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University 18 Yrs + | Political Thinkers



Margaret Thatcher is one of the only British Prime Ministers to have an –ism attached to her name.  

It is difficult for politicians, especially Prime Ministers, to demonstrate a coherent ideology as they constantly have to react to pressure from their party, the MPs that make up their Parliamentary majority, their Cabinet colleagues, the media, challenges from the Opposition parties, public opinion and, of course, events. 

They also change their policies over time as they learn from events and Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister for 11 years. Peter Riddell sees her ideas as an instinct rather than an ideology. 

Nevertheless the Thatcher Governments marked a major shift in British politics to produce a State that was smaller and did less, though in some ways more centralised, while the market was accorded a much more important role in the provision of services and the promotion of entrepreneurship was seen as a major role for Government. 

Thatcher’s success was in combining these radical changes with a fairly traditional foreign and defence policy and the championing of conservative social values to create a winning electoral coalition. 


Interpretations of Thatcherism

There was considerable debate in the 1980s about the nature of Thatcherism among political scientists. There has been little discussion recently but political historians are now beginning to look at the Conservative Governments in the broader context of the post-war period to ask whether there really was such a radical departure in policy (see Peter Kerr Post-war Politics: From Conflict to Consensus, 2001 for the continuity view and Richard Heffernan  New Labour and Thatcherism: Political Change in Britain, 2001 for the other view).

The Debates

The debate among political scientists produced a range of views:-

  • For writers on the left such as Stuart Hall and Bob Jessop Thatcherism is a local response to a global economic crisis that threatened welfare capitalism.  The State had to intervene in order to re-orientate the British economy towards global markets, reduce the power of labour as against capital and change institutions such as the trade unions, the City of London and local government, to prevent any impediment to this re-orientation.  The Labour Government between 1974-9 was starting to reduce public expenditure and abandon Keynesianism and similar changes to that in Britain were made in other countries.  Their view is not just simply economically determinist though and Hall discusses the creation by Mrs Thatcher of a highly successful  ‘authoritarian populism’ which she was able to combine with advocacy of the free market. Andrew Gamble is also a key writer in this tradition (The Free Economy and the Strong State: The Politics of Thatcherism, 1988)
  • The other debate is about whether Mrs Thatcher was really a Conservative or was returning to the free market principles of 19th century liberalism.  The Conservative Party absorbed some of these principles in the late 19th century but they were always balanced against traditional Conservative One Nation ideas of pragmatism, so that policies changed only slowly and interests in society were reconciled, of community and of the importance in having intermediate institutions such as local government, the Church, the voluntary sector and the professions that would act as a check on central government and an alternative to the market.
  • Denis Kavanagh (Thatcherism and British Politics: The End of Consensus?, 1990) makes the case for a new ideology which departs from the post-war consensus policies and Ian Gilmour, one of the ‘Wet’ ministers sacked by Mrs Thatcher, compares Thatcherism unfavourably with traditional Conservatism (Dancing with Dogma, 1992). Other writers see Mrs Thatcher as essentially creating a new synthesis between free market ideas and traditional strong state/nationalist ideas to meet the changing political context, just as Conservative Party leaders have always done. Jim Bulpitt, for example, rejects the idea of Thatcherism as a new ideology and concentrates on Mrs Thatcher’s ‘Statecraft’. The success of the Conservative Party in the 20th century has been in finding a formula for winning power, keeping party unity and maintaining the autonomy of central government within a unitary state. Mrs Thatcher was particularly successful at this (Political Studies Vol. 34 No 1, 1986)

(For fans of the interpretivist approach to political science Mark Bevir and Rod Rhodes have a useful article on how the different British ‘traditions’ see Thatcherism (West European Politics  Vol. 21 No 1, 1998)

There is obviously a huge debate about whether, as the authors of 1066 and All That would have put it, Mrs Thatcher was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, which we have not touched on here, although the interpretations of Thatcherism do, of course, have underlying values. Andrew Gamble, though, has a good article on whether the Thatcher Governments’ economic policies worked in their own terms (Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 43 No 3, 1989).  The Margaret Thatcher Foundation has a huge amount of material that gives a detailed insight into the views of Mrs Thatcher and the key people around her    

The End of Consensus

Radical change develops as a reaction to some existing situation that is causing problems. There were two aspects that Thatcherism and what have been called New Right ideas reacted against:-

1. The period from 1945 to the 1970s was one of considerable political agreement. The sharing of power by the parties during the war and the Conservatives’ acceptance of the main elements of the programme that the post-war Labour Government had carried out, after its landslide victory, led to a broad consensus around a number of areas:-

  • After Labour had nationalised a few basic industries the boundary between the public and the private sector was only changed in a few industries, such as steel and road transport
  • Keynesian economic management was adopted to prevent unemployment and manage excess demand by deflating and inflating the economy as necessary.  This was accompanied by a policy of Government help to the regions that had seen high unemployment in the 1930s
  •  A constructive relationship was developed with the trade unions to consult them on issues that affected them and Government intervened when needed to help settle industrial disputes
  • A welfare state, including a National Health Service and a local authority house building programme, was supported which was mostly universal but with a few means tested elements
  • A decolonisation programme, the Atlantic Alliance, an independent nuclear deterrent and (from the 1960s) participation in Europe were broadly agreed by the leadership of both parties

All this was in the context of Britain’s relative imperial and economic decline and Government managed the crises that this change created from time to time.  

Mrs Thatcher’s adversarial nature revolted against the idea of consensus and she called it,

 “The process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead”. 

2. By the 1970s, problems were occurring that centrist politicians in the two parties were finding intractable.

  • The rise in oil prices in 1973 sent a shock through the western economies.  Inflation in Britain rose to a peak of over 25% in 1975 while unemployment also rose. Keynesian economic management did not have a prescription for simultaneous inflation and unemployment. The Labour Government began to abandon Keynesianism and instituted public expenditure cuts and a prices and incomes policy
  •  The Wilson Government of 1966-70 and the Heath Government of 1970-4 had both failed to carry through reform of the trade unions and the miners’ strike of 1973-4 had contributed to the end of the Heath Government. The Labour Government’s incomes policy began to collapse in the winter of 1978-9 with major strikes in the public sector
  •  The view developed that Britain was facing a crisis of ungovernability. As well as the  problems with the trade unions, consensus politics had allowed interest groups to influence government with the result that public expenditure increased to meet their various demands
  • The idea of welfare dependency developed as a critique of the universal Welfare State
  • International free trade policies had increased the interrelationship between the world’s economies to help produce the process that we now know as globalisation, leading to new challenges for the British economy
  • Manufacturing industry was collapsing in the inner areas of main cities leading to a new inner city problem

On the left, the new situation was seen as a crisis of welfare capitalism and the reaction, within the Labour Party, was to demand an Alternative Economic Strategy and a more socialist direction for a future Labour Government. On the right a set of ideas about a smaller state and changes in economic policy coalesced into the intellectual movement that has been called The New Right.

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