Thatcher, Thatcher, Thatcher

John Gray

  • The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron by Tim Bale
    Polity, 446 pp, £25.00, January 2010, ISBN 978 0 7456 4857 6
  • Back from the Brink: The Inside Story of the Tory Resurrection by Peter Snowdon
    Harper Press, 419 pp, £14.99, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 00 730725 8

There wasn’t anything inevitable about David Cameron’s rise. If Kenneth Clarke had stirred himself into running something like a campaign when competing for the leadership with Iain Duncan Smith and been ready to appear more tractable on Europe; if David Davis had moved decisively in the immediate aftermath of Michael Howard’s resignation or been a more fluent speaker; if Howard had offered Cameron the shadow chancellorship or George Osborne had not accepted it – if these or any number of other contingencies had been otherwise, Cameron might not have become leader. Yet he has been perceived as an unstoppable force, the author of an irreversible transformation in his party that has set it firmly back on the road to power. Tim Bale’s exhaustive and authoritative account is hedged throughout with academic caution, but it concludes in terms that treat the Conservatives’ return to office as a foregone conclusion: ‘just as was the case for Margaret Thatcher, Cameron will ultimately be judged and defined by what he does.’

A journalist who may be closer to events, Peter Snowdon ends his book on a more equivocal note: ‘If the last four and a half years have been testing for Cameron’s Conservative Party,’ he writes, ‘the next few will be far harder, whether the party wins or loses.’ Not that Snowdon is in any doubt that as a result of Cameron’s leadership the Conservatives have been irrevocably changed. Both writers take it as given that there will be no return of the venomous divisions that nearly wrecked the party after Thatcher was forced out as leader.

Speaking to the Sunday Times in 1981, Thatcher defined the aim of her policies: ‘Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul.’ Nowhere did her leadership produce a change of soul more visibly than in her own party. The result, however, was in many ways the reverse of what she intended, just as it was in society as a whole. Thatcher did not begin with the full-blown neoliberal policy agenda with which she was later identified. There was no mention of privatisation in the 1979 election manifesto, which focused on reining in inflation and limiting the power of trade unions. However, as the sell-off of council houses showed, Thatcher did want to shift resources away from government control. The aim was not only to curb local authorities, always a ruling obsession, but also to promote a kind of moral regeneration in council house tenants. Thatcher believed that markets reward ethical behaviour, and she was strengthened in this prejudice by the ideas current in right-wing circles at the time.

It is usually a mistake to suppose that politicians are much influenced by the thinkers they are fond of quoting: though Thatcher cited The Road to Serfdom more than once it is unclear whether she had read anything of Hayek. Yet she fully shared Hayek’s view that free markets reinforce ‘traditional values’, which is an inversion of their actual effect. The conservative country of which she dreamed had more in common with Britain in the 1950s, an artefact of Labour collectivism, than it did with the one that emerged from her free-market policies. A highly mobile labour market enforces a regime of continuous change. The type of personality that thrives in these conditions is the opposite of the stolid, dutiful bourgeois Thatcher envisioned. Skill in re-inventing yourself is the key virtue, along with a readiness to cut your losses as soon as any commitment becomes unprofitable or unexciting. Thatcher’s economic revolution was meant to go along with something like a social restoration. Instead, it led to Britain as it is today, a society obsessed with the idea of personal self-realisation, more liberal in sexual matters, less monocultural and less class-bound, more insecure and more unequal.

Thatcher’s policies were not the only factors in this transformation: the decline of traditional industries, a by-product of globalisation, was already well under way. The restructuring of the economy she oversaw during her decade in power accelerated changes that were already afoot. Denis Healey had tried and failed to get Labour to deal with the fact that the postwar settlement was breaking down. Thatcher made the breakdown the basis of her programme, and it was this that attracted Tony Blair. Together with Gordon Brown and the rest of the small group that created New Labour, Blair understood that the rise of Thatcher was not an aberration, as nearly everyone on the left believed. A rupture had occurred in British politics, and if Labour was to survive as a party of government it too had to make a break with the past. Partly, this consisted in symbolic gestures such as the repudiation of Clause Four. More important were the organisational changes that centralised power in the new leadership. These moves were not without precedent: Neil Kinnock had fought hard-left factionalism, while John Smith had abolished the union block vote. Blair was more systematic in his reforms, installing a version of democratic centralism under the guidance of Peter Mandelson. Where he diverged from his predecessors was in his objective, which was to continue Thatcher’s modernising project. But if modernising meant emulating Thatcher, and thereby repeating her political success, it also meant – and this was more fundamental – sharing her conviction that the only model available to Britain was the prevailing version of American capitalism. New Labour’s task was to join the march of history, advancing this brand of capitalism and re-engineering social institutions when they failed to obey its imperatives.

