Thatcher saved their Britain, their privileges

Submitted by Matthew on 24 April, 2013 - 7:02

Andrew Gamble is professor of politics at Cambridge University, and author of the major left-wing analysis of Thatcherism, The Free Economy and the Strong State.

He spoke to Martin Thomas from Solidarity about Thatcher and her legacy.


MT: In your book on Thatcherism, The Free Economy and the Strong State, you write that Thatcherism was “a political project developed by the Conservative leadership... to re-establish the conditions for the Conservative Party to resume its leading role in British politics”; and then again of Thatcherism as “a project aimed at the replacement of the discredited social-democratic consensus of the postwar period by a new consensus for the 1990s”.

If we look back from now, Thatcherism won on one of those similar-seeming definitions, and lost on the other.

In the Guardian (14 October 2005), you described Thatcher as “ending the political hegemony [the Tory party] had enjoyed for 100 years”. (The Tories have since won the 2010 election, but not regained the dominance they had in 1886-1905 or 1922-45 or 1951-64). In your book The Spectre at the Feast you wrote of “the political intervention represented by Thatcherism” as having “established neo-liberalism as the new dominant common sense”.

Looking back, how would you assess Thatcherism on three levels — what Thatcher and her close associates thought they would do — what they actually did — and what they came to think they had done?

AG: Initially, there was no blueprint. But in the 1970s there was a ferment of radical right-wing ideas, which did create — at least amongst the true believers — very high expectations.

A lot of it was focused around plans to reverse economic and national decline, and with it to reverse the fortunes of the Conservative Party. That sprang from a quite widespread concern in the party that they were being marginalised, and were not able to govern effectively — partially because of the strength of the trade unions. It was against that sort of defeatism that Thatcher made her pitch for the leadership.

What they managed to do was in some respects more radical than some of them had thought was possible. The Thatcherites were remarkably opportunistic. They seized on events and were able to turn them to advantage, taking a lot of risks, most of which came off. In the “Winter of Discontent”, they switched their policy on trade unions to a much more hard-line one.

The split in the Labour Party in 1981 gave them more space to develop their ideas. The fiscal retrenchment in 1981, which was largely forced on them, gave them the opportunity to develop their policies. A lot of the privatisations were also carried out opportunistically. Privatisation was not in the 1979 manifesto, but having experimented with British Telecom they developed a rolling programme that was later hailed as a flagship policy.

They became more radical as they went on. That was partly about Thatcher’s shifting of the balance within the cabinet, although Thatcher never really got a truly Thatcherite cabinet. The biggest tax cuts and the Big Bang in the City came after 1983, and the big changes in education and the Poll Tax after 1987. They grew in confidence while in office and began to fashion a new economic model.

They were able to view with equanimity the rapid disappearance of the old economic model and the decline and destruction of the old manufacturing industries. What they didn’t understand was how that would, by undermining the compact of the union in the United Kingdom, make the party completely dependent on its heartlands in the south and south east.

The eulogies for Thatcher were all about how she “saved Britain”. This involves huge exaggeration of what the UK’s condition was in the 1970s, and quite staggering errors in the talk of Britain being a “basket case”, and the “sick man of Europe”. But that is the central narrative by which the Thatcherites now understand what happened — Britain in a position of terminal decline in the 1970s and being rescued, almost single-handedly, by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

The Thatcherites can’t disguise the fact, and indeed keep talking about it, that the Conservatives have not won a majority in an election since 1992. But their explanation for that is that Thatcher changed Labour. That becomes their alibi for why the Conservative Party itself has not fared so well since Thatcher left the scene.

MT: They must have quite a special definition of “saving Britain”. Britain’s rate of economic growth is lower than it was up to the 1970s and Britain’s share of world output and exports is lower. What they mean is that their class was in a position where it could not easily impose its will, and now it can. So it saved a particular group within Britain.

AG: Yes, it saved their Britain. It saved them. The Telegraph, on the day of the funeral, said words to the effect of “we have to thank Margaret Thatcher for saving Britain and creating the kind of country we are living in today”. That’s the key — she restored some of the privileges of her class and of capital as a whole.

