Some Reflections on the Moral Political Psychology of Margaret Thatcher

In the comments below I will try talk in neutral terms about some of Margaret Thatcher’s political psychological motivations but I need to prevent this post being interpreted as approbation, so I make a political statement without any evidence or back up just like IN everyone else’s blog and then I return to the faux third person.

Here is the undisguised political comment:

Margaret Thatcher did monumental and enduring harm and some significant good, the latter mostly not justified or required by the former.


Back to disguised political comment….


Conviction Politician

Aren’t they all conviction politicians?  Well yes if you are a moral intuitivist, someone who holds, after Hume “that reason is the slave to the passions”.  They all start with their convictions and then move forward to their politics and then shape their policies to support their convictions.  This direction inverts the normal piety whereby the politician asserts that they are in possession of wisdom and superhuman powers of reason which they have brought to bear on the weighty subject of improving the general welfare, and are now in so positioned as to be able to announce a particular political perspective.  And even better, they have deduced how execute this rational vision in policy.

What else can political convictions be other than a moral intuitions about what is right and wrong?  Moralising was a constant with Thatcher:  simply wrong that the State should take so much of GDP, simply wrong that the aspirational were held back, simply wrong that the State lived beyond its means, simply wrong that effort was over-taxed.  People who should merely have been her opponents became enemies as they were opposing, as she saw it,  the good, her good one and the same thing.

If Haidt is correct about the moral foundations which underlie our political life how do hers shape up against a liberal Conservative like David Cameron.





Significantly weaker then Cameron on Care/Harm reduction.  Cameron, influenced by the Lib Dems in the coalition has probably disavowed formal Thatcher hostility to policies in this area.  Policies on minimum unit pricing and warnings on cigarette packaging are classic harm reduction measures which Thatcher would have been loathe to even pick up.  The colossal harm caused by the de-industrialisation which she hastened and deepened didn’t appear to be a cause of lost sleep on her part..  Can a single reference to any anxiety around the individual impact of mass unemployment be found?

Freedom To

The most significant comment to be made about her Haiditan profile is just how much it compares with that of a libertarian, which has at its heart the veneration of the idea of freedom.  See her sale of council houses (freedom from state control, increase in autonomy), her characterisation of the cold war as a struggle for freedom, the endless free the people rhetoric (“freedom under the law”)in her justification of privatisation and other policies.  Did she ever mention positive freedom, freedom from want, freedom from privation?  Look at the rhetoric  and see how freedom to and freedom from are entirely different things in this politician.  It might be suspected that freedom from and freedom to are entirely counterpoised, perhaps in the same way as Dominance and Reverse Dominance, perhaps even because they are stops on the same spectrum.

In-Group Loyalty

The strength of her in-group loyalty shaped her entire premiership from her anti-Soviet stance, to the  conflict with the EEC/EU through to her characterisation of the miners during the mid-80s strike as out-group enemies.  At a personal level the famous “not one of us” categorisation of her entire social space was typical of someone with a strong in and out group mentality.  Her outrage over the Argentine behaviour in the Falklands was characterised by a fierce in-group viewpoint, seeing only “unprovoked aggression” and the inability to countenance any solution not consistent with the wishes of the islanders.  If the islanders remained loyal to the in-group then, they and she,  formed an impenetrable moralised shield against Argentine demands.

The UK is multi-national state and her fierce in-group loyalty led to a confusion between British and English Nationalism which she disastrously and carelessly conflated.  Support for the Conservative Party has never recovered in Scotland in Wales.

Fairness as Proportionality

Under her premiership the UK became a fabulously less equal place with millions of additional people falling into absolute poverty but this did not appear to offend her sense of fairness, what did offend her sense of fairness was the UK contributed much more to the EEC budget than it got out.  Perversely, in the 1980s, a then poorer country like the UK with and efficient agricultural sector end up subsidising a rich country like Belgium with an inefficient agriculture.  This anomaly was created by the CAP dominance of the EEC budget at the time and it clearly offended Thatcher’s sense of fairness in a way that mass impoverishment did not.  She won a rebate from the rich (EEC members) as wealth was transferred to the poor (the then UK).    Fairness as proportionality, taking out what you have put in matters to Conservatives as Haidt has suggested.

Reverse Dominance

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

The reading that she selected for her funeral from Ephesians Chapter 6 (Bible 0000) contained this line.  It drew some attention at the time for its martial qualities so typical of her combativeness but there is an additional interpretation and it addresses a key feature of her politics.  This passage may have resonated with her as she did see herself as someone fighting against the socially dominate.  Examples are legion, consensus politics, the BBC, the establishment, the Miners, the trade unions generally,  the entire social democratic settlement, her party grandees, the aristocracy who had sold out Britain with their one nation politics.  Her reform agenda often upset dominant producer interests such as doctors, opticians and lawyers.  At the time many middle class people whose desirable social position was the result of several years of higher education and study and ten years of low paid apprenticeship were upset to discover that  she facilitated the new wealth of plumbers, gas engineers and double glazing salespeople.  She had little time for traditional social dominance that many Conservatives wondered if she were a Conservative at all .

