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18 September 2014
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Laissez-faire and the Victorians

By Professor Eric Evans
Understanding 'laissez-faire'

Baroness Thatcher
Prime minister Margaret Thatcher advocated a return to 'Victorian values' 
Laissez-faire, a French term, means 'leave to do' or 'leave alone'. It relates to economic policies that rely on the power of unregulated markets to deliver the goods. The goods were secure economic growth, high levels of unemployment and international competitiveness. Applied to social policy, it indicates minimal government involvement.

Left to their own devices, according to this argument, people will develop habits of sturdy self-reliance, but if they are supported by the state, people will rapidly sink into a mode of dependency. As Samuel Smiles, the greatest propagandist of the self-help ideal, put it in 1859:

'Whatever is done for men or classes, to a certain extent takes away the stimulus and necessity of doing for themselves; and where men are subjected to over-guidance and over-government, the inevitable tendency is to render them comparatively helpless.'

'She called for a return to 'Victorian values' - by which she meant rolling back the powers of the state ...'

It was to these ideals of self-help and sturdy independence that Margaret Thatcher looked when, as Britain's prime minister from 1979 to 1990, she sought to revive the country's flagging fortunes. She called for a return to 'Victorian values' - by which she meant rolling back the powers of the state, lowering levels of direct taxation and encouraging people to stand on their own feet.

Thatcher also aimed to make Britain a more competitive trading nation. Here, she invoked the spirit of the Scottish political economist Adam Smith, whom she considered to be the high priest of free trade. Smith's famous book Wealth of Nations (1776) had advocated removing the tariffs, customs and other restrictions which nations traditionally used to advantage their own goods. Embracing free trade would encourage producers and traders. It would stimulate competitiveness and innovation. From the ensuing economic growth, everyone would benefit.

Published: 2004-11-04

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