Is Thatcherism dead?

Daniel Cowdrill

It took a severe financial crisis to do it, but ‘Thatcherism’ is losing its grip on the nation’s body politic. 

If this financial crisis is as bad as the experts suggest, then future histories of Thatcherism may date the Conservative ideology from approximately 1964 to 2008.

From the failure of Alec Douglas-Home in 1964 to the triumph of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, Thatcherism was on the ascendency. From 1979 to 1990 it was on the offensive. From 1990 to 2008 it became the consensus. And thereafter it was forced onto the defensive.

Plunging share prices, Nationalisation, contracting world trade, rising unemployment, collective guilt and moral outrage, are pushing Thatcherism back. ‘Property Ownership’, privatization, market deregulation and the credit boom, all look a bit inappropriate these days, maybe even culpable. 

This may be overly dramatic. The damage done to the Thatcherite edifice is yet to be surveyed. However, if we assume the worst where does it leave the Conservative Party?

Broadly speaking, I agree with the view that British Conservatism possesses four possible reflexes. For any political geeks reading, it might be fun for you to pick which Tory reflex or combination of reflexes you might employ if you were David Cameron…

There are three ‘defensive’ reflexes: 1) Resist, 2) Take a timely concession to avoid more extreme measures, 3) Adopt the opposition’s policies on the basis that you can implement them better.

There is also one ‘offensive’ option: To devise an entirely new scheme of ideas to force the opposition back on the defensive. 

My own conclusion is this.  The offensive option of ‘devising an entirely new scheme of ideas’ is impossible. This takes intellectual articulation and public support, and at the moment both are moving against us. Alternatively, to ‘Resist’ looks like snipping from the side-lines and risks emphasising the fact that the government are at least doing something. To ‘adopt the opposition’s policies on the basis that we can implement them better’ is more plausible. However, to give ‘timely concessions’ may in turn give us the political influence to moderate government policy. An example of these might be Cameron’s proposal to temporarily support struggling businesses.

Either-way, we should be prepared for defensive politics. No longer are the voters ‘all Thatcherites now’.

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6 thoughts on “Is Thatcherism dead?

  1. Is an offensive strategy really all that difficult though? I’ve not seen the polls in the last few days, but when they last appeared on this site, they seemed in favor of this party, and despite Gordon Brown’s achievements recently (and I’m viewing them from the opposite side of the Atlantic to you, so they might look different via the British press) I didn’t think our parties prospects would be harmed that badly.

    But with all the think-tanks, all the momentum Thatcheristic notions infused the Blair government with, all the youthful drive of the CF movement at the parties disposal; not to mention all the money which flowed into it recently (prior to the financial slowdown) – we have what we need to move forward offensively. I’ve just been reading Clausewitz, so I’m thinking in very militaristic terms right now. But – back to my point – we seem to have the popular support, the manpower, the means, and the intellectual power all moving in our favour: is it so very difficult to conceive of us using that to generate, as Blair did way back then, a new intellectual basis which would put us on a more sure footing. I don’t believe Blair or his faction in the party was exactly a very strong one when he got it going, and yet his ‘New Labour’ came through very strongly given time, and he didn’t have to start from scratch either; he was somewhat able to blend old Labour and Thatcher well. I’m not suggesting starting from scratch of course either.

    Our ideology is by no means dead. In fact it will take our mindset to take this country forward for I doubt Labour will come through succesfully in the next election, so therefore wouldn’t it be far better to be on the offensive rather than the defensive, even if, as part of that offensive manouvering, we have to accept the support of private institutions by the state until the markets are more stable. Then privatise said institutions under Cameron’s watch.

  2. I suppose it all depends on the damage done to public support for the market economy. This is yet to be assessed.

    However, as things are, David Cameron has made concessions. He has supported without much dispute the nationalisation of Northern Rock, Bradford and Bingley, and HBOS, in addition to the part state ownership of Lloyds Bank and the Royal Bank of Scotland. The Conservatives, despite any popular support they may have, could not successfully have opposed these measures.

    Hopefully these can be reversed, but certainly not in any foreseeable future. Furthermore, the further the economy falls into recession and the higher unemployment rises, the more political parties will come under pressure to intervene in the market.

    Having said all this, it could actually work the other way, as you articulate.

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