Sunday, 23 September 2007


After the recent controversy of Gordon Brown's invitation to Margaret Thatcher for tea at Number Ten, it is worth considering what success if any the Iron Lady's policies have actually had. In considering the extent to which Thatcherism was/is a success the doctrine of ‘Thatcherism’ must be defined.

There is a major link between Thatcherism and theories of the New Right in that the term ‘Thatcherism’ can be seen as a popular euphemism for New Right theories. The term is christened after the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher who advocated such policies, in America such politics is termed ‘Reaganomics’ after the U.S. president who did likewise. The explicit association of New Right theories with Margaret Thatcher is because her government had broke with the post-war consensus of Keynesian economics, to an advocating of an economy free of constraints from the state and agencies of the state, for example the discouraging of high taxation, tariffs, trade barriers whilst also advocating moral conservatism. Thatcherism is explicitly defined by Nigel Lawson, a chancellor of the exchequer under Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, who claimed to have established the term in a speech to the treasury in 1981, as ‘a mixture of free markets, financial discipline, firm control over public expenditure, tax cuts, nationalism, Victorian values and privatisation’ ( Theorists Abbott and Wallace have defined the New Right in similar terms as ‘liberal economic policies with conservative social moral values’ (Haralambos and Holborn 2000:574). In measuring the success of Thatcherism, consideration must be given to three key areas, electoral success, the success of social policy and success of economic policy.

The contradiction between Thatcherism’s radical economic liberalism and conservative Victorian social values has been often been cited as a reason for it’s failure, in that it had the effect of it’s economic policies undermining it’s social policies. As noted by Anthony Giddens who states “individualism and choice are supposed to stop abruptly at the boundaries of the family and national identity, where tradition must stand intact. But nothing is more dissolving of tradition than ‘permanent revolution of market forces’” (Giddens 1998:15) A clear example of this is that the Thatcherite vision of a consumer society, home owning democracy, plus an increased economic cost of child rearing leading to an increasing need for families to have a dual income in order to afford such consumerism. This had undermined the belief in retaining mothers within the home and increased the need for mothers to enter the working environment, in either a full or part-time basis.

Thatcherism’s advocacy of the male breadwinner was also seriously undermined by the elimination of traditional male industries, such as coal mining, dock workers, steel and ship building industries, which the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher refused to subsidise because of a belief in market fundamentalism. The development of the free market had brought a decrease in the industrial manufacturing economy which had been perceived to suit male working qualities, and an increase in service sector industry perceived to be more suitable to female working qualities, this can also be said to be aided by discriminatory policy in which female employees are paid less than their male counterparts for the same work, making increased female employment an attractive policy in lowering wage bills in a free market economy. In the days prior to the social individualism of the 1960’s there had also not been the existence of the birth control pill, therefore creating the opportunity to spend less time child rearing and longer in the workplace.

The Margaret Thatcher instigated a ‘Family Policy Group’, had advocated that mothers of young children be encouraged to remain at home rather than the workplace, removal of financial disincentives against motherhood and that taxation and benefits be orientated towards the family. Thatcherite policy had aimed to return functions of the family which the state had been perceived to remove, such as withdrawal of benefits for unemployed 16-18 year olds, community care for the elderly and disabled rather than state institutional care, freezing of child benefits and cuts in student grants. The aim of recovering ‘family’ functions however, had increased the financial burdens upon it.

Results of studies with regards to marital breakdown have shown the divorce rate to be higher amongst lower income families and the unemployed (Haralambos and Holborn p.570), as financial inequalities deepened and unemployment increased within the U.K. it can be regarded to have put an increased amount of pressure on a larger number of families. Legislation also eased the process of obtaining a divorce, which had not been present during the perceived ‘golden age’ period before the state seized family roles and functions. The pre-Thatcherite Divorce Reform Act 1971 and the 1984 act during Thatcher’s reign and increased secularisation by the 1980’s had increased availability and decreased the stigma of divorce proceedings .
(Haralambos and Holborn 2000:574-6)

The electoral success of Thatcherism can be seen in the three election victories of the Thatcher government and her successor John Major who had continued such economic policy post-1990. Between the elections of October 1974 and May 1979 the Conservative party had increased their share of the vote from 35.8% to 43.9%. Labour’s 1979 share was 36.9%, therefore the Conservatives gained clear daylight over Labour and throughout the 1980’s the Conservative share of the vote remained stable around 42-43%. Another testament to the electoral success of the Conservatives during the 1980s is the reversing of the political belief that high unemployment would make a government unelectable. This was a belief that the Conservatives tapped into in their 1979 election campaign with the slogan ‘Labour isn’t working’ in reference to the rising unemployment figure of the late 1970's.