Blair’s love affair with America cut short his leadership. His support of the Bush administration in its invasion of Iraq was based in part on a belief in the invincible advance of American power – a failure of judgment that damaged him and New Labour irreparably. But because they had supported Blair over Iraq – indeed, helped save him from parliamentary defeat – the Conservatives were unable to exploit the disaster that ensued. Bale writes that Michael Howard’s ‘agonising attempts to distance the Tories from the government on Iraq’ left him open to being portrayed as ‘an untrustworthy opportunist’. Howard’s hope that Iraq could be used against Blair was quashed when the Hutton Report proved to be a whitewash: ‘Blair had escaped condemnation,’ Snowdon writes, ‘while the episode rebounded on the Tories.’ The Conservatives’ failure was more significant than was apparent at the time, for it revealed the difficulties they faced in distancing themselves from Blair when his policies proved ill-founded.

In describing himself as the ‘heir to Blair’ Cameron did more than pay tribute to Blair’s political techniques. Certainly, he has followed Blair in making the management of his own image central to his way of doing politics. Hiring advisers from the tabloids he has projected an image of himself as a thoroughly modern man, toiling to the office on his bike. In fact, in fusing the character of the trimmer with the indeterminate progressivism of the man without qualities, ‘Dave’ is a thoroughly conventional Tory. Changing his spots with the times is not only a means of reconnecting with the electoral mainstream, but also a strategy of party management. But, although he adopted New Labour’s tabloid techniques, Cameron has failed to heed Mandelson’s Leninist lesson, the most important underpinning of New Labour’s success: in order to escape further defeats at the polls, a new leader must first defeat his own party. It may be that Cameron could not have followed New Labour’s example – the different structures of the Conservative Party, made more democratic by William Hague, may have precluded it. In any event, rather than imposing on his party something akin to the changes that produced New Labour he has instead relied mainly on a type of charismatic leadership, whose limitations may now be emerging.

Where Cameron was truly ‘heir to Blair’ was in assuming that the regime inherited from Thatcher would remain in place. Thatcher didn’t succeed in limiting the role of the state, any more than she succeeded in restoring the mores of the 1950s. Quashing the unions and curbing local authorities required strong government, while injecting markets into institutions that could not be privatised – a process that gathered pace after Thatcher was ousted – involved setting up an elaborate and highly invasive apparatus of targets and monitoring. The result was a market state which penetrated institutions – schools, universities and the NHS – that in the time of Old Labour were largely autonomous. There has been much discussion in Conservative think tanks of devolving initiative from the state to civil institutions; but Cameron has accepted this regime of market dirigisme in public services, just as he has accepted the neoliberal framework in which the City is exempt from any but the lightest regulation. Here as elsewhere, he plans to preserve Blair’s inheritance. This is, after all, what modernisation has come to mean.

The trouble is that this model belongs in the past. Blair’s version of neoliberalism could coexist with high levels of public spending as long as the economy was growing. Now it is barely inching along, and large cutbacks in public spending cannot be avoided. What happens in these circumstances can be seen in the predicament of Obama, a Gorbachev figure struggling to reconcile the reforms he has promised – and in the case of healthcare, seemingly delivered – with the intractable realities of a failed economic system. The type of capitalism that Thatcher and Blair believed was the only possible model for Britain is in retreat, while rival versions are advancing in China, India and other countries. By modelling himself on Blair, Cameron has endorsed a version of modernisation that is plainly obsolete.

His strategy has been to follow Blair in aligning his party with the country that Thatcher unwittingly helped bring into being, including its more liberal aspects. But embracing liberal Britain does not square with his lamentations that the country is broken, and his message has often sounded garbled. His right-wing critics view his uncertain positioning of the party as a failure of leadership – if only he was less opportunistic, more like Thatcher as they remember or imagine her to have been, all would be well. But Cameron’s repeated volte-faces are not the result of his personal shortcomings. There are irresolvable contradictions in his party’s situation.

