Lunchtime today was one of those moments that you will remember forever, no matter what your opinion. The same as Michael Jackson, the same as 9/11; the passing of Margaret Thatcher is an event.
In the twenty first century it seems many political parties have converged to the middle ground of politics to be ‘catch-all’ parties, or at least claim to be. As with all parties, the Conservatives have extremes within it, from the Traditional Conservatives, to the New Right/Neo-Liberals, from those in the centre to those who believe in ‘One Nation’ Conservatism. The Conservative Party has historically struggled with its identity, specifically since the years of Margaret Thatcher, who changed the face of the New Right not only to the electorate, but within the party itself. In this essay I will consider the key aspects of Thatcherism, discuss the struggle faced by the party in the post-Thatcher era, and look at how David Cameron re-branded the party and led it to partial success in the 2010 election. I will critically discuss the current party line on the key issues to ascertain how far removed the Conservative party of 2011 is from the politics of the Thatcher years. I will carry out this discussion by analyzing the similarities and differences between party policies then and now.
Thatcherism is now considered an entity of its own within conservatism. This is because Thatcher was very successful at personality politics, shifting focus on to her own personal attribute of determination. Thatcher used a blend of Neo-Liberal and authoritarian New-Right ideas to construct a new version of Conservatism away from the ‘One Nation’ vision (Bently et al, 2000), and with this, rebranded the party to lead it into four successive terms in office. Thatcherite dirigisme was characteristically inconsistent with traditional Conservative thought. As although she advocated a Hayekian style economic system based on the freedom of the market in her first term particularly, she also endorsed centralization of power and increased state control – something the party conventionally avoided. In her first term she also placed heavy emphasis on encouraging entrepreneurship by reducing tax. Thatcherism was heavily influenced by the ideas of Hayek and Enoch Powell, both of whom agreed on limited expenditure which in part, led to the heavy emphasis on the privatization of public services. This created a ‘shareholder democracy’ which produced great revenue and reduced government regulation and control over state owned assets and services (Evans, 1997). To Thatcher the removal of the state monopoly in such areas made sense economically, politically and morally, as she felt the market was the best way to push forth and determine the best route for progress. Furthermore it placed responsibility in the hands of the people.
Thatcher was one of the only Prime Ministers to utilize her power as the First Minister. She was selective in what she discussed with whom, and used the media to help oust the ‘wets’ (those in the centre of the party) from government. This was dubbed by analysts as the ‘Americanisation of politics’; the dramatisation of Whitehall communication (Evans, 1997). Thatcher dramatically reshaped the socio-economic structure of the party associated with landed gentry. Between 1974 and 1987 the number of conservative MPs educated in a public school declined by two thirds, which with it altered the ideology of the party to one of meritocracy as opposed to hereditary privilege. The emphasis was placed on self-made success and the ‘individual’.
The free market approach in relation to local governance brought about many problems. It increased the fragmentation of services and created a professional management structure to replace the administrative system, which allowed those providing the services to become even more far removed from those receiving them. This professional management system still permeates business and politics today. Thatcher tried to undertake the largest shake up of the NHS since its creation, by relocating power to private companies under a ‘care in the community’ initiative, as part of a plan to materialise efficiency savings. Her 1989 white paper ‘Working for Patients’ introduced an internal market principle whereby hospital trusts would purchase services from health authorities and GPs would be given their own budget and freedom to use their digression on patient referral. It was this along with the introduction of ‘Poll Tax’ which finally caused her to resign in 1990. Money rolled into new layers of administration rather than into better patient care, doctors who were under-qualified in the field of budget management became over worked and less efficient with the added stress and responsibility. This lead the new healthcare trusts to fall into deficit, very nearly causing another recession similar to that of 1979 (Evans, 1997).
