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Thatcherism’s Secret Was Sex Appeal

Liz Kulze had the same idea I did for adding to the reminiscences of Margaret Thatcher—quote the passage from Hitch-22 in which Christopher Hitchens relates his first encounter with the Iron Lady:

Almost as soon as we shook hands on immediate introduction, I felt that she knew my name and had perhaps connected it to the socialist weekly that had recently called her rather sexy. While she struggled adorably with this moment of pretty confusion, I felt obliged to seek controversy and picked a fight with her on a detail of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe policy. She took me up on it. I was (as it chances) right on the small point of fact, and she was wrong. But she maintained her wrongness with such adamantine strength that I eventually conceded the point and bowed slightly to emphasize my acknowledgement. “No,” she said. “Bow lower!” Smiling agreeably, I bent forward a bit farther. “No, no,” she trilled. “Much lower!” By this time a little group of interested bystanders was gathering. I again bent forward, this time much more self-consciously. Stepping around behind me, she unmasked her batteries and smote me on the rear with the parliamentary order-paper that she had been rolling into a cylinder behind her back. I regained the vertical with some awkwardness. As she walked away, she looked back over her shoulder and gave an almost imperceptibly slight roll of the hip while mouthing the words: “Naughty boy!”

It’s an amusing anecdote, and there’s a bit more to it—namely, what Hitchens experienced as “the uneasy but unbanishable feeling that on some essential matters she might be right.”

In late 1970s Britain, and to a some extent in the U.S., the right had the allure of forbidden fruit. Even the pre-Thatcher Tories were rather dour socialists, and the New Left passions that had excited a generation of Hitchenses had become rather sordid and dull by the time the likes of Jimmy Carter and James Callaghan were in office. So Hitchens was a socialist, and he could still find left-wing attitudes with which to strike provocative poses, but the left had long since become the establishment, and even what remained of the New Left was taking on puritanical traits under the influence of second-wave feminism. Boredom was a serious danger. And then came Thatcher.

From one direction—say, Alan Moore’s—she was a great inspiration for thrilling scenarios of a fascist Britain. From another—that of many an ex-socialist—Thatcherism was a gateway drug to libertarianism or power-worship. The right seemed assertive, heterodox, young (even when its leaders were not), mischievous, fun. (This had been part of the appeal of National Review in its early days as well: as old-fashioned as leftists might think its politics, it was irreverent when their journals were pious.) The right retained the ability to shock—it stood for inequality, violence, illicit sex; things stricken from the progressive lexicon—while the left had grown frumpy, predictable, and politically correct. The thrill-seeking that had always brought talent to the left now worked for the right.

Part of the reason the new-wave right had this sex appeal, however, was because it stood in such sharp contrast to the consensus politics of the bygone decade: an age when Richard Nixon declared us all to be Keynesians and when the fate of Britain was to be decided between Edward Heath and Harold Wilson. Thatcher was a jolt of electricity; the Thatcherite right was dangerous. In the U.S., some sense of this could be seen in P.J. O’Rourke’s celebration of the “Republican Party Reptile“: “We are in favor of: guns, drugs, fast cars, free love (if our wives don’t find out), a sound dollar, and a strong military with spiffy uniforms.” The left was in favor of, well, whatever you think of when you think of Walter Mondale or Neil Kinnock.

A decade in power wore away the newness of the right, however, and once the shock value was gone, what was left? There had been some good ideas, some salutary (and some not-so-salutary) pro-market reforms and deregulation, but the economic problems facing the UK and U.S. today are quite different from those of the late 1970s. The cultural landscape is transformed, the world situation utterly unlike that of the Cold War’s final stages. A very different kind of right, and left, is needed today.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review, and Editor-at-Large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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