Monday, November 17, 2008

A Small (?) Correction

I recently ran across a copy of Claire Berlinski’s There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher, her biography (hagiography?) of Margaret Thatcher.

I have to admit I find the subtitle problematic: who really needs convincing that Margaret Thatcher "matters," as she puts it? The argument never seems to have been about her legacy's importance, but whether her ultimate impact on Britain and the world was positive or negative (a point that her selection of the infamous quote for the title captures much more effectively).

Still, the reason I've written this blog entry is not the choice of title, but what I found on the dust jacket, where the reader is informed that three decades after Thatcher's accession to the post of prime minister (this seems to be something of an anniversary piece), Britain "is the richest and most influential country in Europe" (for which the blurb of course credits the subject).

Now, I don't like to nitpick that sort of thing. No one's perfect. And small mistakes, however regrettable, do not necessarily invalidate a line of argument. But this one hits us in the face as soon as we pick up the book, and it's hard to see how it could have been made honestly, especially in light of the book's angle on the subject.

While I suspect that France and Germany are a bit ahead of Britain in influence (and certainly Russia is, if one counts it as part of the continent)-and many would say that Britain's influence has suffered alongside that of the U.S. in the last few years (and also, the increasingly evident rejection of the neoliberal path it helped to lead the way in charting)-one may allow the claim on the grounds that "influence" is hard to quantify.

One can't say the same about the claim that Britain is the richest country in Europe. According to the 2007 edition of the CIA’s World Factbook, Germany’s overall GDP ($2.81 trillion) is about a third larger, and France’s only very slightly smaller ($2.075 trillion to Britain’s $2.13 trillion).

Meanwhile, Luxembourg, Norway, Ireland, Iceland, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, Andorra, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and Finland all come in ahead of Britain when per capita GDP is considered. Even in per capita terms, Britain is only slightly ahead of Germany, with $35,000 per capita, to Germany’s $34,100; and actually behind France (and Spain), if one goes by the UN's Human Development Index instead.

And of course, that's all without saying anything about deindustrialization, trade deficits, inequality or the social baggage that comes with them, things GDP (which, incidentally, factors into the UN stats cited above) tends to ignore, problems which are generally much smaller in those continental economies of which celebrators of Thatcherism are so contemptuous.

In fact, one would be very hard-pressed indeed to find numbers so radically different as to fit the unambiguously glorious picture that Berlinski clearly wishes to promote.

In any event, as such promotion seems to be the main thing here, rather than the more balanced appraisal I'd hoped to find when the book first caught my eye on the shelf (rather than the "fair and balanced" sort of stuff Berlinski seems to specialize in, despite her concession that there was "immense collateral damage," but then, TINA, you know), I don't think I'm going to devote any more time to this book than that.

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