The Conservatives had retained electoral support despite the figure doubling between 1979-81 and continuing to rise until 1986. Support for the Conservatives however came in areas least effected by rising unemployment, especially so in the South of England. In the 1983 election the Conservatives won 162 seats to Labour’s 27 in the South East, 18 seats in East Anglia to the Labour party’s 1, and 44 seats in the South West to Labour’s 1. The Labour party failed to gain a seat from the Conservatives in the South East of England until the 1992 election, whereas in the 1987 election four of the five seats the Conservatives gained from Labour were in the South (Ipswich, Thurrock, Walthamstow and Battersea). In contrast to this the seats that the Labour party gained between 1979-92 were centred around the North of England, Scotland and Wales, who were most effected by high unemployment. In the North Labour won 26 seats to the Conservatives 8 in the 1983 election, around 6-7% higher share of the vote than the Conservatives in Scotland and Wales, in the 1987 election when the SDP were less of an electoral threat their share increased to 45% in Wales and 42% in Scotland, with the Conservatives decreasing to 29.5% and 24% respectively.

The Thatcherite’s use of Nationalist sentiments could also be said to have successfully captured votes from the far right National Front, who in the 1979 election had gained around 130,000 votes. By the 1983 election had shrunk to around 30,000. The Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher had exploited the demise of the National Front by offering a respectable face to anti-immigration, covert and even overt racism after the discrediting of the National Front through Anti-Nazi League activities and prominent NF members having convictions for violent crime. Several Conservative MPs had expressed overt anti-immigration statements as early as the 1960’s, the most notable being that of Enoch Powell and the creation of the Conservative Monday Club in 1961, in response to a disenchantment at the McMillan government’s move towards the centre, which contained 3000 Conservative party members and up to 30 Conservative MPs. The Monday Club constituency aims included voluntary repatriation of immigrants, commitment to capital punishment and opposition to the dismantling of the British empire. Significant alliances between the Monday Club Conservatives and the far right in the 1970’s are exemplified by the Essex branch’s invitation to National Front chairman John Tyndall to address one of it’s meetings. (

Margaret Thatcher had aligned the mainstream of the Conservative party with Powellite scepticism of, and white working-class fears of immigration, thus recapturing the ‘Powellite’ far right from the National Front in claiming ‘If we went on as we are by the end of the century there would be 4 million people of the new commonwealth here…..people are rather afraid this country might be swamped by people with a different culture’ (Margaret Thatcher, Daily Mail 31/01/1978). The use of the race card and immigration had been a significant factor in the Conservatives decline in the late 1990’s and specifically the 2001 election under Hague, but the social and economic insecurities of the 1970’s had possibly aided it’s appeal with certain sections of the electorate, in contrast to the economic stability and low unemployment of 1997-2001.

The Nationalist vote was also greatly aided by victory over Argentina in the 1982 Falklands War, which gave an illusion of reasserting Britain’s standing as a world force. The Conservatives also scrapped Labour proposals for devolution in 1979, showing a commitment to retaining the centralisation of power in Westminster and preventing the United Kingdom from fragmenting. Both of these occurrences aided the Conservative success in 1983 and rapid reduction of National Front votes. It must therefore be recognised that the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher were an electoral success during the 1980’s because it clearly identified who it’s potential electorate was (affluent southern voters, Nationalist insecurities) and captured it, whilst isolating the sections of the U.K. to whom Thatcherism would have met fierce resistance (the de-industrialised regions hit by unemployment, Scottish and Welsh devolutionists, Labour strongholds).

Economic policy held central importance with regards to Thatcherism, as it marked a departure of emphasis to the previous 35 years of Keynesian demand creation and full employment and had specifically linked Britain’s 20th century economic decline to diverting from Victorian free market values. The Conservatives had not broken the post-1945 consensus themselves, as this had been forced upon the Labour government between 1974-79 by the IMF in order to secure financial assistance. The Labour government were forced to cut public spending in order to reduce inflation, though the Conservatives had promised to remain with this policy and enforce it with enthusiasm, as opposed to the Labour party’s appeasement IMF demands.

The Conservatives had chosen the priority of reducing inflation over reducing unemployment, both of which were high during between 1974-9, although unemployment soured between 1980-6 to 10.4% of the labour force (OECD, Historical Statistics 1960-90), inflation had more than halved from 14.2% between 1974-9 to 6.2% between 1980-9 (OECD, Economic outlook, June 1993). The privatisation programme had aided the Conservatives’ aim of reducing inflation, by reducing public spending whilst shedding labour costs, though when Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990 inflation had risen back up to 9.5% (OECD, Economic outlook, June 1993), due to tax cuts, increased spending on credit and Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to enter the ERM (member states experienced no increase during this period). The mistakes of the Thatcher government in this period had brought a 4 year recession, which greatly overburdened and effected the popularity and level of trust of John Major’s government, despite an increase in economic fortunes from 1993 onwards.
(Gamble 1994:190,213,275)

The de-industrialisation programme has had far greater impact outside of the South of England, London after 25 years of economic liberalism has barely been affected by such policy due to it’s attraction as a global financial centre. De-industrialisation outside of the South has lead the British economy to be over-reliant on London, in comparison to other developed nations. London has been described as a ‘city state that dominates a nation state’ (Society Guardian 09/06/2003), in that provincial cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow have much less impact on the UK economy than, for instance German provincial cities like Frankfurt, Munich and Stuttgart have on the German economy.

