Why everybody in politics is still terrified of the Iron Lady
It is a joke as old as funerals, but there will have undoubtedly been some people who went to London yesterday just to make sure Thatcher was actually dead. This paper has already discussed why Thatcher, during her time in office, why so derided by the Left. Two stand out pieces can be found here and here.
But there’s another aspect to Thatcherism which is just as deserving of attention, arguable more so. Why does she hold such a grip over the collective consciousness of British politics? Long after she left office, and even after death, Margaret Thatcher stalks us, but in very different ways.
It’s not difficult to see why the Far Left and trade union types have a chip on their shoulder about Thatcher. At the end of the 1970’s unions straddled the country like a colossus. They could topple governments and bring the country to its knees on a whim. But they mistook this power for popularity. After all, Thatcher couldn’t have castrated the union movement without the tacit approval of the British public. It must be galling for the Left, who claim to represent ‘the workers’, that their nemesis was elected no less that three times. In fact, Thatcher got more votes in her final election victory than she did in her first. By comparison, Blair lost four million votes.
Thatcher haunts the Hard Left because her name is a reminder that their ideology has gone the way of fascism and horse drawn carriages. Socialism has been so thoroughly and utterly discredited as a political force in Britain, that it clings on only in cosseted academia. This is not entirely down to Thatcher, of course; the Hard Left need little help in alienating people from their course. But Thatcher will be the name ever synonymous with breaking militant unionism and political socialism in Britain.
It would be tempting to lump the modern Labour Party into the previous paragraph. But today’s Labour has its own reasons to shudder to wince at the name of Thatcher. Indeed, New labour itself could be argued to have been a creation of Thatcher. The late Baroness alluded to such recently; when asked what her proudest achievement was, Thatcher is said to have smiled and said “Tony Blair”. The reason for this is that Thatcherism caused a seismic shift in Britain’s political landscape. Ever since, the centre ground has been further to the right than at any time since the Second World War. Market forces are generally accepted as an inevitable part of life. Euroscepticism has become the default British mood. Trade unionism is a shell of what it was, and most people are content to let it stay that way.
This causes more tension in the Labour Party than many would care to admit. The Blair-Brown rivalry was simply the manifestation of a contest between those who’d accepted that Thatcher had won and wanted to bring Labour values into this brave new world, and those who clung to the notion that if Labour only stuck to the old ways, the public would eventually come around. This is still in evidence today. The Parliamentary Labour Party often seems more embarrassed than emboldened by their association with the unions. Private Finance Initiatives and the financial crash are labour legacies, legacies brought about because New Labour remained true to the deregulatory, small state spirit of Thatcherism.
But before Tory readers start cackling too much, it’s worth remembering that the Conservatives have more than their fair share of nightmares about Thatcher. People often associate John Major with splits in the Tory Party. But it’s worth remembering that although today Thatcher is a byword for the Conservative Party, Thatcherism was an apparition, a blip in traditional conservatism. The Tories were all too keen to sign up to the post war consensus; a consensus of state ownership of railways and industry, of rigid financial markets, of mass organised labour holding governments to ransom, of Managed Decline. Thatcher was a cold blast to many in the Tory Party, and not always welcome one. The tired, complacent, comfortable One Nation types recoiled at her belligerence. How dare she try to change things? This is just things are done.
Thatcher terrifies the Tories precisely because they both love and hate her. The Thatcherite elements of the Party, most notably among the grassroots, still adore the Iron Lady, which is why they find UKIP so tempting. They see in UKIP an Ersatz Tory Party, with none of this hand wringing nonsense of the Cameroons and the new generation of wets. Then there’s the Parliamentary Party, who bend over backwards not to be associated with Thatcherism and the nasty, callous, money obsessed 1980’s caricature. For them, it is precisely because Thatcher is such a towering figure that they have to try doubly hard to be everything she was not.
Love her or loath her; we’ll be living in her shadow for a long time to come.