As in personal life, so in political life: legacies are tricky things. If failure is an orphan bastard, then success always has a multitude of claimants to be both antecedents and descendants, and never is this seen in such sharp relief as on the passing of a great political leader. This past week, even before Margaret Thatcher’s funeral has taken place, the claimants to her political legacy have been as vociferous in voice as they have been disparate in political outlook. In political terms, then, who are Thatcher’s children?
The Conservative “moderniser” Cameroons have no doubt: in their minds, it is themselves. And as The Spectator’s political editor, James Forsyth, pointed out earlier this week, in three areas, that assumption isn’t without some foundation:
It is more than a coincidence that three of the most Thatcherite things that this coalition government is doing are being pushed through by the three most prominent modernisers. Michael Gove is reforming education in the way that Thatcher’s mentor Sir Keith Joseph would have liked to have done. Francis Maude, who served under her as a minister, is pursuing thrift and efficiency across government from his perch at the Cabinet Office. And Nick Boles, as planning minister, is trying to enact structural changes to the planning system which will ensure that Britain remains a property-owning democracy. These agendas are all characterised by a very Thatcherite impatience with the established order and a willingness to challenge entrenched interests.
Forsyth’s observation, while basically accurate (though considerably less so in the case of Maude – public spending continues its inexorable rise, and whatever happened to the promised bonfire of quangos and left-leaning sock-puppet “charities”?), is perhaps more noticeable for its omission of the two principal manifestations of the Cameroon “modernisation” project – George Osborne, and David Cameron himself. As Forsyth goes on to point out, their personal privileged hinterland, and innate pre-occupation with political expediency rather than conviction and principle, make them unconvincing claimants to the legacy of someone who challenged the prevailing orthodoxy. To use just fiscal policy as an example, their proposal to run budget deficits of £120bn for the next three fiscal years, adding £600bn to the existing burden of debt and taking the UK’s public debt/GDP ratio to 90%, would rightly have received withering dismissal from the disciple of Hayek and Friedman.
There’s a further dimension. Thatcher’s most insidious detractors in the Conservative Party of the 1980s were the High-Tory establishment grandees of which Heseltine remains perhaps the most egregious example: the One Nation paternalists successful because they were born among the silver spoons rather than the aspirational classical-liberals successful despite being born among the wooden spoons: the 1980s equivalents of the 1950s Men Who Know Better and who resented what they saw as an arriviste, even Poujadiste, interloper. There has been some fine writing this week about the lofty disdain in which Thatcher was held by the left-liberal intellectual elite, so inclined then, even as now, to portray its bleeding heart on its fashionable Hampstead or Islington sleeve and embrace welfare socialism as the acceptable means of concealing class-snobbery towards the ambitious lower orders under a cloak of caring altruism. Thatcher’s High-Tory paternalist grandee opponents always appeared to be more comfortable in political philosophy with the latter than they did with their more robustly Thatcherite nominal colleagues.
But Cameron and Osborne, and the more assiduous of their “modernising” project, are more the descendants of the High-Tories than they are of the classical-liberals. It can be seen in the focus on social policy reflecting the attitudinal concerns of the modish left-liberal metropolitan milieu among which they largely move, rather than the economic concerns of the strivers in Britain’s suburbs, market towns and struggling once-industrial cities: in the acceptance of an intrusive state spending 40+% of GDP rather than getting off the backs of the people: in an indifference to the way in which fiscal drag pulls ordinary-salaried families into the 40% tax band. As Fraser Nelson has remarked this morning: “Cameron’s idea of diversity is a greater variety of posh Londoners”. Thatcherite legacy that ain’t.
So who, then are, politically, Thatcher’s children?
Earlier this week, there appeared in my Twitter timeline one of the most powerful, and moving, eulogies to Thatcher that I saw from among the many populating the ether and the prints. It bears reproducing verbatim for the eloquence of its emotion and recognition:
I remember 1976: 6 of us in a rented 2-bed flat, my dad worked in the chippy beneath. 1986: the 6 of us in our own 3-bed ex-council house, and my dad owned the chippy. Thank you Margaret Thatcher.
That, for me, encapsulated the essence of Thatcherism, possibly more even than her resolution in defence and foreign policy and her determination to arrest and reverse Britain’s descent into the fiscal and macro-economic abyss – the instinctive capacity to know, and liberate, the suppressed desire of ordinary working people to better themselves through their own efforts rather than through state largesse: to acquire their own stake in society: to have the opportunity to pass something on to their children: the C1 and C2 voters that Thatcher so brilliantly captured and her successors so incompetently abandoned.
And it’s the Parliamentary equivalents of the writer of that message who can justifiably claim the mantle of true inheritors of the Thatcherite legacy: people like Priti Patel, the daughter of proudly independent hard-working immigrant parents: like Sajid Javid, who, when on the Commons front bench, looks as though he wants to tear into Ed Balls not to further party strategy but because he knows personally the malign effects of Balls’ flawed policy prescriptions: like Philip Davies, who came to the House of Commons from Doncaster via Asda, instead of the seamless transfer from Home Counties to Notting Hill: like Steve Baker, too isolated a voice for fiscal and monetary rectitude through knowledge of the damage wreaked on ordinary people by taxes and inflation.
These, then, are Thatcher’s children: and electoral success (note to Cameroons: coalition with the LibDems is not “electoral success”) will, for the Conservatives, remain elusive until the ideas and instincts of Thatcher’s children stop being left to languish on the back benches. Because only from among their number will come the leader who captures once again the votes that represent the hopes and dreams of the author of that brief message which so gratefully articulated the contrast between their situation in 1976 and 1986.
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