Inside Story

Who’s afraid of Margaret Thatcher?

The Iron Lady casts a long shadow, as David Cameron is finding in the lead-up to the next British election, writes Frank Bongiorno in London

Frank Bongiorno 9 April 2012 2124 words

Above: David Cameron visits a new operating theatre at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London earlier this month.
Photo: Andrew Parsons

First published 25 November 2009

ALMOST twenty years after the end of her prime ministership, British politics still revolves to a remarkable extent around the legacy of an elderly widow living in quiet retirement in Belgravia. Tony Blair, as Labour prime minister, attended her eightieth birthday party a few years back; his successor, Gordon Brown, asked her to tea at her old residence soon after assuming office. But in the four years since he became leader of the Conservative Party, it’s David Cameron who has faced the most daunting challenge in dealing with this political inheritance. “There is such a thing as society,” he told last month’s Conservative Party conference, in a none-too-subtle reference to the most notorious statement attributed to Margaret Thatcher. In the 1980s, striking miners referred to her simply as “She.” Cameron didn’t even get that far in his conference speech. But then he didn’t need to.

The message has been hammered home repeatedly. No supporter of public education or the National Health Service has anything to fear from the Conservative Party. Tories now believe in fairness, equality of opportunity, fighting poverty and protecting the environment. The “nasty party” is a thing of the past, having made way for “progressive conservatism.” Don’t be deceived by appearances, such as the Eton and Oxbridge types still in charge: the ever-so-modern Tories have been reborn with a heart of green and gold.

In reality, the Thatcher legacy was never really going to be dealt with so peremptorily, least of all once the boom turned to bust, as it did during 2008. Cameron suddenly faced the problem of explaining how a party that believed in light-touch regulation would deal with the most comprehensive market failure since the 1930s. He also had to explain how his progressive conservatism would fare in an age of austerity. Since there’s almost no limit to the linguistic gymnastics of modern politicians, or to the cheek of an ambitious opposition leader with the sniff of an election triumph in his nostrils, he has made a fair fist of it. Among other things, he claimed that the Tories, as the party of “law and order,” would now bring “law and order” to the financial markets.

If this sounds a little forced, there are also signs of a more general fraying at the edges; so much so that this week’s Observer is announcing the results of an Ipsos MORI poll that shows Conservative support at 37 per cent, just six points ahead of Labour’s 31 per cent. On these figures, an election held this week would produce a hung parliament, with the Liberal Democrats in a position to dictate terms. Labour even won a by-election in Glasgow this month, in contrast with repeated electoral humiliations at by-elections and local government elections over the past couple of years. And while Brown’s personal approval rating remains awful enough, with 34 per cent satisfied and 59 per cent dissatisfied, Cameron has hardly received ringing endorsement: 48 per cent are happy with him, compared with a dissatisfaction rate of 35 per cent. It’s no wonder that political commentators point to the vast gulf between the enthusiasm generated by Tony Blair and New Labour in 1997 and the present circumstances.

There’s no shortage of speculation about why Labour’s fortunes appear to have turned around to the extent that it’s at least back in the hunt. The economy and consumer confidence are showing signs of recovery in the lead-up to Christmas. Unemployment is bad but has not reached the proportions predicted a year ago. A modest revival in the property market and on the stock exchange seems to be under way. And after a disruptive postal strike the mail is moving again, at least for the time being.

There’s also renewed sympathy for Brown after a particularly brutal and ill-judged campaign against him by the Sun newspaper. Having recently announced a switch of allegiance from Labour to Tory, it has been running the implausible line that Brown is disrespectful of the military. Exhibit A for the prosecution was a personal note Brown wrote to a woman who lost her son in Afghanistan. Brown’s handwriting is admittedly poor – possibly the result of blindness in one eye – but the accusation that his note was full of spelling errors held little water and was widely seen as unscrupulous media exploitation of a mother’s grief, as well as grossly unfair to a busy man who had the decency to write a personal note of condolence.

But the continuing uncertainty about next year’s election outcome inevitably returns us to Cameron, the Tories and Thatcher. The Conservatives have already promised a wage freeze of a year for all except the lowest-paid public sector workers. On top of this, Cameron has been delivering speeches on the evils of public debt and “big government.” Labour, he says, has suppressed its “good” radical liberal tradition in favour of its “bad” Fabian one. And he has also drawn parallels between Labour’s record of economic management over the past decade and the crisis of 1976, when the Labour chancellor, Denis Healey, was forced to seek the assistance of the International Monetary Fund to prop up the pound. The implication is presumably that, just as electors turned to Thatcher and the Tories to get them out of that crisis, a Conservative government will be needed to extricate the country from Brown’s mess.

In an emphasis that recalls the 1980s Thatcherite talk of “Victorian values,” Cameron has also spoken of the superiority of voluntary over government action and the virtues of personal and public “thrift.” In other words, it’s really Labour’s over-regulation, profligacy and excessive borrowing that are responsible for the recession; not, it seems, the let-it-rip financial system delivered by the government of you-know-who a quarter of a century ago. Where Cameron does see inadequate regulation, the blame is placed squarely at the feet of Labour, and especially Brown as chancellor. Cameron will fix it all – so he says – by restoring the governor of the Bank of England’s former (proverbial) ability to bring the rest of the financial sector into line with a twitch of the eyebrow. (It presumably helps things along if both twitcher and twitchee went to Eton or Balliol.)

