A Thatcherite history of the state in 20th-century Britain is simple: up until 1979 the state got bigger, clumsier, greedier; after 1979 it started to get smaller, nimbler, leaner. It is the story of a steady, seemingly inexorable advance, followed by a sudden and rapid retreat, as the state was determinedly 'rolled back'. It is a heroic story, with an obvious heroine, and that alone ensures that it has not gone unchallenged. Many people doubted at the time, and continue to doubt, the purity of Margaret Thatcher's motives, and of her crusade, strewn as it has been with incidental casualties. Many others have questioned whether history is ever this simple, whether the state really did grow as steadily, and contract as rapidly, as the Thatcherites would have us believe. Little attention, however, has been paid to the language in which Mrs Thatcher's ambitions were expressed. We accept as given the terminology of advance and retreat, of boundaries and frontiers. But we shouldn't. It didn't mean anything then, and it doesn't mean anything now. Thatcher's ambitions with regard to the state were neither wicked nor unfulfilled; they were simply meaningless.
LRB 23 May 1996 | PDF Download