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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