Margaret Thatcher and neo-liberal sovereignty

1365501917-392As a footnote to my post on Margaret Thatcher, I wanted to draw attention to some responses to the special sitting of Parliament and the state funeral in her memory.

A number of Labour MPs boycotted the House of Commons (and I wondered whether Liberal Democrats Leader and Deputy PM Nick Clegg was speaking through clenched teeth). Alastair Campbell, rightly, said that MPs should debate Thatcher’s legacy, “not just pay tribute”.

Two certainly did.

Glenda Jackson:

David Winnick:

(Via Shiraz Socialist)

More power to them.

Writing in The Guardian, Professor Jacqueline Rose says of the obsequies:

The last thing we need is a moment of frozen and rapt attention in which the nation is required to forget how awful the world has become for so many people and to suspend its judgment.

Much is being made of the fact that The Queen is attending the service in St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s the first time she has been to a Prime Ministerial funeral since Winston Churchill’s in 1965.

I’m thinking of the meanings of the phrase “pay tribute” in this context, and the way, as Rose argues, the full ceremonial and coercive panoply of state patriotism and unity is being deployed to mark Margaret Thatcher.

In democratic polities, the absent place is always that of the monarch. (Let’s gloss over, for the moment, the fact that in the political formation Tom Nairn dubs “Ukania”, alluding to Robert Musil, is an imperial monarchy.) If the people are sovereign, the symbolic representation of the figure of sovereignty is an empty one. I’m drawing here on the thought of Ernst Kantorowicz in The King’s Two Bodies – for more on the political philosophy of sovereignty, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Medieval states, particularly England, evolved a political theology which saw the King as having both a human and a symbolic body, the latter not subject to death (hence – “the King is dead, long live the King”). When the King was publicly represented as such, crowned, sceptred, anointed, his human body was displaced by his symbolic body. No doubt Christian thought and particularly the then nascent theory of transubstantiation was at work here.

It’s characteristic of neo-liberalism, more than an ideology, but a form of governing, that there can be no alternative. Margaret Thatcher proclaimed that, and claimed as her legacy the acquiescence by New Labour in its precepts. Neo-liberalism seeks to be sovereign, to disallow any exception to its will.

Lying in state in Parliament, attended by the Queen, celebrated in St Paul’s, the late Baroness Thatcher is the tutelary deity of neo-liberalism, a symbolisation of its sovereign rule.

So the funeral, and the tribute paid, to Margaret Thatcher is about very much more than the passing of a particular political figure.

Update: In much of the discussion of Margaret Thatcher’s death and legacy, as well as in response to this post, controversy over ‘neo-liberalism’ has been aired. Here’s my stab at defining the concept.

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72 responses to “Margaret Thatcher and neo-liberal sovereignty”

  1. Hoa Minh Truong

    Please do not insert politic into the funeral, U.K and the world has lost a great woman, first British female prime minister. Margaret Thatcher could be hated, dissatisfied from the political opponents and someone, but she was endorsed by people to do the top job in 11 years, she worked for national interest then accepted the critic from some body being effected by her decisions, she has to be respected as the brave leader and honored to be titled an Iron Lady.
    I watched many question times of Australia lower and upper house, the Aussie politicians have the good behavior, every time a politician deceased, whether who is this, but the politician gave the condolence to family and also resumed briefly the contribution for country.

  2. Golly Gosh

    Well you certainly have a vivid imagination.

  3. Terry

    Mao Zedong’s body has lain in state at the Mausoleum in Tiennamen Square since a long time before neo-liberalism was ever popular.

  4. Katz

    They could sell tickets to the funeral by auction.

    Thatcher would have approved of this implementation of the principle of user-pays.

  5. Paul Norton

    In response to Hoa Minh Truong @1, and segueing into a more general observation, the politics have been “injected into the funeral” by those who have not just showered tributes on Margaret Thatcher personally but have made swingeing statements about her legacy as something that can never be reversed and that only rogues and fools would try to. For eample, one line of commentary on her legacy is that privatisation was controversial at the time she was in office (in the 1980s and 1990s) but is now a settled question, and by implication an unquestionably good thing. As the most recent thread on the Newman government explains, this is far from uncontested.

