Thatcherism

Gordon Brown

  • Thatcherism edited by Robert Skidelsky
    Chatto, 214 pp, £18.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3342 2
  • The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left by Stuart Hall
    Verso, 283 pp, £24.95, December 1988, ISBN 0 86091 199 3

When Thatcherism becomes a ‘wasm’, everyone will wonder what all the fuss was about. Abroad, the term means nothing, although there are probably one or two European politicians who think it has something to do with being rude to foreigners at conferences. True, in some other countries, but not in Germany or Japan, or not for long, New Right ideology has been translated into policy: but no one calls it Thatcherism.

Perhaps there is little logic in how politicians are singled out for the honour of a personal ‘ism’. Churchill got by without one, and on all the evidence would have been deeply embarrassed had one been accorded. Attlee, another mighty achiever in government, also went happily without. Across the Channel, de Gaulle had one but so, it is salutary to recall, did Poujade and, in an earlier era, Boulanger.

Nevertheless, for the moment, we have Thatcherism, seen variously by admirers and by the less convinced in terms of both style and ideology. Mrs Thatcher’s personal style is a subject on which detached views are unusual, but a broad description is possible: naturally combative, dominance-orientated, rejecting compromise on principle, practising conviction politics with missionary zeal at governess pitch. For Peter Riddell, writing elsewhere, Thatcherism is ‘essentially an instinct, a sense of moral values and an approach to leadership rather than an ideology, an expression of Mrs Thatcher’s upbringing in Grantham, her background of hard work and family responsibility, ambition and postponed satisfaction, duty and patriotism.’

It is on this aspect that Anthony King and Ivor Crewe concentrate in the Skidelsky collection. Margaret Roberts moved from her Anglo-Poujadist origins via Oxford, the lab and the bar to eventual leadership and Gaullist ambitions, more honoured in rhetoric than in achievement. The grocer’s daughter hectors for national regeneration with less success than the maverick, visionary soldier. But the style is unmistakable. For Ivor Crewe, hers is a ‘warrior style’. It is, says Anthony King, rule by fear.

The ideology is eclectic and uneven, much of it of questionable depth. What, for instance, did the Prime Minister know of Victorian Values before she claimed them for herself and her blessed nation? Was she thinking of the 19th century’s worthy achievements in publicly-funded infrastructure, or of its appalling urban destitution, or its schizoid sexual morality, or just the improving works of Samuel Smiles? We may never know, but there is more than a suspicion that the distinctly unpolymathic chemist/lawyer/housewife was just embroidering on a few simplistic items of Grantham family folklore.

No matter that the nation relearns morality from such dubious sources. Other more dangerous notions, in the sphere of economics and social policy, are on the loose. Elsewhere, William Keegan has dismissed the Thatcher years as ‘a rather naive experiment in social engineering’. The roots of the experiment are broadly Poujadist: petty-bourgeois resentment of big government and organised labour; sado-sentimental attachment to the concept of the strong state; a naive yearning for the simplicities of an Arcadian marketplace unspoiled even by the sinister insights of the historical Adam Smith. The appeal is broad but superficial: Thatcherism is designed for an older, simpler world that never actually existed.

Meanwhile, late 20th-century Britain digests the economic consequences: the impact of a distinctive set of policies pursued by the Conservative Party under Mrs Thatcher. Monetarist goals were adopted, though later attenuated and transmogrified. Interest rates and exchange rates were to be left to the market, but quickly became a focus for government intervention. There was a commitment to reduce public spending, though that, too, has proved difficult. The labour market has been transformed, more by mass unemployment than by legislation on the unions. Personal rates of taxation have been reduced, at a price more obvious now than in the glad springtime of Mr Lawson but the overall tax burden has increased.

Stuart Hall diagnoses a kind of authoritarian populism that will allow or encourage the dismantling of the welfare state, and, following upon further assaults on the unions, a British Thatcherite way forward for industry, based on flexible specialisation in production and on more individualisation of consumption. His is the nightmare of ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, which had started in the Seventies when corporatism was found wanting and a more open society gave way to moral ‘panics’ around race, law and order and permissiveness. Writing in the Skidelsky collection, Kenneth Minogue sees Thatcherism as a particular style of politics conforming to Britain’s needs as a country beset with institutional sclerosis. Thatcherism is, says Hall, ‘a novel and exceptional political force’. Its novelty lies in ‘the success with which populist appeal was then orchestrated with the imposition of authority and order. It managed to marry the gospel of free market liberalism with organic patriotic Toryism. Free market, strong state, iron times, and authoritarian populism.’

