All ideas will at some point die. Yet their death can take two very different forms. The standard form is an idea’s cessation.Occasionally, however – somewhat paradoxically – an idea dies when it truly comes alive...

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Margaret Thatcher and the Disappearance of an Idea

All ideas will at some point die. Yet their death can take two very different forms. The standard form is an idea’s cessation. The notion that the earth is flat, that kings have a divine right to rule, and that the most noble ambition is to ‘make the whole world England’ are all ideas that once had cultural dominance yet are no longer plausible. Occasionally, however – somewhat paradoxically – an idea dies when it truly comes alive. An idea is successful when it disappears, when it becomes the default way of seeing the world.

F.S. Michaels calls such ideas ‘master stories’. Once inside a master story, we tend to ‘accept its definition of reality..., unconsciously believe and act on certain things, and disbelieve and fail to act on other things’. Michaels contends that the defining narrative in contemporary culture is economic.

We see the world through economic glasses. Whilst market-logic, incentives, competition, and contractual relationships might all have a rightful place in the world of business, when they are exported to other areas of society, their effect can potentially be corrosive. Michaels charts the negative impact of the economic master story on work, relationships, community, spirituality and education. His analysis is supported by the last decade of British political reform: healthcare, higher education, and most recently legal aid, have all been re-imagined through an economic lens.

When Margaret Thatcher pronounced with typical boldness, ‘There is no alternative’, she proclaimed that the only option for Britain was to base its society on a particular form of capitalism. As an idea, it has been profoundly ‘successful’. Thatcher had in mind a different type of economics – located in privatisation and deregulation. However, what was intended as a different type of economics has arguably produced a different type of society.

The debate surrounding Thatcher’s legacy is crucial as it opens up the possibility of examining our current master story and reclaiming it as an idea that needs to be debated, rather than simply assumed. Somewhere, in the midst of the rhetoric, where Maggie is either canonised or demonised – as Mother Theresa or Mussolini – is an important conversation about why we think the way we think.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he urged them to ‘not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind’. What is the ‘pattern of this world’, the master story, governing our lives?

Mark Sampson

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