  6. Andrew Reynolds

    Sorry, Mark – but if that is what you understand by “neo-liberalism”, then it is simply not something I recognise. It is not a characteristic of any liberal system that no alternative is allowed. The very word “liberal” implies that the individuals within a liberal system have the capacity to choose whatever system they want, of their own free will.
    It is the socialist systems that brook no alternatives and that can exist only by limiting the freedom to walk away.
    As for Thatcher in all this – she can hardly be called a strong exemplar of the sort of neo-liberalism to which you seem to be referring. She did not really shrink the State as these graphs confirm. She did get the State out of industries that were collapsing anyway (coal, steel and cars) and break the power of a few unions. Overall, I would think she did better than many of her predecessors.
    As with most governments, though, her government was much more for slamming down Hayek’s books and making rhetorical points than for picking them up and using their contents.

  7. Golly Gosh

    MB @8:

    “Any hegemonic form of rule denies alternatives in one way or other. It can be through direct coercion (Soviet or Chinese style Marxisms) or through restricting the terms of what is legitimately seen as an option.”

    The onus is then surely on you to explain who is restricting the terms of debate and how they are doing it. But in truth you can’t do this since this very blog provides a Popperian falsification of the theory.

    In five minutes on the web I can find 500 falsifications. Give me an hour and I’ll find 50,000. I see falsifications in the media both new and old, in academia including the economic departments, among opinion leaders who are household names and Nobel Prize winners (Paul Krugman) and in the thoughts of people I talk too.

    Sorry, Mark, but this reified conception of an omniscient neoliberalism that restricts the terms of the debate (your words) is but a figment of an impoverished sociological imagination.

    I will go further and say that eventually key parts of neoliberal thinking (like expansionary austerity) will hit the brick wall of reality just like the old Keynesian consensus and that when this occurs it will similarly shatter like porcelain.

    Sadly, many on the left now throw around the word neoliberalism in the same way that the word capitalism was once thrown around. It is all about laziness and shutting down critical thinking.

  8. Terry

    Neoliberalism is a term used by a certain category of academics to describe just about anything they want, as long as they view it negatively (“negative normative valency” is the academic term for this). So Jon Stratton at Curtin University can declare The Shire to be a case of neoliberalism in action, an analysis that I am sure would have surprised Freidrich von Hayek. As something of a collector of these, I can find similar for Bollywood-themed weddings, South Park, The Apprentice and much more besides if anyone wants footnotes.

    As it has become such an all-encompassing category, but one lacking any shared definition, it also precludes any empirical analysis. As soon as empirical questions are asked (Is Sweden neoliberal? Is Japan neoliberal? Is Australia under Gillard and Swan more or less neoliberal than under Howard and Costello, or even Hawke and Keating?), the terms of the discussion are invariably shifted.

    People who see the world in terms of everything becoming neoliberal seem quite enervated by the death of Margaret Thatcher, perhaps as it evokes a simpler time of more clear-cut heroes and villains. The question of whether “the left” is “with the coal miners” is more complicated in 2013 than it was in 1985, for instance. For some political organisations, being able to get back to hating Margaret Thatcher is a welcome break from the internal matters they are currently dealing with.

  9. Golly Gosh


    “As it has become such an all-encompassing category, but one lacking any shared definition, it also precludes any empirical analysis.”

    Exactly. Professor Quiggin had the good sense to use the term economic liberal instead of neoliberalism in his spiffing Zombie book. Neoliberalism is a corrupted word, a dog whistle for the left, it rouses the passions and precludes the possibility of reason.

    HT: David Hume

  10. Katz

    As Mark says, all hegemonies seek to deny legitimacy to alternatives.

    Presumably different hegemonies perform that act of delegitimation in different ways. Neo liberalism seeks to dissolve old institutions into the market system or to dissolve them altogether. Thatcher’s treatment of the universities, the unions, social housing, and the GLC are leading examples of the imposition of neo liberalism.

    This strand of political economic practice had a long pedigree. Thatcher didn’t invent it. She merely gave it an energy that it had lacked since the mid 19th century.

    Thatcher’s novelty wasn’t ideological. Her novelty was theatrical. She gave a voice and a cutting edge to middle class resentment at both labourist corporatism and Tory paternalism. Thatcher didn’t invent that resentment but she did invent a particularly effective tone and rhetoric of complaint.

