. And should the best of the best succeed in creating a few hundred jobs and buy a family home in West London, well the Lib-Dem partners in government will label them as the idle rich who should be taxed on their two million pound home to oblivion. Is this the attitude of a meritocratic society? I don’t think it is. An American entrepreneur expressed it to me more succinctly; ‘you Brits don’t like people becoming wealthy, you have to be born with it in this country’.
Which brings me to the monarchy. There has been much debate about whether Margaret Thatcher should have a ceremonial funeral today. She attained the highest office in this country for a commoner and held it for over a decade. Can you imagine a two-term American president not being celebrated at his death? The Queen has not deigned to grace the funeral of a British Prime Minister for nearly half a century. The head of our state, the person in the highest office in our land, does not generally attend the funerals of those who sat at the highest elected office in our land. That seems grossly offensive to me – a statement that our democratic choice of leader is not of commensurate status for the Queen to honour. What hope do the rest of us have?
And that brings me back to our humblingly bright and ambitious young worker in Shoreditch. Here is what we are effectively telling him or her: ‘You can try and do something positive for yourself, create jobs and create wealth for this nation. Your government will often stand in your way in order to protect vested interests or voter appeal. If you manage to succeed, you will be subject to regular denigration by politicians. They will also take as much of your money as they can. If you are supremely ambitious, and want to rise to the highest office in the land, that is a criminal offence in the UK. It is treason. To attain the highest office in the UK, you must be of a specific Christian sect, of Saxe-Coburg German lineage and believe that God has ordained you to the role.
I can’t help thinking about the notorious frostiness between Margaret Thatcher and the Queen. I suspect that it was precipitated by a realization on Thatcher’s part that her vision of a truly meritocratic country could never be fully realized under a monarchy. People need to believe that there are no limits to what they can achieve and the monarchy sets a ceiling. We are a long way short of a meritocracy in this country. If we expect to remain a nation of wealth and privilege in a hugely competitive world, we will need to make some changes. Many of those changes will be disruptive and hugely unpopular, but they will be necessary. For that reason alone we should mourn the passing of a politician who had an expansive view of the world and who had the courage and conviction to make unpopular decisions for the greater good. Those qualities are rare in politicians these days.