UNSURPRISINGLY, the Labour Party has not allowed Cameron free rein with this kind of nonsense. Ed Miliband, the secretary of state for energy and climate change, has presented the “big government” guff as a reversion to Tory type. Margaret Thatcher, he recalls, used to ask of anyone nominated to admission to her circle: “Is he one of us?” Cameron, said Miliband, has shown “that he would have passed Thatcher’s test” and, in blaming government for poverty and inequality, was trying “to build a reactionary consensus” that would justify massive spending cuts in “a return to the 1980s by the back door.”

So is Cameron reverting to Thatcherite type? Much depends on what one considers “Thatcherite.” In his recent book, Thatcher’s Britain: The Politics and Social Upheaval of the Thatcher Era, Richard Vinen of my own university has undermined the common belief about Thatcher being an ideologically driven destroyer of a postwar consensus. Although committed to the free market, she was also a pragmatic operator and sufficiently flexible in her tactics to distinguish between fights worth having and those to be avoided. She did not come to office with fully developed plans for winding down the economic and social policies of the Keynesian welfare state. Indeed, Vinen suggests that in many respects she was a defender of the postwar consensus against some of the more radical tendencies of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Although the first Thatcher government made severe budgetary cuts, social spending remained high during the 1980s and there were no drastic changes to education or health policy. And in seeking to reverse Britain’s decline as a major power by strengthening the alliance with the United States and developing an independent nuclear deterrent, Thatcher was in line with both the Labour and the Tory governments of the 1940s to the 1970s. Many of the positions associated with Thatcher, such as a willingness to take on Argentina in the Falklands, confront the coal miners, privatise state enterprise and take a sceptical attitude towards Europe, evolved gradually, and were responses to particular historical circumstances and contingencies. Often, says Vinen, her position was shared with those occupying a very different place on the political spectrum.

Cameron himself is cautious in dealing with the Thatcherite legacy, at least if his recent speeches are any indication. At times, usually without alluding directly to Thatcher or the 1980s, he is at pains to emphasise that although his government will be forced to make “incredibly difficult decisions,” it will do so in an un-Thatcherite way. In a speech last January, he said that there’s one way of making tough decisions, “which is brisk, businesslike and no doubt effective – but it can all too easily give rise to anger, hurt and social division.” But there is another way: “It takes a bit more patience, a bit more thought, and a lot of hard work.” On another occasion, he reiterated that his government was not “going to behave like flint-faced turbo charged accountants, slashing and spending without regard to the social consequences.” (Accountants seem to be Tory whipping boys. In the 1970s, Douglas Hurd complained about “stiff-collared accountants” who were rising in the Tory Party.)

“She” does sometimes make a fleeting appearance in Cameron’s speeches. Speaking to a Davos forum earlier this year, he directly endorsed a more palatable aspect of the 1980s legacy – “the ownership revolution led by Margaret Thatcher” – and called for a return to “popular capitalism,” a term borrowed directly from the Thatcherite handbook. This is an evocation of policies promoting the purchase of council houses by their tenants and “mum-and-dad” share ownership in newly privatised industries: that is, “nice” capitalism.

Unfortunately for Cameron, capitalism’s rather more ugly face has often been on show over the last couple of years. Although there has been Tory talk about restraining City bonuses and the like, no one takes any of it too seriously now that the cash and champagne are flowing once again. Cameron and the Tories are caught up in a rather similar contradiction to that which marked Thatcherism from the mid 1980s, after reforms to the financial sector saw the City, long a cosy gentlemen’s club, make a rapid transition from snuff to cocaine, whiskey to tequila sunrise. In the 1980s, there was nothing terribly Victorian about the new breed of merchant bankers and stockbrokers, except possibly its taste in antiques and real estate. And while, like the Thatcherites, he preaches Smilesian thrift and restraint, Cameron has produced no convincing vision of a British economic future except one based heavily on the massive private and public debt that have been a key feature of capitalism since the rise of Thatcher and Reagan.

The talk of thrift, however, sits comfortably enough alongside various other kinds of populist appeal within Cameron’s speeches, such as his complaints about Labour’s Orwellian surveillance society; his promise to devolve power so that local communities can make their own decisions, instead of being bossed by central government; and a recently announced policy, in the wake of the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, to return to Britain control over various matters previously ceded to the European Union. It’s normal for people to feel alienated by bureaucracy, so it’s hardly surprising that Cameron should seek to weave a rhetoric around these kinds of themes when faced with a long-serving centre-left government. The EU policy is also a sop to the Eurosceptics in his party who have rather warmer feelings towards the Thatcherite legacy – or at least the anti-European part of it – than Cameron. The danger for him will be if electors begin to ask whether, in making such concessions to the right, and by targeting “big government,” the Conservatives mean that they are going to sack public employees and make deep and divisive cuts in social spending.

You know. Like “She” did. •