  11. Andrew Reynolds

    Surely that would depend on the reasons for the option no longer being seen as a legitimate choice. In the case of (for example) the nationalisation of the coal industry I would argue that this is no longer seen as a legitimate choice as it has been tried and demonstrably abjectly failed – as have many other possible policy choices from the past.
    To me, the reason why many of these options are no longer seen as ones that a political party can be seen to be supporting is because they no longer have any chance of enhancing political prospects, so they would be electoral suicide. If you see this as the debate being shut down through neo-liberalism then I must respectfully disagree. Instead, it has been shut down through a democratic process.
    To me, this is a good thing.
    Personally, I am in favour of several things that may be in a similar category. If, for some reason, I wished to the electorally popular I would have to shut up about them or accept that this may make me, in the words of Sir Humphrey Appleby, “brave”.
    Whatever issues these are it is the role of the electorally isolated to try to make these issues more mainstream or accept that they will be forever impossible. This is not a bad thing – to me, this is one of the strengths of our system. If an idea is not possible because it is unpopular this is not only much, much more preferable to an idea that is not possible because it is banned and its purveyors are prosecuted – it is the right way for it to happen.
    Thatcher’s great legacy was to make some ideas seem impossible not by persecuting the purveyors, but because the voters came to realise they were simply bad ideas. Again – this is a good thing.

  12. Golly Gosh

    Mark @13:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply to my comment and I note your housing policy example of your point.

    Now I see more clearly what you are getting at. This is a difficult one, and I can see why the job of the sociologist is so challenging. I don’t want to write an essay, which is what a complicated topic like this deserves, so I will confine myself to a few points:

    – the Gillard government introduced paid m/paternal leave for the first time in Oz, leaving the USA as the only western state without one. Sure the scheme is paltry and hopefully it will be improved, but it is nonetheless an old fashioned centre-left objective and it fundamentally at odds with neoliberalism. This falsifies the idea that there exists political classes who actually govern (your words) who exclude any possibility of furtherance of the social democratic program.

    One day before paid m/paternal leave made it onto the political radar (which IIRC was a year or so before Howard lost the election) , your point about public housing could have been applied to m/paternal leave. It simply isn’t possible for political commentators, sociologists or mug punters like me to predict what the “political classes” tomorrow let alone next week or six months down the track.

    The notion of a fixed political class that governs is itself problematic. We live in a democracy and nothing can be taken for granted. The Hansonistas are a great example of that. They were despised by the two major parties, polite society and the media but for a time they broke through and became a force. We see the same in other western democracies from time to time.

    Finally, to your housing example. The problem here is that in order to provide an example you must state an opinion that is contestable. It may well be that government housing construction is the best way of housing the poor. Then again it may not be. Maybe currently used options like rental assistance and government purchase of pre-existing dwellings are more effective. Maybe there are 101 better options yet to be explored.

  13. Golly Gosh

    MB @15:

    “I note you have ignored my reply, Golly Gosh.”

    Nope, I have work to do and I thought your reply warranted a considered response 🙂

  14. Terry

    Neoliberalism is a corrupted word, a dog whistle for the left

    Following this week’s experience, I would say that “Margaret Thatcher” is a dog whistle for the left. I hadn’t realised how many peoples’ lives were lacking political direction without her presence in the public eye.

  15. Paul Norton

    Andrew @17:

    Thatcher’s great legacy was to make some ideas seem impossible not by persecuting the purveyors, but because the voters came to realise they were simply bad ideas.

    The problem with claims like this is that on the two occasions (in 1983 and 1987) when British voters passed judgment on the Thatcher government’s record, they gave it a lower rating than Australian voters gave the Whitlam government in 1975, as I pointed out on the earlier Thatcher thread.

  16. Peter Murphy

    I have a question for Mr. Hoa, which may clarify his thinking.

    Let’s consider Võ Nguyên Giáp, who is 101 years of age. You would have heard of him. He hasn’t got left to live. When he dies, are you going to say nothing out of “respect for the dead”? Or are you going to “put the boot in”, to use a phrase from English, and write some thing nasty about them man? I can’t see you writing nice things, can I?

