Citizen, help thyself. Thatcher puts individual responsibility at the top of her agenda
NOW comes the tricky bit. For nine years, Margaret Thatcher has devoted her energies to getting the state out of the British citizen's life. Now she wants the citizen to take more responsibility for himself.
In fact, Mrs. Thatcher is putting the encouragement of individual responsibility at the top of her political agenda as she prepares for the tenth year of her premiership.
Thatcher has ordered her officials to bring out this theme in a speech they are preparing for her to deliver at this October's Conservative Party conference. The speech is to underscore the need for Britons to play a more vigorous role in family and community life and to take over some of the functions that in recent decades have fallen to the state to perform.
The initiative, which sources close to 10 Downing Street say is entirely Thatcher's own, is intended to consolidate the Conservative Party's hold on political power and to strengthen her own grip on its leadership.
Among the ideas that Thatcher's speechwriters have been told to develop are:
A call for a more active role for parents in the management of schools, so that the educational system will cease to be the almost exclusive preserve of professionals;
The need to develop closer family ties in order to create a society in which, for example, younger people will be more disposed to look after their elders, rather than let the state bear most the responsibility;
An effort to encourage the occupants of large housing estates, currently run by local councils, to create their own management organizations;
An attempt to get citizens who have benefited from income tax cuts to plow back some of their additional cash into charitable causes that will benefit the whole community.
More than philosophy
Thatcher is said to believe that in the past nine years the emphasis of her leadership has been on dismantling state power and giving private citizens more scope for individual action. Now, she thinks, it's time to develop political themes that follow logically from what her government has already achieved.
Her answer is to urge people to use the new freedoms they have been given and take on more individual responsibility. This, she is convinced, will encourage social cohesion and solidify her political and social achievements up to now.
The first hint of this approach came two months ago when, addressing an audience of Scottish clerics, the prime minister argued that Christianity was mainly about individual responsibility and initiative. She intends her party conference speech to express similar sentiments in more secular terms. from being a mere exercise in personal political philosophy, Thatcher's decision to place the individual at the center of her thinking for the future could turn out to be a shrewd electoral calculation.
She knows that the opposition Labour Party, since its heavy defeat in last year's general election, has failed to regain popularity. The reason is considered to be Labour's decision to stick to a central role for the state in social affairs at a time when the public mood is running in the opposite direction.
If they follow Thatcher's lead, the Tories could wrong-foot Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, in his attempts to stage a comeback. Mr. Kinnock has characterized the Thatcher policies until now as an abdication by government of responsibility in essential social matters. new approach could also have a strong impact on Thatcher's own party. The party still contains influential figures who disagree with her belief that the role of the state should be heavily reined in. Thatcher believes that unless she continues to give a lead to the Tories in terms of her own convictions, her party will slip back to the old pre-Thatcher values and priorities.
A personal grip on Tory power
Some of her younger lieutenants are known to be lukewarm about certain aspects of her philosophy, and one or two of them are seen as possible challengers for the Tory leadership. By retaining a personal grip on Tory philosophy, she hopes to stave off such challenges in the run-up to the next general election, in two or three years' time.
There is no shortage of leading Tory politicians who agree broadly with Thatcher's emphasis on the need for developing individual responsibility in citizens. Douglas Hurd, her home secretary, has spoken of the importance of the ``small platoons'' of British life (i.e., groups of citizens, including families and professional groups) and of the need to involve them more in the structuring of society.
The role of the individual in the family and of the family in society is thought to be a topic with particular resonance for Thatcher's audience. Thus the annual Conservative Party conference is the ideal venue for the Prime Minister to articulate the next stage of her political philosophy. It brings together for a week all the party's top officials and Members of Parliament, as well as grassroots supporters from all over Britain.