More Libertarian than Conservative

Was Thatcher a Conservative or a Libertarian? In Haidt’s (and others) paper on “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians”  ( there are a series of psychological trait comparisons between self-identified traditional Conservatives and self-identified Libertarians.   Haidt et al use a measure called Cohen’s d-score to measure these differences, and so taking those traits with a d-score to be greater than or equal to 0.4,


Trait Description Cohen’s d score for Libertarians Compared to Conservatives Relevance to Thatcher Comment
Schwarz values scale – Benevolence



Not a word in her known lexicon  
Schwarz values scale – Conformity



The radical break with conformity in the shape of the Tory support for British post-war consensuses goes directly to her unconcern with conforming Quote


“To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects”

Schwarz values scale – Tradition



This disinclination to conserve what is there was a marked difference between herself and other Conservatives, at times she was almost revolutionary trying to overthrow the old and bring a new world into being  
Empathic Concern


Not a word in her known lexicon  
Hong Reactance Scale (is an 11-item measure of psychological reactance. The scale measures the extent to which people are emotionally resistant to restrictions on their behavioral freedom and to the advice and influence of others)




“The lady is Not for Turning” emotional resistance to the advice and influence of others.  Traditional Conservatives are more likely to listen and conform.



“If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing”


Need for Cognition


This trait and the one below are the reason that she was more ideological than other Conservatives, the ideology came after the moral intuition but she needed the intellectual satisfactions of neo-liberal ideology more than say Cameron  
Cognitive Reflection Task (cognitive reflection task provides a behavioral validation of the hypothesis that libertarians have a more reasoned cognitive style)


As above  

These last two traits drive the need in libertarians to have an intellectual rationalisation for their position.  Her various intellectual enthusiasms – monetarism, neo-liberalism, the quantity theory of money are expressions of the need to find reasons for what she intuitively held in any case, true of all politics but she was a singularly ideological politician by any standard and if she was more libertarian than Conservative then this would be the reason why.

There are also some indications in Haidt’s paper that Libertarians are more socially disconnected than Conservatives with fewer friendships or social connections.   There are two instances in her career when the absence of friendship come to mind, once when retired she appeared to suffer from a lonely old age, and secondly that critical moment in her downfall when she needed support on the second ballot of Conservative MPs.  She was dismayed at the private advice of most ministers who urged her to go rather than stand and fight.  Had she had friends instead of coalitional allies they might have stiffened her resolve by agreeing to fight with her, but their calculation of their own personal interest and the interest of their Party was all that she was faced with.  A dense network of friendships across the upper reaches of the Party might have changed the calculus but it wasn’t there in that critical moment.

It should also be noted that that group of ‘libertine’ traits associated with Libertarianism simply do not apply to her private life which was conservative with a very small c.

No Such Thing as Society

Fiske teaches that there is such a thing as society, calling it Communal Sharing (CS) and insisting that it is deeply cognitively instantiated as it comprised the social environment in which humans spent millennia evolving in. Mrs Thatcher though it not to exist to just about everyone’s astonishment and consternation.  This comment came to define her in the eyes of her opponents as it was such a startling conclusion.

The first half of the famous quote then (to Women’s Own who were looking for a light colour piece but struck the purest ‘good copy’ gold)

‘I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first…

The Fiskian structure is revealed in the second half of the quote

There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.’

Fiske: “the morality of Market Pricing is represented in the libertarian ideology of absolute freedom of rational choice, together with the sanctity of voluntarily negotiated contracts or promises”.  This is the tapestry that she is referring to.  The existence of a venerated social structure in her psychology leads her to down play or attack and another social structure which she does not venerate. That is a defining feature of social relations in Fiske’s theory – venerate or demonise and this will shape your political perspective.

We can have a picture of her emphasis on Fiske social relations compared say to David Cameron




It is not that she has no CS sensibility but rather that she was weak on CS and extremely strong on MP, the one displaced the other.  Another example of her using the “morality” of MP to trump that of CS is her famous reflection in her speech to the assembled (and dumbfounded) Church of Scotland that

No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.

She meant that he had got money through an effort probably comprised of “of voluntarily negotiated contracts”. This was the pre-condition of his charity, and wealth so acquired is an act morally equal to charity.

(Note that nearly all existing religions evolved culturally in a time when society was dominated by strong CS and AR and weak EM and MP.  So they all tend to esteem the virtuous side of CS and AR, and are broadly confused or indifferent to EM and MP social relations).