John Major took over the leadership and carried the party through until 1997; he did so however by allowing the party to retain the ‘nasty party’ image that Thatcher had created nearly two decades before; “Major had a lack of ideological conviction… …he was more Thatcherite than Thatcher” (Gray and Willets, 1997, p148). By 1997 the electorate were in search of something new, a generation had got rich off of Thatcher’s hard faced free market policies, but the new generation were in search of a softer, more welfare friendly alternative. In addition to such problems, the buttress of Conservative hegemony such as the defence of property, the constitution and the empire had been nullified through overemphasis and globalisation (Garnett and Lynch, 2003). In 1997 the Conservative party were close to financial and political ruin after Major failed to unify the party which continued to be divided on the issue of Europe. This division was something of a legacy for Thatcher alongside her contradictory policies on the free market and centralisation of power to promote social order and Conservative values. Tony Blaire’s New Labour was centre enough to be taken seriously, but left enough to assure action in such areas, and so lead the conservatives to a 13 year period in opposition to readjust their ideology fit for the challenges of the 21st century.
New Labour emerged under Tony Blair, who took party more towards the centre than ever, analysts such as Hickon (2005) suggest this move was purposeful, as so to displace the Conservative party further. New labour took up the political space which the Conservatives needed to aim for if they were to regain the trust of the electorate and so prompted the challenging task for the Conservatives of differentiation. The Conservatives could no longer be a medium between the ‘dry’ and the ‘wets’ but were challenged to construct one cohesive identity to match that of New Labours (Kavanagh, 1997). New Labour had absorbed some of the key Thatcherite reforms and most importantly had publically accepted the need for liberal capitalism, which put great limits on where Hague could direct the party without seeming to be too assimilationist (Gray and Willets, 1997). In his first year as leader, Hague adopted somewhat of an inclusive brand for the party, drawing on ideas of ‘One Nation’ Conservatism, which were collectivised in ‘Kitchen Table Conservatives’ – a paper which argued for new levels of communication between the party and the electorate to gage the popular concerns of the nation. He did this however with a lack of strategic planning, and few policy ideas manifested. This ‘Common Sense Revolution’ lacked an adequate research base to provide a consistent vision for the party, and so Hague reverted back to reliance on the traditional core electorate that the party had historically relied upon by refocusing on traditional issues of Europe, asylum and lay and order. The problem with this strategy however, was that the core electorate was smaller than ever and shrinking. The very nature of free marketeerism and its part in globalisation, meant that the demographic of the British populous had shifted to mean a weaker presence of the white middle class, and a stronger presence of (previously significantly) minority marginalised groups. After Hague’s failure to resurrect the country’s belief in the party, in 2001 Ian Duncan-Smith tried to neutralise the negative aspects of traditional Conservative persona and fell silent on the habitual issues (Garnett and Lynch, 2003). Duncan-Smith pushed the ideals of localism, and the idea of individual responsibility within welfare, in the same way that Thatcher refused to use the word ‘society’ as an abstract concept but as an actual mechanism driven by the individual. This initiative started the ball rolling for David Cameron, who echoed Duncan-Smith’s ideas in the ‘Big Society’.
In 2005 it was the turn of David Cameron to reinvigorate the Conservative Party. Cameron hit the ground running with a strong vision from the outset, documented in his Statement of Principle ‘Built to Last’ in 2006. The key points of which focused on encouraging enterprise as a route to raise living standards, and fighting ‘social injustice’ and helping the disadvantaged through state encouraged voluntary action. The most surprising initiatives on the agenda were those that had only come to light in politics with any clout in the last decade; preservation of the environment, and a renewed pledge on development spending. Both of which Cameron utilised to reposition the party (Garnett and Lynch, 2011). This was all part of the strategy to ensure that Cameron’s Conservatism was far removed for Thatcherism in the public’s mind. Placed with the same meritocratic values but set in an open and diverse society, comparable to the first part of Hague’s leadership, although Cameron ensured not to fall into the same trap as Hague and rush straight back to the core matters. Cameron was aware of the party’s reputation and directly attacked Thatcherite rhetoric by stating “there is more to life than money” and a direct redress “there is such a thing as society”. He viewed the government as a force for good (Garnett and Lynch, 2001, p414).