The dilemma is evident in the Conservatives’ response to the social costs of Thatcherism. All but a few Thatcherite diehards accept that the moral hazards of free markets were not understood. The problem is that the Conservatives who have been most active in framing a post-Thatcherite agenda have themselves not understood – as Cameron seemed to do for a while – that the society that emerged in part as an unintended consequence of Thatcher’s policies can’t be dismantled (and in some respects, such as the improved position of women, ethnic minorities and gays, is actually desirable). In his time as leader a Thatcherite of the most blinkered kind, Iain Duncan Smith has now emerged as one of Thatcherism’s leading Conservative critics, founding a Centre for Social Justice that investigates the loss of social cohesion which followed the unleashing of free markets. His response has been to demand policies that strengthen traditional values, especially in the family: a call that has been echoed by Phillip Blond, a Cameron adviser and the author of Red Tory (reviewed on page 22 of this issue). As these Conservative critics see it, what was wrong with Thatcherism was that it was too liberal – a mistake a future Conservative government should set about remedying.

Conservatism of this kind spells potential disaster for Cameron and his party. As Tim Bale writes,

Tories who hope, on a free vote in a parliament filled with socially conservative new members, to roll back the so-called ‘permissive consensus’ on matters moral – most obviously on abortion or gay adoption – had better think very carefully. Like it or not, there is a permissive majority in Britain, on matters like these, if not on law and order and immigration … This is not America. It would be electoral suicide for any Tory administration worth the name to think differently.

It is an astute comment, but it raises the question whether a Tory administration of the kind that existed before Thatcher is any longer possible. Michael Portillo’s unhappy bid for the leadership may have been an attempt to stake out a post-Thatcherite position that was Tory in this sense and at the same time socially liberal.

Portillo’s failure is often explained by a failure of will on his part, but he may have glimpsed what it would mean for him to lead a party of the kind the Conservatives have become. It is not only on issues of sex and the family that the Conservatives are programmed for ideological warfare. Lying behind Cameron’s faltering commitment to green causes is a paranoid right-wing blogosphere that views global warming as a liberal conspiracy, and it is a safe bet that ‘climate scepticism’ has a degree of support among Conservative activists that is significantly higher than among voters as a whole. Again, the triumph of Euro-scepticism in the party may not have been the end of Europe as a divisive issue. Cameron’s ill-considered decision to ally the Conservatives with fringe parties in the European Parliament looks like a gesture to appease these Euro-sceptics. The effect can only be to embolden them to demand a more radically anti-European stance.

Analysis of Cameron has rarely questioned the staying power of his brand of modernisation, though many have noted that modernisers are thin on the ground in his party. Bale observes acutely that Cameron’s reliance on a ‘kitchen cabinet’ of cronies and media advisers embodies a version of ‘high politics’:

As characterised by the Conservative historian who made the phrase his own, this is an environment in which only ‘50 or 60 politicians in conscious tension with one another’ really count – a world where politics is ‘primarily a matter of rhetoric and manoeuvre’ driven not by genuinely held ideas but by ‘antipathy, self-interest and mutual contempt’, a place where arguments over policy, strategy and tactics are ‘inseparable from disputes about persons’.

Maurice Cowling’s view of politics as an interaction among elites was not new. Lewis Namier had made a similar, and more substantial argument, in his account of late 18th-century politics. One need not share Cowling’s cynicism to see that ‘high politics’ is a reality today – as Bale writes, it will be familiar to ‘anyone who has read the best insider accounts of New Labour’. Political parties have become identified with their leaders, a development attributable partly to the media environment in which the parties must operate, and partly to the decline in ideological differences between them. The result is a version of Namierite politics in which the internecine conflicts of the political elites are fought out in the mass media.

Ideology has not disappeared, of course. Quite the contrary: all three main parties adhere to versions of the same ideology, which aims to re-engineer social institutions on the model of the market. In the real world the market has imploded, but the political class continues to insist that society must adjust to market imperatives. Adjustment will in fact be imposed: but not so much by government policies as by markets themselves, which will make current levels of public spending unsustainable. The only relevant question is which of the parties oversees the process, and here the Conservatives operate under some disadvantages. While the financial crisis has destroyed the faith in market self-regulation he preached for so long, Brown has succeeded in reviving a perception of Labour as the party willing to limit the excesses of capitalism. It was only when the Conservatives opted for a policy of stringent budget cuts that they produced a distinctive response to the crisis, and then they were left looking Thatcherite – an unwelcome reminder of the past that Cameron has tried so hard to bury. Retreating from the policy, as Cameron and Osborne then did, only reinforced the impression that they had no coherent plan for dealing with the crisis.