If you look at the way income and wealth distribution has moved since the 80s, that’s the Britain that she saved.

MT: David Cameron says “we are all Thatcherites now”. Nick Clegg dissents. Tony Blair says that he thinks his job was “to build on a lot of the things Thatcher had done rather than reverse them”. When Blair was elected in 1997, Thatcher said that “Britain would be safe in his hands”; you have commented: “And she might have said, Thatcherism will be safe too”.

The coalition government is doing things, in the NHS for example, which Thatcher would not have dared to attempt. Are all mainstream politicians today Thatcherites? When Thatcher was prime minister, her government clashed sometimes with elements of the “Establishment”. Do you think the whole “Establishment”, the ruling corps in the state, economy, and society, is “Thatcherite” now?

AG: Thatcher did attack large parts of “the establishment”, but there is a sense in which she’s now been folded into it. The fact that she was given all but a state funeral, and that the Queen attended, is significant. Previously the Queen had only attended Churchill’s funeral, and no Labour prime minister’s funeral has ever been attended by the monarch.

The symbolism of the monarch’s presence at Thatcher’s funeral indicates how Labour remains outside of, or marginal to, the British establishment.

And it shows that although Thatcher was in some ways hostile to sections of the establishment, in terms of the core elements, Thatcher is seen as a true embodiment of the British state.

You can’t imagine any Labour figure ever being treated as Thatcher has been by the Conservative newspapers. The British leaders that are honoured in this way are almost always Conservatives, who affirm the core values of the social and political order. In that sense, Thatcher has been gathered back into the establishment.

MT: David Cameron, George Osborne, Michael Gove, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband, and Ed Balls are just old enough to have a living political memory of the miners’ strike and Thatcher’s high days in 1985-7. (In 1984-7 their ages were between 18-21 for Cameron, the oldest, and 13-16 for Osborne, the youngest). All will have not much memory of the early Thatcher years of strict monetarism, in 1979-82, but strong political memories of the decay and end of Thatcher’s ministry, in 1987-90, when they were all in the formative period of their late teens and early 20s. Can we see how those different phases of Thatcherism shaped them?

AG: They were shaped by the Thatcher government because of both the length of her period in office, and the fundamental nature of the changes that took place. They all experienced those changes as an irreversible watershed.

For all of them, she came to embody a particular style of leadership (which is very much misrepresented, the misrepresentation being partly her own construction). It’s interesting how that has become a standard and ideal, within the Conservative Party, against which all of her successors have been judged and found wanting.

The myths around Thatcher have now become more important often than the actual facts of her period in office. They’re all in some sense in thrall to Thatcher.

Cameron thought he was breaking away from her when he said “there is such a thing as society”, but at her funeral the Bishop of London argued that she had been misunderstood, and defended her use of the phrase “there is no such thing as society”. Cameron’s attempt to detoxify the Conservative Party, by which he meant moving away from the Thatcher legacy, had some successes, particularly in terms of social policy, but he’s now being forced to move back in a Thatcherite direction in order to keep the support of his own party and of the Thatcherite newspapers.

Today’s political leaders were exposed to the myths created around Thatcher towards the end of her period in office. The manner of her downfall has intensified those myths, with a narrative around “betrayal”.

MT: So today’s Conservative leaders would see her removal from office in terms of “betrayal”, rather than that Thatcher went wrong at the end?

AG: A few Conservatives, like Ken Clarke, say she went wrong, but it’s difficult for people like Cameron and Osborne to openly criticise her. They tend not to.

They have hinted at criticism, in a coded way, before, but during the funeral Cameron was careful in every way to appear to be ultra-loyal.

MT: You have quoted Peter Riddell as writing: “If there was a Thatcher experiment, it was launched by Denis Healey”. With hindsight, unless there had been a great socialist transformation of the labour movement and the working class in the 1970s, many things would have gone the same way even if Callaghan had called an election in 1978 and Thatcher had lost and quit.

