The success of Thatcher was ultimately due to the lack of a real alternative
The passing of Margaret Thatcher was announced to this author via a simple text message, it contained only two words, ‘rejoice rejoice’. Its tone appeared to encapsulate one side of a debate which has exercised British political life for over three decades, the person and policies of Margaret Thatcher.
The jubilant crowds who congregated in numerous towns and cities on hearing of Thatcher’s death bears witness to the continued animosity directed towards her by those on the political left. Whilst the hagiography of the ‘Iron Lady’ by her supporters on the right exemplifies an almost North Korean level of enforced conformity in mourning the passing of their own ‘Great Leader’.
In seeking to examine further the legacy of Thatcher, beyond the banal notion of a ‘divided legacy’, this author suggests that questions concerning the direction of the plural left in post-Thatcherite Britain necessitate addressing, and that her passing exercises the ghosts of the left’s own conflicts in the 1970s and 1980s and highlights their failure to adopt radical policies and advocate an alternative course.
To better understand Thatcher’s ‘appeal’ one must not only examine her attractions, but also the alternatives as offered by the mainstream left, in particular the British Labour Party, in the 1970s and 980s. In so doing one is therefore left concluding that Thatcher was perceived, erroneously, by many as the least worst option given the apparent failure of post war consensual politics.
It should be acknowledged that Thatcherism was not a unique brand of neo-liberalism embodied in the person of Margaret Thatcher, rather it was a movement which from its genesis in the Selsdon Group in 1970, sought to challenge the primacy of the Labour Party to working class votes. Such neo-liberalism also questioned the status quo of organised capital and organised labour as established by the post war Labour Government of Clement Atlee and maintained by his successor premiers. In the person of Thatcher this balance was seemingly tipped forever in capital’s favour and the existing divisions within the British working class were further fractured, possibly irreparably. In identifying and emphasising the distinction between the ‘workers and the strikers’, Thatcher appealed to the instincts and newly awakened post ’68 material aspirations of those who, like her and a number of her cabinet, wanted to ‘get on’ and escape their backgrounds, whilst simultaneously pulling the ladder up from behind them.
The resulting division into rich and poor, ‘the haves and have nots’ and between the North and South are in reality crude generalisations which fail to appreciate the adroit subtleties of an intoxicating brew of radical liberalism, flag waving patriotism, non-conformist values and a uniquely British sense of one-upmanship and envy. The success of this movement was predicated upon a direct appeal to individuals’ baser instincts, couched in the saccharine terms of freedom and liberalism, but ultimately condensed to the ‘pound in your pocket’ of material wealth and financial ambition. ‘Maggie the magician’ supposedly created wealth were there was none, and in paraphrasing St Francis she apparently gave hope where none previously existed. In later echoing Ronald Reagan’s ‘Sunny Uplands’ optimism in which the values of hard work alone were sufficient to achieve ‘success’, her mantra of self reliance and individual effort was confirmed as a new political credo.
Thatcher’s appeal is often dismissed as an attraction to only a tiny minority, the home owning right-to-buyers, share-holding, Sun-newspaper-reading-Essex boys. This is a lazy stereotype, propagated by metropolitan liberals who seek to emphasise the vulgarity and lack of ‘class’ in which such contemptible composites are rightly vilified , but this myopic analysis fails to grasp the asinine political theatre which Thatcher oversaw. Predicated on asset stripping the nation writ large, (or ‘selling the family silver’ as even her Tory predecessor Harold McMillan observed), Thatcher appealed to the aspirational social climbers, those members of the ‘self reliant’ lower middle class whose individualistic outlook necessitated neither trade unions, ‘society’ nor the ‘interference’ of the state; ‘I’m all right Jack’ indeed.
Thatcher’s success in social engineering was such that a swathe of the ‘working class’ recalibrated their subjective status, identifying themselves as ‘middle class’. These new Tory voters had moved not only physically, utilising their right to buy options, but also politically and socially. This triumphant ‘land grab’ of traditional Labour territory, in conjunction with the impact of her policies, may explain the continued resentment of Thatcher among the left, and demands a degree of introspection as to how and why the left failed to appeal to its former supporters. Was it, as is often described the case, that the people shifted right, whilst the Labour party remained in stasis? Did the emergence of the SDP and Alliance in the elections of 1983 and 1987 divide Labour’s supporters? Was Thatcher invulnerable and could the left have acted in the early eighties? Or was the failure of the Labour Party, as Ralph Miliband had foreseen, inevitable?