The problem facing all three parties is that they have framed policy on the basis that the post-Thatcher settlement was permanent. (Indeed Nick Clegg committed the Liberal Democrats to the settlement after its collapse had begun.) But neoliberal policies could be legitimated politically because they didn’t directly attack Britain’s social-democratic inheritance; Thatcher held back from any frontal assault on the welfare state, while Blair and Brown made ‘modern’ public services central to New Labour’s project. The ideologues who tried to shape Conservative policies in the Thatcher era were unable to shrink the welfare state; but something of the contraction they demanded will now come about as a consequence of the banking crisis. If Brown emerges from the election still in government it will fall to Labour to implement the retrenchment that Thatcherism failed to achieve. In a reversal of the progressive narrative, it looks like the roll-back of British social democracy will be a consequence of neoliberalism’s demise.

In the era of austerity that seems sure to follow the election all the parties will be found wanting, but the most damaging impact may be on the Conservatives. A minority Cameron government will depend for its survival on party discipline and the continuing tolerance of the Liberal Democrats. Neither is likely to last long. The inevitable tax rises will meet resistance from Conservative MPs and the constituency rank and file. Nick Clegg will not find it easy to retain support in his party for Conservative spending cuts: while many potential Liberal Democrat voters may have voted Conservative in the past, his party remains largely social democratic in outlook. No doubt there will be pressure on the Conservative leader to call a second general election. But cutbacks and tax rises on the necessary scale will alienate many voters, and it is far from clear that he would secure a working majority.

With Cameron facing such an uncertain prospect some Conservatives may conclude that this election is one the party would be better off losing. That would be a serious mistake. If the Conservatives fail to emerge as the largest single party Cameron’s position as leader will surely be challenged, and it is not hard to see a return of the mayhem that kept them out of power for so many years. The small and much resented cabal that imposed a public face of moderation would be rejected, the ideological passions that have remained beneath the surface would re-emerge and the Conservatives would once again become a rancorous, ungovernable rabble. This would present a strategic opportunity for Brown, who has already floated a far-reaching programme of constitutional reform, including not only the replacement of the House of Lords with an elected second chamber but also a referendum on changing the electoral system for the House of Commons to a version of the Alternative Vote. Of course AV is much less than the Liberal Democrats want, but it is more than they can expect from the Tories. It may not be proportional representation – AV is a strongly majoritarian system – but it would entrench three-party politics for the foreseeable future, with the Liberal Democrats benefiting from the likelihood that many Labour voters would put them second and the Conservatives facing the risk of being pushed into third place.

Rather than allowing the return to power of a rejuvenated Conservative Party, the election may yet return it to a condition not far from that in which it found itself before Cameron became leader. If Thatcher weakened the structures of hierarchy and deference in society she destroyed them in her party. For all her nostalgic yearning for the imagined orderliness of an earlier Britain, she was anchored (as some of her Conservative critics have complained) in a tradition that was still broadly liberal. Certainly, she shared some of the prejudices that go along with ‘traditional values’ – Clause 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act, outlawing the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, was one result. But for most of her time in power Thatcher avoided issues of sexual morality, and steered clear of religion – a stance rooted in the Tory tradition of marginalising potentially divisive questions of belief. From one angle, Cameron’s makeover of his party can be seen as attempting to rescue that tradition, but his attempt was inherently flawed, and not only because of his demotic flirtation with the politics of ‘broken Britain’. Thatcher set in motion an upheaval that undermined the Conservatism she herself in many ways represented, while the Conservatism that prevailed before her has disappeared for ever. The Conservative Party that emerges after the election may have more in common with the Continental European right than with anything that has been seen before in mainstream British politics. It is not unrealistic to imagine a breed of Conservatives appearing who have more in common with Geert Wilders than they do with Thatcher, Blair or Cameron.

Michael Oakeshott – the 20th-century thinker who came closest to creating a philosophy of conservatism – cautioned against

the illusions which wait for the ignorant and the unwary: the illusion that in politics we can get on without a tradition of behaviour, the illusion that the abridgment of a tradition is itself a sufficient guide, and the illusion that in politics there is anywhere a safe harbour, a destination to be reached or even a detectable strand of progress.

It is a salutary reminder, but Oakeshott was not without illusions of his own. He was able to disparage ideology because he believed tradition contained all that was needed for politics; he could not conceive of a situation in which a traditional way of doing politics was no longer possible. Yet that has been the situation in which the Conservative Party has found itself over the past generation. The leader and his cabal of modernisers could hardly expect to undo the more radical modernisation Thatcher had unwittingly imposed on the party. As Cameron will discover, one way or another, an ideologically driven Conservatism is here to stay – even if it means the party once again drifting into limbo.

9 April