A decade after her death, Pete Dorey assesses the continuing influence of Margaret Thatcher’s ideas over the prevailing understandings, objectives, and vocabulary of British politics today.
April 2023 marks the 10th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s departure from this world, her often controversial premiership having ended 33 years ago in 1990. Yet much of her legacy endures, with most of the core principles and policies of her eponymous ideology still greatly admired by many Conservative MPs and grassroots members, as well as many of the party’s electoral supporters, along with pro-Conservative newspapers.
For all of these staunch admirers, she was the best prime minister Britain ever had, and no-one will ever match her. Moreover, many aspects of the “discourse” of Thatcherism still resonate today, and shape much of our public debate and vocabulary, with sundry words and phrases subtly imbued with a particular ideological meaning or purpose. Individual responsibility, labour market flexibility, liberty, self-reliance, tax burden, wealth creation, and welfare dependency are not politically “innocent” or neutral, but reflect particular assumptions and attitudes. They convey an ideology which strongly favours individualism over collectivism, inequality over egalitarianism, the interests of employers and shareholders over workers, and the supremacy of the private sector over the public sector. Yet the underlying ideological character is often veiled by the veneer of “common sense”, or Thatcher’s oft-repeated insistence that “There is no alternative.”
These views and values have become so deeply ingrained and widely accepted that virtually all governments since 1990 have, with only slight variations, enacted policies to: control public spending; extend privatisation; hold-down direct taxes (but raise indirect taxation); promote more deregulation; reduce employment protection and workers’ rights; restrict trade unions; these are among many policies inspired by Thatcher’s principles. There have also been sustained efforts to reduce welfare provision both via cutting the monetary value of social security benefits and by repeatedly imposing stricter eligibility criteria on claimants, while also continuing the demonisation and denigration of so-called “shirkers not workers, skivers not strivers”.
The Thatcherisation of the Conservative Party post-Thatcher
Instead of Thatcherism being diluted and slowly downgraded in the Conservative Party since the end of her premiership in 1990 or her death in 2013, the Conservatives have actually become relentlessly more Thatcherite. This tendency has been especially visible on economic issues, where the party’s default stance has been a continued commitment to the free-market, supply-side economics, the primacy of corporate interests, and veneration of entrepreneurs and business tycoons who are lauded as wealth creators.
This continued commitment to neoliberal economics was evident in the 2012 publication of Britannia Unchained, whose co-authors included Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, and Liz Truss. The book gave the impression that 21st century Britain had not changed one iota since the 1970s, and was therefore over-burdened by high taxation, a bloated and cossetted public sector, and insufficient entrepreneurialism or respect for big business. Britain was, it was implied, still suffering from social democracy. It was alleged that: “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early, and our productivity is poor.”
During the 2022 Conservative leadership contest, Truss declared that British workers needed to practice “more graft” and apply themselves more energetically to their work, as part of a wider change in Britain’s “working culture”. In that contest to succeed Boris Johnson, all the candidates except for Jeremy Hunt strongly emphasised their Thatcherite credentials, and thus offered similar economic policies. Hunt was eliminated in the first round of ballots.
In that contest to succeed Boris Johnson, all the candidates except for Jeremy Hunt strongly emphasised their Thatcherite credentials.
The hegemony of Thatcherite economic liberalism in today’s Conservative Party reflects and reinforces the fact that there are very few genuine One Nation Conservatives left, and those who would still describe themselves as One Nation Tories are rather different to earlier generations personified by such parliamentarians as Rab Butler, Ian Gilmour, Harold Macmillan, Francis Pym and William Whitelaw. The older generation of One Nation Conservatives often reflected an ethos of noblesse oblige, whereby those emanating from privileged backgrounds were inculcated with the principle that those who enjoyed privileges by virtue of birth or inheritance had a moral responsibility and duty of care towards the less fortunate and less well-off. This was often a form of enlightened self-interest, because whilst it represented a compassionate, Christian, or progressive outlook, it was also a means of keeping the working-class pacified, and thereby preventing revolution. This attitude had been enshrined in Benjamin Disraeli’s assertion that “The palace cannot rest if the cottage is not happy.”
