(I should perhaps have added to the preceding catalogue her merciless destruction of the Conservative Party as a credible party of government and as an effective opposition capable of holding an equally wayward and arrogant government to account.)
Thatcher’s destruction of the Conservative Party… It would mean we didn’t have to give any of the credit to Blair, which appeals. And it makes a certain horrible kind of sense. As a political leader, Thatcher was heavily reliant on personal relationships and personal qualities – her own ability to grasp an argument and make a connection with political acquaintances (both of which Brian remarks on) were central parts of the Thatcher programme, as was her personal ability to impose herself on the Cabinet and Parliament. Seen from inside that personality, obsequious cronies and yes-men are a good thing to have about you: you already know you’re right, after all, and people offering alternatives and qualifications will only slow you down. Hence Thatcher’s contempt for the Civil Service; hence, also, an attitude to the Conservative Party itself which was equivocal, to say the least. As a machine for exalting Thatcher and delivering power to her, it was very much a good thing. As an organisation with its own history, its own activities and its own ideas – I hardly see that Thatcher would understand a party having that kind of hinterland, let alone respect it. Much of the relationship between Thatcher and her party makes more sense if we assume, simply, that she held the party in contempt, and that she had no more concern for its long-term wellbeing than for the independence of the Civil Service.
This discussion was sparked off in the first place by a post on Stumbling and Mumbling about Thatcher’s economic legacy. In it, Chris Dillow suggests that Thatcher was a class warrior disguised as an economic liberal, and that her governments burned into the public mind an association between free-market liberalism and reactionary politics. I think that association was there already – and that the charge goes further. Consider the classic Thatcherite phrase There Is No Alternative. There are those (Chris probably included) who would argue that there was, sooner or later, no alternative to implementing a good chunk of Thatcherite economic liberalism. However, properly considered, this position leaves room for unlimited debate about timing, mechanisms, allocation of costs and benefits, etc. What’s most truly poisonous about Thatcherism is that this broad policy stance was conflated, quite illegitimately, with the eternal There Is No Alternative of the charismatic leader: there is no alternative to me, and hence there is no alternative to my interpretation of economic necessity. Nor was Thatcher above working the trick in reverse, deriving legitimacy for her own authority from the inevitability of economic change (we couldn’t go on like we were before). Both ways round, it’s a nasty rhetorical trick – and one which Blair has picked up and made his own.
So the point is not just that, under Thatcher, economic liberalism got associated with class war from above. It also got associated with messianic ‘big bang’ visions of social change and charismatic authoritarian-populist leadership – and the whole shebang got painted in the livery of Historical Inevitability. Blair then took over the core assumptions of the Thatcher style wholesale (albeit without the charm and the brains to entirely bring it off). We’re still living in Thatcherland.
Spare a thought, finally, for the Tory Party, which caught the effects first and worst. The awful succession of no-hope Tory leaders – soon, apparently, to reach some kind of nadir with the coronation of Cameron – tells us what kind of state the party’s in these days. It’s a battered, confused and demoralised organisation, barely able to express anything more than a vague yearning for a new leader, a young leader, a strong leader… A leader who’s not one of them; a leader who will smile and smile and treat them bad.
Vote Green! (Can you even name the party leader(s)?)