Britain would have been converted in the 1980s, one way or another, to a capitalist regime geared not to sustaining a relatively integrated national complex of industries and services, and a society round it, but to developing its territory as a site for global capital, with systems to suit of trammelled trade unions, limited social overheads, easy access to profit opportunities in contracted-out public services, and tax favours for the rich.

How did the special political tacks of Thatcherism — the sharp rejection of equality (rather than acquiescence to increasing economic inequality as a supposedly inescapable trend), the brief period of strict monetarist dogma, the anti-feminism, the homophobia, the monoculturalism, the desire to reassert Britain as a big military power — intertwine with the global trends?

AG: Many of the changes would have happened under a government led by Willie Whitelaw, or indeed under a government led by Denis Healey and David Owen. The shift would have been accomplished; there was enormous pressure for it, including from the United States who wanted to reconfigure international political economy following the breakdown of Bretton Woods at the beginning of the 1970s.

But whilst that’s the general picture, there were different options in the 1970s and different paths Britain could have taken. There were different ways of adjusting to the new dispensation that was taking place, and other countries — Germany, and the Scandinavian countries — took different paths.

Thatcher took a particular path, which was based on boosting the City and financial services, accepting the destruction of manufacturing, and boosting the south east at the expense of the rest of the country. Huge alterations took place, leading to much greater inequality and polarisation.

That was coupled with increased political centralisation of power and the destruction of local government.

These were lasting consequences of the particular way in which Thatcher and her allies went about adjusting Britain to the changing circumstances of the international political economy.

Not all of those were “necessary”, and some were reversed. The particular social authoritarianism associated with Thatcher, for example, was partially reversed under John Major and certainly under Blair, Brown, and now Cameron. What was clearly not at all challenged by Major, or by New Labour, was the new economic model and the dominance of finance within the UK economy.

The link with the US was strengthened by Thatcher, and that was continued by Blair after a short hiccup under Major. 1997-2007 is the period of a revived Anglo-American “special relationship”, which had particular uses for the Americans in terms of the Cold War and the subsequent engagements of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thatcher gave priority to those ties with the United States rather than, for example, ties with the European Union. Those parts of her legacy have been enduring.

MT: In The Free Economy, you point out that “remarkably large majorities remained opposed to many of the policy shifts in welfare and social policy most sought by the Thatcher government”, and that remained true right up to 1997.

Can it be said that Thatcher pushed through the legislative changes and defeated the strikes, but it was the work of Blair and Brown to win ideological hegemony for Thatcherism, though in a modified form?

AG: All countries had to accept the neo-liberal framework if they wanted to stay within the US-dominated international order. But the problem with the way that had been applied in Britain was that it destroyed many of the institutions of local government and the provision of public service, and Thatcher in the 1990s became extremely unpopular.

What Blair and Brown did was to put together a programme that accepted all the major economic changes, but which added to it the idea of social justice — by which they meant greater “fairness”, not in terms of overall distribution of wealth but in terms of provision of public service. They used a large part of the proceeds from economic growth in the 1990s and early 2000s to increase spending on public services and infrastructure.

What Blair and Brown did had already been foreshadowed by the ideas of the SDP and David Owen, who talked about the need to combine economic efficiency with social justice. That market realism combined with enlarged state programmes for health, education, and welfare, is what Blair and Brown were able to deliver because the economy was performing better than it had been in the 70s and 80s, albeit not as well as it was in the 50s and 60s.

What Blair and Brown fashioned, which proved to be very electorally popular, had a big impact on Cameron and Osborne. Until the crash of 2008, Cameron and Osborne were basically accepting that the Blairite dispensation was a better way to govern Britain, within the broad contours of the changes Thatcher had brought about.

It’s only because of the crash of 2008 and its aftermath that Cameron and Osborne have had to change their policies.

It’s quite interesting that they have received huge criticisms within their party, particularly from the old Thatcherite wing and from the new Thatcherites, because they are seen as being much too close to Brown and Blair, and wanting to continue their legacy.

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