Demographic shifts among the political class
The post-1990 Thatcherisation of the Conservative Party reflects both the demographic demise of the older generation of One Nation Conservatives (partly due to the decline of the aristocracy from which many of them originated), and the clear preference of many local constituency parties and grassroots members for candidates from more conventional middle-class backgrounds. Certainly, as Julian Critchley often wryly observed, the rise of Thatcher(ism) reflected the manner in which the Conservative Party itself had become increasingly petit-bourgeois in terms of its cohort of MPs, which in turn made it increasingly narrow and provincial in its outlook. Fewer Conservative MPs today emanate from wealthy families or attend the most prestigious public schools before graduating from Oxbridge. Instead, like Thatcher, many of them now boast lower middle-class family backgrounds and a grammar- or state-school education. Moreover, fewer Conservative MPs than previously are educated at Oxbridge, as a growing number of them now attend other universities.
Like Thatcher herself, the relatively humble socio-educational backgrounds of many Conservative MPs (notwithstanding that Thatcher herself did attend Oxford University) means that they often view any success in adult life as deriving from their own ambition, aspiration, hard work and talent. Crucially, such Conservative MPs tend to view themselves as evidence that Britain is a meritocracy in which almost anyone can achieve success and/or acquire wealth if they are suitably motivated and work hard enough – individualism maximus.
The corollary of this, of course, is that unemployment and poverty are assumed to be a consequence of individual failings, fecklessness and irresponsible lifestyle choices, for which people need to be admonished and exhorted to try harder or learn from their mistakes, not offered compassion or more generous social support; this would merely reward or encourage economic failure and moral degeneracy.
Ultimately, therefore, the Thatcherisation of the post-1990 Conservative Party, both in terms of the entrenchment of neoliberal ideology, and the demographics of its membership, means that the response to almost any economic or social problem is to promote more privatisation, more tax cuts, more supply-side economics, more curbs on trade unions and workers’ rights, more reforms to make public services more business-like, and more cuts in welfare provision.
In effect, contemporary Conservatives refuse to consider whether myriad or mounting problems such as increasing chronic job insecurity, crumbling public services, poverty wages, reliance on foodbanks, and unaffordable housing are a direct consequence of 40 years of neoliberalism (which New Labour did little to challenge or reverse). Instead, the stock Conservative response to such socio-economic problems – and sundry others – is to argue that Thatcherism and neoliberalism have not failed, but either need to be implemented more energetically or enthusiastically, or given more time to “deliver” prosperity and the much-vaunted trickle-down of wealth.
Most Conservatives respond to the cumulative problems accruing from 40 years of Thatcherite neoliberalism by insisting that there needs to be a doubling-down of Thatcherism.
Alternatively, Thatcherite Conservatives will blame problems on non-believers and subversives who are undermining the purity and success of the ideology, among them: civil servants (“the blob”); a bloated public sector; militant trade unions; Left-wing teachers, lecturers and lawyers; a liberal elite promoting an anti-business culture and the politics of envy; the “Woke”; and an endemic dependency culture with welfare benefits still deemed (by those who have never claimed them) to be too generous and easily obtained.
In short, most Conservatives respond to the cumulative problems accruing from 40 years of Thatcherite neoliberalism by insisting that there needs to be a doubling-down of Thatcherism: impose it more rigorously and vigorously and remove the heretics who are deemed to be subverting it. These Conservatives are not prepared to consider whether Thatcherism itself, and the theories or precepts on which it is based, are inherently flawed, or whether Thatcherite policies are themselves now causing or exacerbating economic and social problems in Britain today, even if they might (arguably) have been appropriate or necessary in the 1980s. Pursuing Thatcherism as the solution to the problems of the 2020s is akin to tackling a fire by dousing the flames in petrol.
This blog post draws upon some of the themes addressed in the author’s latest book, A Short History of Thatcherism, published in March 2023 by Agenda.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Image credit: Photo by Number 10, Creative Commons — Attribution 2.0 Generic — CC BY 2.0