So what does it all add up to? The Conservative hegemony does not spring from any huge growth in the Conservative vote. A divided opposition has granted it by default. There has arisen no new social base for the Conservative Party, although among working-class voters there has occurred a slight shift to the right. Most of all, as Ivor Crewe concludes, there has been no ideological sea-change, no enduring transformation of national attitudes of the kind sought and claimed by the present Tory Party. That is what the Skidelsky book brings out. Support for the NHS is undiminished, as it is for the collective provision of education at all levels. Tax-cutting is a Chancellor’s conjuring-trick, not the first and only priority of the electorate, who have a preference for maintaining the decencies of the welfare state. Ivor Crewe’s chapter tells us that the NHS and the welfare state generally enjoy more support now than they did even in the Seventies. True, inefficiencies in the public sector are tolerated less willingly by voters. But overall it is the general philosophy of the Labour Party – greater fairness, neighbourliness, an economy run in a broadly-defined public interest – that is more in tune with that of the electorate. The truth is that Mrs Thatcher holds power in spite of Thatcherism and not because of it.

And have the uncertainties and iniquities of Thatcherism been justified by the attainment of an economic miracle? Certainly one has been claimed. Stuart Hall and various contributors in the Skidelsky collection examine the proposition, and offer some criteria by which it might be judged. Unemployment, of course, has gone up, not down. Disparities between the regional components of the economy have grown. We are manufacturing only a little more than in 1979 and investment today is little higher than it was then. International comparisons are grim. In Japan manufacturing production increased over the same period by 38 per cent, in the USA by 25 per cent, in Italy by more than 15 per cent. Britain has managed only a 6 per cent increase. Details on productive investment are just as discouraging. The result is that we have produced less than most of our major competitors, exported less, and grown more slowly. In these ten years we are top of the league only for our capacity to import and to create the worst balance of payments deficit in our history.

But these are details in comparison to the main economic event in Britain under Thatcher: namely, what happened to the oil money. The North Sea gave us £120 billion, £70 billion in oil revenues – and most of that has been squandered, with nothing to show for it when the oil runs out. In a candid moment, Cecil Parkinson, the Energy Secretary, admitted that most of it has gone on paying the bills of unemployment. The Eighties under Thatcher are the decade, not of the economic miracle, but of the great missed opportunity. For all their talk of resolution and of facing up to the real issues, the Tories have failed to address the fundamental economic problem.

For years now we have invested too little in our future and have fallen behind our competitors as a result. Throughout the Eighties Japan has invested 30 per cent of its national income in itself, but Britain has invested only 18 per cent. If our rate had equalled Japan’s, we would have invested about £500 bn more in our skills and our science, our technology, our regions and our infrastructure. Historians will come to doubt our national sanity, amazed that in the ten years of huge investment opportunities flowing from North Sea oil, the investment gap between Britain and her major competitors grew. And they will be astounded to discover that in the oil-rich Eighties we invested a smaller share of our national income than we did in the Sixties and Seventies, when the oil wealth was simply not there.

The results are all around us. Skill shortages now affect one firm in every three. Training is so poor that British firms are considering training their apprentices in Germany. Our roads and railways are neglected and congested. The CBI estimate that it is now quicker to cycle from Bristol to Poole than to drive there. In research and development we are doing no better. Alone among our major competitors, the numbers of our research scientists are falling. Our competitors do not believe that national salvation can be achieved by reducing public spending to a minimum, and have instead opted for educational policies which ensure that skills are developed as broadly as possible, and have followed industrial strategies which accept the necessity of expensive R and D, nationally encouraged and nationally funded. Unfortunately for Britain, Mrs Thatcher believes that these are matters best left to the market. That dogma will haunt Britain as we face the harsher marketplace of the Nineties.

Where Mrs Thatcher has effected a sea-change is within the Tory Party itself. There was once an attempt at patriarchal decency, a tendency to worry about the chaps down on their luck, and one-nation Toryism enjoyed a good long run for its money. The modern Tory Party is different. It recognises two nations and having done so abandons one of them. It promotes popular capitalism, sells public assets to private individuals, presses individual arrangements for pensions and health care upon the haves, and leaves the have-nots to the mercy of an increasingly stretched and underfunded residuum of a once comprehensive welfare state. Health, education, transport and housing are more and more stratified. Service and new flexible-production industries crowd the South-East. The privileges of Thatcherism are distinctly regional, as are its penalties.

Underlying these new inequalities is an antique theory, tragically misapplied. Mrs Thatcher is all for competitiveness, but has chosen to promote it using a 19th-century model of the individual striving against others for his advancement in society, instead of accepting that national competitiveness in the global marketplace in the age of high-technology places inescapable responsibilities upon the state in such matters as investment, research and development, planning strategy, national infrastructure, and in making provisions for education and social security that are at least comparable with those of our less 19th-century-minded economic rivals.

In this Thatcherism has been immensely destructive. Her market-obsessed solutions have made our problems worse. A.H. Halsey and Brian Barry in their essay in the Skidelsky, and David Marquand in his, take this on, seeking to identify collective actions and provisions that can mitigate the worst effects of the free market. By denying, in a chillingly offguard moment, the very existence of such a thing as society, she has at least allowed us to glimpse what she is up to and why. Thatcherism looks with equanimity upon mass unemployment, and turns away from any sense of public purpose or communal responsibility, with results that can be seen all around us.