The trend of the U.K. over-reliance on the capital city had developed in 1980s, where high unemployment was concentrated around the North of England, Scotland and Wales. The growth of service sector employment in the 1970s, within the public sector had spread itself evenly throughout the regions of the U.K., where in the 1980s private service sector was mainly concentrated around the south, with the public sector greatly reduced through privatisation. The North-South divide created by Thatcherite economic policy, in contradiction to it’s Nationalist electoral appeal, had an effect of fragmenting Britain in terms of prosperity of which the free market economic policy which has continued under New Labour has failed to redress.

Unemployment figures for April 2003 showed U.K. unemployment to be at 4.9%, the South-East, South-West and East below that level, between 3.7 and 4%, where the North-East, Scotland, West Midlands and Yorkshire/Humberside were all above that average, the North-East as high as 6.7%. This divide is also present in average gross weekly pay, the national average being £473.80 with only London (£636.90), South-East (£505.60), and the East (£475.90) above this and the lowest again being the North-East (£402.10). The vast increase in overseas investment that occurred in the Thatcher years can also be said to undermine the Nationalist sentiments of Thatcherism, as in aiding the development of globalisation and the decline of state control over the U.K. economy. The decrease in exchange controls has led to a situation of vast amounts of capital flowing in and out of the U.K. economy, therefore leaving the U.K. government needing to pursue economic policy to suit foreign investment, so investment does not flow out of the U.K. This has been one explanation behind the demise of social democratic policies in favour of the ‘third way’ between social democracy and free market policy. (Society Guardian 09/06/2003,, schulze 1999:100-3,273;

It must be seen therefore, that the two major and seemingly irreversible revolutions of the past 50 years in the U.K., are the revolution of social individualism which began in the 1960s (birth control, feminism, gay liberation, divorce legislation) and the revolution of economic individualism of the 1980s (de-industrialisation, information and service economy, reduction of exchange controls). Thatcherism was at the forefront of the latter, though was very much a counter-revolution of the former, even though the development of economic individualism may well have been aided by the development of social individualism over the previous two decades, then in turn exacerbated social individualism further in proceeding decades. The Conservatives enjoyed a degree of popularity whilst pursuing economic individualism in the 1980s, though when it turned it’s full attention to Social conservativism in the 1990s, dramatically lost support to the Labour party who had more comprehensively encompassed both social and economic liberalism in pursuing the ‘Third Way’. Whilst retaining it’s liberal social policy (lowering the age of consent for male homosexuals, reclassification of soft drugs and aiding single mothers in job seeking)

Labour had increased liberalisation of their economic policy, for example in dropping clause 4 of it’s constitution reduced commitment to public ownership, Tony Blair is quoted as stating ‘It’s not reform that is the enemy of public services, it’s the status quo. You cannot just sling money at any problem in order to solve it’ (Society Guardian 26/11/2001). New Labour have therefore used the influence of Thatcherism with regards to the public sector and increased the involvement of the private sector in it’s running. The Adam Smith institution in 2001 noted ‘A broad consensus is beginning to emerge over the state of Britain’s public services….it is now recognised that money alone is not the solution to public service problems’ ( This view is also supported by Anthony Giddens who stated ‘third way politics should accept some of the rights criticisms…..but see these problems not as a signal to dismantle but reconstruct’ (Giddens 1998:42)

It is with this in mind that it could be considered that Thatcherism was by the end of the 1990s replaced by ‘Third Way’ politics as the dominant policy in U.K. politics. The remaining legacy of Thatcherism is the continuation of free market economics, though this is mainly due to the increasing limitations on governments to implement macro-economic policy in the wake of globalisation. The remaining popularity of this policy is difficult to judge as no major political party offers an alternative policy and with a low voter turn out Labour had won the 2001 election with less votes than the party had when losing the 1979 election with a Keynesian Social Democratic policy. The popularity of free-market choice has been questioned by The Guardian Newspaper (27/03/2004) which states ‘Polling shows people are living busy and stressful lives and do not want lots of choices, they want their local schools or hospitals to be good, they also don’t see it as realistic that choice will be offered to them’. The article also claims that Labour spin doctors had been in consultation with Barry Schwarz author of ‘Paradox of Choice’ which argues ‘excess of choice creates stress, dissatisfaction and unhappiness’.

The undiluted Thatcherite policy of economic liberalism and social conservativism was still pursued under William Hague in 2001 where the Conservatives had over 5 million votes less than their electoral high point of 1987. William Hague’s successors have aimed to take a more socially liberal stance, for example Iain Duncan Smith’s expulsion of the Monday Club from the party for anti-immigration views and Michael Howard’s denouncing of the BNP and advocation of gay civil unions. The selection of David Cameron and his incorporation of environmentalism within the Conservative party has underlined this further, thus leaving Third way politics in a more influential position than Thatcherism in contemporary U.K. politics.

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