Thatcher’s Voices in the Air

18 April 2013

Keynes, convinced of the power of ideas over that of “vested interests”, famously held that “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” Now there’s little doubt that the social life of ideas helps explain the astonishing persistence of ‘Thatcherism’.

Much is being bloviated today, at the moment of her physical interment, about Margaret Thatcher the celebrity politician. Yet much more compelling, and relevant for our times, is the story of how ideas associated with her were made, packaged, sold and re-cycled. That process is illustrated in two cases of transnational networks that helped spread ‘Thatcherism’ and kindred ideas into the commanding heights: the Mont Pèlerin Society and the Bilderberg conferences.

Begun in 1947 as a series of closed gatherings led at the outset by such economists as Hayek, Friedman and von Mises, and bankrolled by European financiers, the Mont Pèlerin Society inspired many more thinktanks in Britain, the United States and elsewhere. Their mission, the promotion of a kind of capitalism favouring rich strata and big business, required a ‘counter-revolution’ against various kinds of state-supervised capitalism inspired by Keynesian ideas and backed by social democratic parties and trade unions. In a path-breaking book on market fundamentalist think-tanks1, the British historian Richard Cockett assigns a key role to the Mont Pèlerin Society in the battle of ideas leading in the late 1970s to the triumph of Thatcherism. Academic, journalistic and governmental elites fed those ideas into policy circles and editorial pages. The US-based Reader’s Digest was tasked with reaching non-elite voters and rate-payers; that hugely popular magazine was represented during the first meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society in a hotel in Switzerland. Thanks to the Reader’s Digest and its Cold War compass, hundreds of thousands of readers could consume and ‘digest’ neoliberal ideas over the decades comprising the economic counter-revolution under Reagan and Thatcher.

Throughout the counter-revolution, agents of what is today called the financial sector, and their chequebooks, were on hand.

The impact of the Mont Pèlerin Society would seem at first glance to confirm Keynes’s dictum. Yet on closer inspection, academic scribblers weren’t the only kinds of people with a stake its ideas and their dissemination. On the contrary, throughout the counter-revolution, agents of what is today called the financial sector, and their chequebooks, were on hand. Which leads us to the second case.

The Bilderberg conferences began in 1954 in an exclusive Dutch hotel bearing that name. They bring together annually from 120 to 140 persons, mainly from the upper reaches of American and European business, government and journalism. These are secretive events, closed to the public and open only to selected invitees, some of whom are not invited back again. The one in-depth study about this institution, Biderberg People, shows that the arrangements are not about conspiracy, but something altogether more pervasive and powerful: elite consensus. Such consensus was at stake in 1975 when, Margaret Thatcher, having just become leader of the Conservative opposition in Parliament, made her first appearance at this exclusive event. The moment proved decisive for her and for the ideas associated with her name. In 2001 the British Journalist Jon Ronson cited an unnamed former Bilderberg Steering Committee member as follows:

 "First off," said a steering committee member to me, "the invited guests must sing for their supper. They can't just sit there like church mice. They are there to speak. I remember when I invited Margaret Thatcher back in '75. She wasn't worldly. Well, she sat there for the first two days and didn't say a thing. People started grumbling. A senator came up to me on the Friday night, Senator Mathias of Maryland. He said, 'This lady you invited, she hasn't said a word. You really ought to say something to her.' So I had a quiet word with her at dinner. She was embarrassed. Well, she obviously thought about it overnight, because the next day she suddenly stood up and launched into a three-minute Thatcher special. I can't remember the topic, but you can imagine. The room was stunned. Here's something for your conspiracy theorists. As a result of that speech, David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger and the other Americans fell in love with her. They brought her over to America, took her around in limousines, and introduced her to everyone.”2

Of course gatherings of the Great, the Good and the Righteously Convinced in resort hotels are but episodes that, even if they have taken place for decades, can’t explain the unrelenting force of today’s neoliberalism. That force manifests itself today in European political class’s commitment to austerity, with aims to downsize the social contract and to centralize and partially privatize public authority. In these ways it bears witness to the astonishing resilience of the ideas we associate with Margaret Thatcher.

Yet nothing is solid, and much can melt into air. In the 1980s, the Republican Senator who sparked Margaret Thatcher’s decisive Bilderberg performance became the object of attack from rival politicians on the Right, bringing his political career to an end. And in 2013, that powerful medium of conventional (essentially neoliberal) opinion, the Reader’s Digest, filed for bankruptcy.

Nevertheless, in new idioms and different amplifications, the voices Margaret Thatcher heard in her frenzy are still in the air, our air.


1 Richard Cockett 1995, Thinking the Unthinkable. Think-tanks and the Economic Counter-Revolution, 1931-1983, London: Fontana Press.

2 Jon Ronson ‘Who pulls the strings? (Part 3)’, The Guardian, 10 March 2001, cited in Ian Richardson, A. Kakabadse & N. Kakabadse, 2011, Bilderberg People. Elite power and consensus in World Affairs, London/New York: Routledge, p. 145


Image by Corey Seeman