edited by Robert Skidelsky.
Chatto, 214 pp., £18, November 1988, 0 7011 3342 2
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The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left 
by Stuart Hall.
Verso, 283 pp., £24.95, December 1988, 0 86091 199 3
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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.

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Vol. 11 No. 6 · 16 March 1989

Inviting a Labour MP to review Thatcherism is like asking an atheist to review theism: you get what you expect but you’re none the wiser. Some of Gordon Brown’s assertions (LRB, 2 February) are plainly wrong – North Sea oil revenue has contributed to a £70 billion increase in Britain’s net external assets, for instance – while others are mischievous: unemployment in Britain is the lowest in the EEC and less than half the rate of Italy’s or Spain’s. If Thatcherism is so unsuccessful, why is it that Mrs Thatcher’s economic policies have been emulated all over Europe, including Socialist Spain? Simply because they are seen to be the only policies which work. Here in Madrid, in the seventh year of a Socialist government, our economic policies include most of those which Gordon Brown denounces: the emphasis on monetary policy versus fiscal, the sale of public assets to the private sector, encouraging individual arrangements for pensions and home ownership. Like Britain, Spain has just tightened, again, the money supply and increased interest rates to cool what is evidently an overheated economy – and that with 18 per cent unemployment. Mrs Thatcher is one of the Spanish Socialist Government’s least favourite Europeans, but they have had the good sense to adopt her policies which work. Yes, they have upset the UGT (Socialist union). But the Socialist Workers’ Party has also won two elections in a row and is the favourite party to win the 1990 elections. Why doesn’t the Labour Party look to its more successful cousins?

Living and travelling abroad, I’m constantly amazed at the respect and admiration in which Mrs Thatcher is held. It’s understandable in America, where she is actually liked, but more difficult to understand in Europe, where she’s often disliked for her abrasive character and dictatorial instincts. This sneaking admiration is for her determination, which – take a deep breath, Mr Brown – broke the Union stranglehold on the British economy, won the war in the Falklands and sticks up for Britain’s interests in the EEC. It seems to me that the Labour Party has consistently underestimated Mrs Thatcher’s staying-power. Gordon Brown MP perpetuates this error with the head-in-the-sand affirmation that ‘overall it is the general philosophy of the Labour Party … that is more in tune with that of the electorate.’

Richard Crosfield

Vol. 11 No. 8 · 20 April 1989

Your correspondent Richard Crosfield (Letters, 16 March) is wrong, and Gordon Brown MP (LRB, 2 February) is right, to assert that Thatcherism is not sweeping Europe. The reason is simply that it does not work. Even in Spain, which Mr Crosfield makes his main comparison, inflation is lower than in Britain while industrial production increased by 2.6 per cent last year compared to 0.8 per cent in the United Kingdom. To be sure, Marks and Spencer has opened in Madrid – but Spain now makes more cars than Britain.

I live and travel abroad and I find views of Mrs Thatcher mixed. A few years ago there was admiration for her stand on the Falklands, the miners, the Soviet Union. Admittedly it was stronger in the business-class sections of aeroplanes and in financial journals but it was there. Now at the end of ten years most foreigners I meet ask why London is so full of beggars, why trains keep crashing and why British food and water may be unsafe to consume. It used to be the Third World whose hallmarks were visible street poverty, unsafe transport and dirty water. The unions have had no power in Britain for a decade, their views are scorned, unlike Germany, France and even Spain (let alone Sweden, Switzerland or Austria) where dialogue is maintained. Yet where are the goods being produced by British companies free of ‘union shackles’? The high streets of Europe no longer sell anything Made in Britain. Even in the world of finance, the bourses of Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Sweden and Switzerland showed a higher percentage increase in their indices last year than the London Stock Exchange. Internationally, Mrs Thatcher, while having the traditional stature of a long-serving leader, is seen as out-of-touch with new currents of thinking, both those associated with the idea of Europe after 1992 and those emanating from Moscow. In a recent interview in the Nouvel Observateur, the French Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, openly mocked her conversion to environmental questions. No one would have dared such lèse-majesté a few years ago, but as with de Gaulle in the late Sixties or Adenauer at the end of his reign, the feeling in Europe is that she has had her day.

I think getting a Scots rationalist like Gordon Brown to review a book about a subject where true believers have held sway for so long was a very good idea. Who knows England who only England knows? It’s curious that the sharpest writing on Mrs T. has come from Scots like Neal Ascherson, John Lloyd or Tom Nairn, while it has needed non-English politicians like Brown and John Smith to pierce Parliamentary deference.

Denis MacShane
Divonne, France

Vol. 11 No. 11 · 1 June 1989

Denis MacShane (Letters, 20 April) writes that I am wrong ‘and Gordon Brown MP is right to assert that Thatcherism is not sweeping Europe.’ Most of the economic policies identified with Thatcherism (privatisation, preference for monetary over fiscal policy, the recognition that confiscatory rates of income tax are counter-productive, the deregulation of capital markets) have already swept Europe. Others (encouraging home ownership, private pensions), which in Britain are associated with her, were already considered Good Things by pretty well all parties. I cited Spain because we’re in the seventh year of a Socialist government with a Thatcherite economic programme. Naturally the Government, being both Spanish and Socialist, does not call it Thatcherism. Mr MacShane admits to her international stature but attributes it to her long service. Really? Reagan, Brezhnev and Harold Wilson all served for long periods without earning the respect of other leaders; Kennedy, Gorbachev and Churchill all earned respect within a year or two of taking office. Why not strip Mrs T. of all her clothes (her economic policies which work and are popular) and beat her with the stick of mismanaging the nation’s health, education, welfare and transport? Then the Labour Party would not only have the best policies to run Britain, but would have a better chance of winning the next election.

Richard Crosfield

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