Thatcher lead the new so called ‘dry’ Conservatism that followed monetarism giving complete control to the markets. David Cameron however, returned the party to the ‘wet’ compassionate Conservatism, which followed a more Keynesian model of economic policy (Evans, 1997). Thatcher always claimed to be the normal woman, from a low-middle class upbringing, yet those on the centre of her party suggested this didn’t stop her from protecting the interests of the elite. In contrast, David Cameron is the traditional Tory Etonian who has built ‘his vision’ for the ‘New Conservatives’ to include policy areas traditionally ascribed to the left as a premeditated part of his time in opposition. Cameron learnt from Hague’s mistake in pushing forth an election campaign that strategically avoided the policy areas negatively associated with Conservatism. This included the most female candidates and candidates from different ethnic backgrounds than the party had ever seen, although unlike Thatcher, Cameron returned the party to the elitist composition of middle-class candidates. He did this nonetheless, at the same time as suggesting the party had moved beyond class allegiance and towards cross-class solidarity (Bale, 2010).
Still, similarities remain. Both Cameron and Thatcher came to power in a period of economic recession and both had to embark on a rebranding mission to secure victory at the polling station. Thatcher however went to the right of the spectrum, whereas Cameron opted for a safe ‘catch all’ ideology that mirrored various aspects of the Blair years. This however many feel was merely a campaign tactic, albeit a not very successful one with the Conservatives only winning 36.1% of the vote in 2010(Garnett and Lynch, 2011). In 2009 there were signposts to the British public that Cameron may be on the cusp of reverting back to Thatcherite dirigisme when chancellor George Osborn announced the at the annual party conference their plans to scrap various programmes, squeeze benefits and freeze public sector pay, this resulted in a dip in popularity for the party in the polls (Bale, 2010). It is popularly felt that even as part of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, traditionally thought of as a centre party, the Conservatives have reverted back to some of the tactics used by ‘the nasty party’ in the Thatcher years. The new plans for the NHS, which did not appear in either the manifesto of Nick Clegg nor David Cameron, are dreadfully similar to that which failed Thatcher. The new plans propose to give medical staff the control to channel the budget within their own institutions and the choice to go to private companies other than the NHS, has been received by the British public with much protest. The concern among the industry is that patient care will suffer due to the added responsibilities of health care professionals as happened in the 80’s. Another similarity between Cameron and Thatcher is Cameron’s drive under the ‘Big Society’ to construct 21 enterprise zones around the country, and to raise tax reliefs for young entrepreneurs in a comparable style to those in 1979. Cameron has also revived the traditional conservative prerogative of decentralization through his idea of the ‘Big Society’ – devolving power to local professionals and local government, which although Thatcher advocated, did not carry through.
Thatcher remained strong in her ambitions all the way through her leadership, but Cameron has been forced to compromise after failing to gain a majority. Some within the party feel as though this is yet again raising the question of the party’s identity, others are aware that such pre-election promises may have just been spun to entice the target demographic, and that the promises were almost empty from the beginning. Cameron appeared to push the Conservative Party far enough from Thatcherism so that it could be in a strong position to form a coalition, but ultimately not far enough to form a majority government. This demonstrates that the traditional Tory electorate’s priorities have shifted, and that there is a new demographic that Cameron desperately tried to target throughout his election campaign, but ultimately failed. The Conservative Party by their very nature are not in contact with the priorities of society in the 21st century. The result of the 2010 election and the increased civic mobility that has been witnessed in the early months of the coalition demonstrate that and they will need more than a fresh faced leader and good media spin before being able to form their own government, which will entail clearer differentiation from the Thatcher years than what has already been provided somewhat hazily. It is the mixture of free enterprise and market, and authoritarian social policy that creates different facets of Conservatism; it seems the right balance has yet to be struck.