    Either way, you’ve made a political decision. I’d actually advise you to sharpen your knives and think of what to say when he croaks. It’ll make you feel better, and in the process, you’d probably educate some people misguided about how benevolent the North Vietnamese government was.

    But if you give the right to speak out immediately to yourself, then give it to others, especially Glenda Jackson and David Winnick. They’re not just speaking out for themselves, they’re speaking out for their constituents. That’s what representative democracy is about.

  17. Sam

    The Melbourne University Student Union is copping some stick for passing the following motion:

    “That Students’ Council recognise the horrific legacy of Margaret Thatcher and her neoliberal policies that destroyed the lives of millions, her violent crushing of the miners’ strike … [etc]”

    None of these students was alive when Thatcher was Prime Minister. Who says students these days have no sense of history?

  18. Sam

    I should add that part of the motion was

    “and celebrates her death unreservedly” which is why they are copping the stick.

  19. Paul Norton

    Melbourne University students have form with this sort of thing. When Bob Menzies died in 1978 the MU student paper Farrago scandalised polite Melbourne society by running a spoof story on Ming being buried alive.

  20. Terry

    For a small but lively section of the left, Margaret Thatcher has turned out to be like an old jumper they have found again, not having worn it for 20 years, and it turns out to fit as well as ever. Bound to generate a warm feeling.

  21. Terry

    Anyway, John Lydon has called for a halt to attacks on the late Baroness Thatcher. He is expected to have stern words with Stephen Morrissey and Russell Brand very soon.

  22. wmmb

    Funerals are inherently symbolic, state funeral especially.

    Mrs Thatcher’s experience with dementia in her final years is a reminder of how sad that affliction is for many people. Thatcher was a divisive and ruthless political leader illustrating how thoughts translate into action, often as cruelty, although the motivation was claimed to be noble.

    Mrs Thatcher’s is apparently to have a Falkland’s War theme, evoking her statement in relation to the miner’s strike:

    “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.

    The language speaks for itself.

  23. Paul Norton

    The MUSU Council motion has elicited the sort of response one might expect on Catalepsy, including a post describing the three Liberal students on the Council as “three brave and glorious men”.

  24. Sam

    Terry 29,

    I think that’s right.

    But current-day students?

    It’s like the old saying, “if you remember the 60s, you weren’t there”. The Melbourne Uni students weren’t there in time or place.

  25. Terry

    I haven’t been able to track down the quote read this morning from the drama teacher who initiated the anti-Thatcher parties on Facebook – on the Daily Mail Online site, which is really now a heaving beast of hatred – but she talked of the need to get “catharsis” from the “trauma” of the Thatcher years.

    I would not think there is such trauma in the share houses of Swanston St in 2013.

  26. Paul Norton

    Sam @34, from what I can ascertain the students who moved and voted for the motion are members or fellow travellers of S*cial!st Alternative, and so aren’t exactly typical of their age cohort.

  27. Terry

    The Daily Mail Online site also provides salutory lessons on what can be doen with your Facebook photos by a news outlet on a mission.

  28. Sam

    Paul 35, no, I wouldn’t think they are typical at all.

    I reckon if you did a poll of Melbourne Uni students 48 hours ago – much less 18-22 year olds in general – only a small minority would have been able to say accurately who she was, what she did and when she did it.

    Anyway, it will blow over soon enough after they tramp the dirt down.

  29. Terry

    Sam @ 37

    Depends on which Faculty. There would be plenty in the Melbourne U. Business School who know her and like her, and plenty of others who have parents who believe she saved Britain from Arthur Scargill.

  30. Sam


    there’s no 18-22 year olds in the business school.

    And I also really, really doubt that many students have parents who told them about Arthur Scargill, except possibly those who asked a few questions after a family outing to see Billy Elliott.

    No one in Australia cares about British politics, apart from the number who post in blogs about Margaret Thatcher …

  31. Paul Norton

    Griffith University business students sometimes refer to someone called Goth Whitlam in their Government-Business Relations essays.

  32. Peter Murphy

    I think it’s the “unreservedly” bit that that turns the pathos into bathos. Thatcher got a lot of things wrong, but the Falklands was the one thing that she (and the general staff) got right. Not just the fall of the Argentine Junta, but that the inhabitants got to stay with the place they wanted to stay with: the UK. Whether it’s the East Timorese, the Irian Jayans or the Falkland Islanders – self-determination’s a good thing.