Weak EM?  She did win three landslide election victories but she was hostile to democratic aspirations from Scotland and Wales, and it took her a long time to agree to a Northern Ireland Assembly and allow the possibility of elections there as part of the solution.  She abolished the democratically elected government of London in a probably unconstitutional fashion.  Perhaps the weak EM sensibility was because of the way in which the extra-strong MP foundation tended to eclipse everything.


Some People are only Out for Self

“I have a profound belief, a fervent faith – in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence” 1975

Her opponents and enemies delighted in her denunciation of the backbench MPS who brought her down  as acting selfishly “some people are only out for self.”   Was that not exactly what she had been trying to achieve her whole political career?  To acknowledge the basic selfishness and better align societal structures to this reality?  Why then be outraged when the dynamic of the arrant pursuit of self-interest on the part of her own MPs resulted in the destruction of her political career?

Thatcher was surprised by the association of her legacy with selfish individualism, explicable in her terms by the moralizing of contract relations within the MP framework.  Fiske agrees that there is nothing inherently selfish about MP but none of these social structures are unalloyed virtues, they contain and are good and bad, those who moralise, valourise or venerate a particular social structure are in danger of being blinded to it’s downside which in the case of MP includes slavery, ruthless exploitation and the milder end of its dark side has as Fiske acknowledges, avarice.   This danger in MP can be offset by strong applications of CS, EM and AR but she was markedly weak on these and that was the danger.


MP – The Contract

This post is not addressing the 1000 people she pushed into poverty every day of her Premiership as a indifference on in her part to the harm/care and fairness Haitdain foundations and combined with some ordinary incompetence and outright callousness.  There are however, two aspects of her legacy which endure positively, firstly the UK would be a society in which capitalism, markets and private initiative would be more important than the actions of the state in creating wealth.  Secondly and more interesting in the psychological sense is the effect of such a ferocious emphasis on MP social relations and the need to examine all the existing contracts.

Fiske tells us that contract would be a better description of MP as it cover not only market pricing relations but all relations in which the individual sits within a contract framework including obeying the law. Thatcher’s reforming governments opened up and examined contract relations as they had formed across the corporatist British state.  She took all these relations out re-examined them (from her singular perspective) and recast them, sometimes successfully, sometimes pointlessly, sometimes making things worse, but always changing, tackling the vested interests which cling to existing frameworks and who are not able to see difference between their financial interest in the current order and the potential collective interest in reform.  This constant examination of contract and her un-Conservative libertarian habit of Reverse Dominance (see above) drove her to take on producer interests even when that was unpopular.

This predilection to examine existing contracts and embark on waves of reform has since been a distinctive feature of British politics ever since and this “reformability” has contributed to the political and economic recovery of the British State.  The current British government has continued the path of reform across welfare, healthcare and education as its predecessors did and contrasts sharply with the inability of many countries to reform ossified governmental and market structures beset by producer and sectional interests.


The Effect on the Left

This blog has suggested a typology of political parties based on their reference of Fiskian  social structures.  The “hard” left communists, Stalinist, Leninists and Trotskyites all referencing CS only whereas traditional social democracy references CS and EM as that part of the left adopted the values and methods of democracy.  The strain Thatcher’s political success had in the 80s on the left shows this effect as Labour moved left in relation to the social distress caused by Thatcherism as it offered collectivist solutions such as nationalisation and higher taxes on the wealthy strengthening its CS reference.  At the time Labour was being successfully infiltrated by a Trotskist organisation called the Militant Tendency.  It is a reflection of the stress Labour was under at the time that enough sections of the Labour Movement were prepared to accept or abide by this entryism even though Militant was formally hostile to the liberalism contained in all EM structures.

This conflict was exacerbated by the right of the Labour Party’s traditional acceptance of market mechanisms and capitalism a pure MP social structure.  So in Labour in the first half of the 80s there where three lefts: Militant (CS), traditional Labour (CS and EM) and Labour’s right (CS, EM and MP).  The strain eventually broke Labour in two, resulting in the expulsion of Militant who went on to electoral irrelevance but more devastating was the formation of the Social Democratic Party by a section of the Labour Right.  These cleavages show the deep importance of Fiskian structures and demonstrate the way in which they are cognitive instantiated to drive real politics along the psychological tramlines they set down.  Note the three lefts don’t differ much on the care/harm and fairness foundations of Haidt, they are united on these moral foundations, you need Fiskian thought to make a fuller sense of what is happening.

Blair as “son of Thatcher” isn’t correct a the level of policy as 500 of those people moved into absolute poverty by Thatcher reversed their movement every week under Tony Blair’s governments but is surely correct that her reforming, her contract examination under MP and her victory for capital influenced the Labour right in its adoption of CS, EM and MP.  Blair’s government’s notable for their reforming zeal and adoption of markets.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: