The cliché about Margaret Thatcher is that she is like marmite, and that Thatcherism is an intrinsically love it or hate it concept. I’m an odd one out on this one. There are things about Thatcher that I liked, admired even, but a great deal I intensely disliked about her policies and her style of government. Perhaps this is the split-the-middle centrist in me coming to the fore, but I don’t think so. Because I think Thatcher was a fundamentally paradoxical character. And this is what I liked the least about her.
I’ll start with the things I like/admire (and hold tight for a barrage of metaphorical rotten fruit and veg to be foisted my way). Britain was in a real mess in the late 1970’s. The unions had become way too powerful and as a result, nothing could get done. Now, I need to add here that trade unionism has done some good things over the course of its history in this country. I would go as far as to say that unions are probably a necessity in a capitalist society, to act as a counter-balance to big business. But when unions get too powerful, it is just as bad as when big business gets too powerful. Monopolies of power, in too few hands, is always bad. And so it was in 1979, the year Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. There were power shortages, constant strikes, and most of Britain’s nationalised, big industry had become economically moribund and far too unproductive. Something had to be done. And whatever else you can say about her, Thatcher sorted a lot of it out.
But at a very high price, something modern day, Thatcher-worshipping Tories remain unable to comprehend. It was blindingly obviously that shutting a lot of industry down, particularly in parts of the country that were wholly economically reliant on said industry, was going to cause a great deal of unemployment. As has turned out to be the case; long term, generation on generation unemployment. It was as if Thatcher thought that all of the miners were going to turn around and become mobile phone entrepreneurs when the pits closed.
So when the Tories use language like “scroungers v strivers” this alienates the very people they are trying to seduce. Because even the people who have got on with their lives and made a success of themselves in northern towns that used to be dominated by nationalised industry, know that this narrative is patently false. They will have family and friends who weren’t as fortunate as themselves, people who want to get on but the bar is far too high. They know in their bones the role the Tories played in everything. And the Conservative Party trying to pretend their way out of it has only led to them being shut out of what is becoming vast swathes of the country that used to vote for them in spades.
I think there was a time when the Conservatives could have possibly semi-apologised for the downsides of Thatcherism and made it stick. Probably around 2005, when Cameron was first elected leader. He was looking to “detoxify” and he could have said something along the lines of: “Lady Thatcher did many great things as Prime Minister of Great Britain. She in fact saved the country from ruin when it looked on the edge of an economic precipice. But what the Conservative Party have never formally recognised until today is the price that was paid by many communities in this country as a result of this necessary action. I can only say that under a Tory government led by me, this turning of a blind eye to a situation we were part of would come to an end. Not by increasing the welfare bill even more dramatically, but by specifically targeting those areas most affected by the policies of the 1980’s, those on long term benefit who would love to work if only there was work available. We want to get people in what were once, not that long ago, thriving communities working again, and that would be the major focus of my premiership.”
It might have worked, at least a little bit, it might not have. But even if the Tories were willing to concede this ground now, I think it’s probably too late. Too much damage has been done to their reputation. As a result, no matter what vote share they achieve, getting any sort of parliamentary majority feels beyond them. Simply because under First Past the Post, there are too many regions that are out of their reach.
I’ll close with the one thing that always really bothered me most about Lady Thatcher, and that was her being described as a “Gladstonian liberal”. Whenever I hear this, my skin crawls. It supposes that all there was to Gladstone was economic liberalism. It was an important part of what the great man was about, but there was a lot more to him than that. He wouldn’t have just let vast swathes of the country be put out of work without some game plan. Also, Thatcher had that old school reverence towards institutions that was highly unliberal, if not illiberal. She thought the unelected, mostly at that time hereditary House of Lords absolutely necessary, even when it thwarted her. She lauded the upper classes and sort of thought of herself as an honorary member (this affection was not two way, I hasten to add).
In conclusion, Thatcher is a real impediment to the Conservatives getting a majority anytime in the foreseeable future (impediment, not an absolute road block, mind). But the time to do something about it, I think, may have passed. So what do the Tories do? Beats me. Glad it’s not my problem.