    As I recall, Lydon had bigger issues with James Callaghan. Rubbish left out in the streets, bodies unburied. But he was a Londoner. He might have felt different if he lived up North.

  33. Golly Gosh

    “Griffith University business students sometimes refer to someone called Goth Whitlam in their Government-Business Relations essays.”

    I love it!

  34. Peter Murphy
  35. Terry

    Here is a great example of the Guardian Left’s nostalgia for the Thatcher years. Miners’ benefit gigs, Marxism Today, and Billy Bragg.

  36. Sam

    It’s not a bad article (though the author, Suzanne Moore, thinks there is a British embassy in New York). I didn’t get how someone who looks so young could have lived (as an adult) through the Thatcher years. It must be a very old photo. Moore is 55. And according to her Wikipedia entry, has three kids by three different fathers. Now that is living the counter-culture dream.

  37. Andrew Reynolds

    Paul @21,
    Sorry, but I have to call BS on that one. The SDP / Liberal Alliance were closer to the Conservatives than Labour on most economic policies and were certainly not followers of Michael Foot or Tony Benn and were even to the right of Healey.
    While the share of the vote for the Conservatives may have been lower than we would accept here, the share of the vote that were actually rejecting Labour Party policy was much higher.
    As my comment was about shifting the political ground this is the relevant number.
    Michael Foot, Tony Benn and such made Labour unelectable in the UK due to the shift in the ground. The precise way this happened, due to the absence f preferential voting, is neither here nor there.

  38. Terry

    Sam @ 46, I’m not saying its a bad article. Its quite good.

    But in the UK context, this enthusiasm for the 80s brings you up against the Tony Blair Paradox, and the problem it presents for many on the left. Blair was Labour’s most electorally successul PM ever, but was loathed by many who associated with the party, and ultimately had to resign for the far less electorally successful – but closer to “the base’ – Gordon Brown. Blair’s riposte, which he has argued again in The New Statesman today, is that Labour maintains ideological purity at the cost of losing elections.

  39. Paul Norton

    Andrew @46, here’s the Alliance manifesto from 1983 – no privatisations, no deunionisation, if anything an expansion of welfare state provision, Keynesian stimulus, a strong commitment to Continental social democratic industrial democracy, very little that is recognisably neoliberal. And the votes that shifted from Labour between 1979 and 1983 almost all went to the Alliance.

  40. Terry

    If you are a Labour Party strategist, the problem you face is that the same people who would deface a statue of Margaret Thatcher in Trafalgar Square are the same people who would deface a statue of Tony Blair in the same spot. There is little to be gained in trying to appeal to them.

  41. Sam


    Blair is loathed, with complete justification, because of Iraq. It’s not because he was Thatcher-lite on domestic policy.

    The ideological purity argument is a complete distraction. Sure, Labour was pure in 1983 and got beaten badly. It also had a lot elae foing afainst it then. But it was far from pure in 1987, 1992 and 2010 when it also lost.

    And among the plaudits heaped on Thatcher is that she was ideologically pure and was electorally successful because she stuck to her principles. It seems we have a double standard here.

  42. Andrew Reynolds

    Paul, so they left Labour because of Michael Foot’s hair? What they actually did, as they knew it would, was bury the Labour Party as it was then.
    If they really believed that they would have stayed with Labour. They clearly did not.

  43. Golly Gosh

    Sam @50:

    “It also had a lot elae foing afainst it then.”

    You really shouldn’t type with your mouth full.

  44. David

    Re Scargill:
    Well, you pretty much had to be a C o m m u n i s t, or at least a fellow
    traveller, to run the NUM. No?

  45. Katz

    It’s not a bad article (though the author, Suzanne Moore, thinks there is a British embassy in New York).

    Ever heard of the United Nations? It’s headquarters are in New York.

    Britain has an Embassy to the UN.

  46. Sam

    Don’t be obtuse, Katz. She should gave written Consulate, and you know it.

