Portrait of Margaret Thatcher

Was Thatcher a role model for chemists?

In medical and public health school, the personal is political. You might think we don’t talk much politics in the Department of Environmental Health, given how much epidemiology and chemistry we have to learn to produce the clean, air-tight peer-reviewed studies that guide sound policy. We have an occupational health division here, though, and our interest in preserving workers’ health is paramount whatever our area of research. The faculty here are political about protecting the environment for all personnel.

Thatcher’s hagiographers, and perhaps even some of her detractors, have hailed her as an industrial chemist, and especially as a female chemist in a position of geopolitical power. Her grit against the grain was impressive, true. And the implications of her role as one of the first high-profile research scientists in the political domain were… well,  for the chemistry dorks, I would liken her less to iron than a block of cesium in a pool of water. Yet her industrial science bonafides were not a mere charming aside to her tenure as prime minister. And as a female physician specializing in occupational chemistry and epidemiology, I take the apolitical personally.

Writing for the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), Iain Murray (The Really Inconvenient Truths) trumpeted Thatcher as a pioneer of “free market environmentalism”:

As Thatcher explains in her autobiography’s first volume, The Downing Street Years (1993), she “always drew a clear distinction” between different sorts of environmental concerns (638-39). Many were primarily local concerns that she believed could be addressed through the privatization of badly run municipal services. She also inherited state-run programs that she saw through to success, including the cleanup of Britain’s rivers (although the hugely successful private cleanup of London’s River Wandle shows that those programs could well have been run privately).

Then came concerns about land use and overdevelopment. On this subject she stood close behind one of her chief political allies, her secretary of state for the environment, Nicholas Ridley. As she summed up the issue: “If people were to be able to afford houses there must be sufficient amounts of building land available. Tighter planning meant less development land and fewer opportunities for home ownership” (638). (She also supported Ridley against what she called the “romantics and cranks” of the “environmental lobby” [758].)

Yet Thatcher saw traditional environmental concerns as very different from “the quite separate question of atmospheric pollution.” There her background as the only major world leader to be a trained scientist drove her approach. As she said: “There had always to be a sound scientific base on which to build–and of course a clear estimation of the cost in terms of public expenditure and economic growth foregone–if one was not going to be thrust into the kind of a “green socialism’ which the Left were eager to promote” (639).

This issue was complicated by the nature of British science funding. Prior to Thatcher’s intervention, most government science funding supported industry, which engaged in extensive lobbying. But she thought that industry should pay for research and development, and directed government science funds to universities and scientific institutes.

While her blithe approach to climate change is well known, there was more to it than fightin’ words fluff: Thatcher’s political worldview was dominated by her mission to defeat the lobbies that promoted “green socialism”—usually called ecosocialism, among its proponents, who include me. (For an extended take, with linkbait, see Alice Rose Bell’s 2011 blog post on myths about Thatcher’s science research.) You might know it as union-busting, but it also busted workers’ health. And today you will not see much of a body of evidence-based research on that.

UPDATE: Via Chris Hayes, praise, at least, for Thatcher’s emphatic statements acknowledging global warming is a true phenomenon. I take it as faint praise, for what it’s worth: If your eventual model is mutual agreement among private industry that constraints on emissions are proper, I ain’t buyin’. If you’re saying that governments should do it, whilst disemboweling them from the fill to do anything else socially meaningful, then how? Weirdly–though not unexpectedly–Andrew Sullivan says the 1984 miners wanted to repeat generations afflicted with the black lung. That’s my point: Government regulators and unions exist to protect workers’ health, including exposure to air pollution. Without them, we are dust.

Maureen Miller is an MD MPH student and writer based in New York and Boston. She has written for The Atlantic, Paris Review, n+1, and McSweeney’s, among other online publications. A founding editor of Rap Genius, she is also the author of the Amazon.com Kindle Single A Taste of My Own Medicine. Twitter @mymopinion. The opinions here are her own.

Photo by Margaret Thatcher Foundation released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.