The Slow Death of Old Labour
Significantly, Thatcher’s policies destroyed not only the Communities of those who were previously employed in those industries which ceased to operate, the mines, mills, shipyards and factories but also the institutional socialist values epitomised by ‘Old’ Labour. Such values became as politically ‘unviable’ as did the exhausted national industries. The emergence of Roy Jenkins’ SDP was a right leaning reaction to such an anathema within the Labour Party. Though ultimately doomed to failure, the SDP, like Thatcher, sought to shift political debate away from the left. In changing individuals’ self perspective, Thatcher and to a lesser extent Jenkins, ensured the victory of the ‘working class Tory’, or ‘class traitor’, against the conservative (emphasis on the small c) Socialist doctrine of the Labour Party which was predicated upon the largesse of a benevolent state and orthodoxy of organised labour.
The economic decline which Britain experienced in the late 1960s and 70s was not unique, the oil crisis of 1975 saw the end of ‘Les Trente Glorieuses’ in France and most of the rest of Western World; however Britain’s malaise appeared particularly acute and unusually self-inflicted. In recent weeks commentators have pored over the stock footage of striking workers and the winter of discontent as though this industrial unrest alone necessitated the emergence of Thatcher, Messiah like, to ‘Save Britain’, the alleged ‘sick man of Europe’. The fact remains that the post war consensus had long since reached its zenith and that macroeconomic forces had demonstrated that Britain was simply no longer the industrial power it once was. Change may have been inevitable, though importantly the direction of change was not. Thatcher and Thatcherism were not ‘predestined’ or divinely ‘pre-ordained’ as some sycophantic acolytes have recently posited, rather she was considered an experiment even within the ranks of her own Conservative Party.
Thatcher’s position was doubtful and her political ambitions hamstrung during her first term, that she was not ousted during this period of initial vulnerability goes to highlight the failure of the Labour Party and the Trade Union movement to oppose her effectively. As Miliband had observed some thirty years previously, the Labour Party, whose self obsession with the notions ‘reason’ and ‘respectability’ in the face of ‘disruptive’ strike action, strived only to maintain the dogma of ‘parliamentarism’, thereby ensuring that they would not countenance any opposition to Thatcher beyond that of Her Majesty’s Government’s Loyal Opposition. Thatcher knew this; she also knew, and would ultimately be proven right, that the real threat to her political life lay within her own Conservative Party.
If not Thatcher, then what else?
The tragedy of the 1970s and 80s is that the inevitability of change was not impressed upon the Leaders of the Labour Party, who failed to appreciate the realities of post ’68 Britain, in which both organised capital and organised labour had deemed to have failed. Perhaps most emblematic of this lack of radicalism within the Labour Party is Barbara Castle’s innovative Trade Union reforms, In Place of Strife, proposed in 1969 when Castle was the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity. These reforms were rejected by the craven James Callaghan, the then Home Secretary, who surrendered in the face of the then Trade Union Leaders’ opposition and thus triggered an internal split within the Labour Party which would ultimately prove fateful. Whilst the Grunwick dispute, (1976–1978), heralded the beginning of the end for organised labour, especially the TUC, as an effective counterweight to the emerging neo-liberals who would form Thatcher’s Government.
Seemingly Labour appeared to promise little other than more of the same. Thatcher promised change and a sense of unity and common purpose. She appealed directly to the Nixonian ‘silent majority’ of the lower middle class, and following the 1983 election her ascendancy was unchecked.
The success of Thatcher was ultimately due to the lack of a real alternative, and this sadly remained the case in the decade following 1979 when the Labour Party and broader political left, including the SDP, engaged in a series of internecine conflicts, based in many cases on doctrinal niceties which were incomprehensible to the ordinary voter. The left had lost the 1970s and now appeared to be committing political suicide in the 80s. Labour’s shambolic electoral campaign of 1983 and latterly Labour Leader Neil Kinnock’s warm embrace of elements of Thatcher’s policies highlighted the institutional left’s lack of vision, coherence or consistency.
Could it have been any different? Was the left ‘destined to fail’? One would argue not. European Socialists, in particular the then French President François Mitterrand adopted a Keynesian dirigisme which demonstrated a plausible alternative to Monetarism, but which was mocked as little more than ‘French Exceptionalism’ or ‘French Communism’. Ultimately though, the failure to address the critiques of Miliband, Williams et al. a generation before had left the Labour Party and organised labour intellectually bankrupt, and unelectable, despite all their efforts to appear ‘credible’. This lack of conviction by the British left, as embodied in the Labour Party, ultimately culminated in New Labour and the heir to Thatcherism, Blairite philosophy, a legacy which itself continues to divide.
Should the plural left now take the passing of Thatcher as an opportunity to undertake some considerable self introspection and to then advocate for a genuine, radical alternative for a post-Thatcher Britain? Perhaps then we would all have genuine cause for rejoicing.
Dewi Williams is Senior Lecturer in Law at Staffordshire University.