  47. Paul Norton

    David @53, one of the interesting things to emerge in the wash-up of the miners’ strike was that the Communist officials of the NUM had a better understanding of what had happened and why, and what was wrong with Scargill’s leadership, than some of the Labor-aligned officials – particularly on the crucial question of the decision to call the strike without the imprimatur of a national ballot of the NUM membership.

  48. Katz

    No, Sam

    The British Consulate General New York is at

    845 Third Avenue
    New York NY 10022

    The UK Mission to the UN is at

    One Dag Hammarskjold Plaza
    885 Second Avenue
    New York New York 10017

    These are two different geographic locations. They are both in New York. One is a consulate the other is a “mission” which has the same status as an embassy.

  49. alfred venison

    sounds to me like its an ambassador to the united nations not a consul-general to the united nations.

  50. Sam

    Give it a rest Katz. Moore wrote

    “In New York, I had seen the coffins held up outside the British embassy as Thatcher let Irish men starve themselves to death.”

    Do you think the protestors did this outside the Consulate on Third Avenues, or inside the UN building that the UK mission is in? (Hint: the public areas of the UN don’t extend to the missions.)

    Quit while you are behind.

  51. Katz

    It is entirely immaterial to me where the demonstration may have occurred. If it took place outside the British consulate in NYC, then Moore is incorrect.

    My only stake in this discussion is whether or not there is a British Embassy in New York.

    You denied the existence of a British Embassy in New York. [“Suzanne Moore, thinks there is a British embassy in New York”].

    Do you persist in that denial?

  52. Golly Gosh

    PM @22:

    Glenda Jackson’s speech very powerful and compelling.

  53. Sam

    Katz, I do. The British presence at the UN is a Mission, not an Embassy.

  54. David

    the decision to call the strike without the imprimatur of a national ballot of the NUM membership

    The worst decision Scargill made. It undermined the strike both legally and morally. A judge ruled the strike illegal because there had been no national ballot and the NUM’s treasury was seized and taken over.

  55. adrian

    While Sam is engaged in a pointless arguments with Katz – pointless because he knows he is wrong, maybe he might like to explain what the hell the fact that Suzanne Moore has children to 3 different fathers has to the contents of this article?

    Except to make a smart arse pointless point; an ability in which he seems to excel.

    It was a very good article and deserved to be judged on its merits.

  56. Tim Macknay

    While Sam is engaged in a pointless arguments with Katz – pointless because he knows he is wrong

    Actually Sam is right and Katz is being obtuse – regardless whether or not the British mission to the UN can be called an embassy, it’s clear that Suzanne Moore mistakenly used the term ’embassy’ when she meant to refer to the consulate, which is where the protests took place. If Katz doesn’t care where the protests took place, then s/he’s being obtuse, because it’s essential to the context.

    What stood out for me in the article is that Ms Moore clearly thought it was important for us to know that she had dinner with Meryl Streep.

    I agree the comment about three fathers was unwarranted, though.

  57. Katz

    The immateriality of the actual location of the NYC location applies only to the narrow context of the existence of a British embassy in NYC.

    I agree that it matters where this protest took place. Moore got it wrong and she deserves to be criticised for her forgetfulness or linguistic clumsiness.

    To be perfectly accurate, however, the protest in question took place not outside a British Consulate, but rather a Consulate General. Suzanne Moore is not alone in getting that wrong.

  58. FDB

    It’s a quibble-off!

    Where’s Jape-easy?

  59. Russell

    “Moore got it wrong and she deserves to be criticised for her forgetfulness or linguistic clumsiness”

    Seems like a very punishing response to a small mistake? Deserves to be criticised – for forgetfulness? You might be in for a self-hating old age Katz.

  60. Tim Macknay

    To be perfectly accurate, however, the protest in question took place not outside a British Consulate, but rather a Consulate General. Suzanne Moore is not alone in getting that wrong.

    True. In fact the photo caption on the site I linked to calls it the “British Consulate to the U.N”, which doesn’t really make sense. Seems the UK’s diplomatic establishments in New York tend to create confusion.

    Seems like a very punishing response to a small mistake? Deserves to be criticised – for forgetfulness?

    Also true. Pretentiously name-dropping Meryl Streep, however, is an unforgiveable offence. 😉

  61. Sam

    I agree the comment about three fathers was unwarranted, though.

    Chacun à son goût.