Thatcher's Legacy: Margaret Thatcher tested the British Left - and found it wanting. The most pernicious of all her legacies is the damage she inflicted upon the ideological integrity of the British Labour Party. Rather than repudiate Thatcherism, Tony Blair's "New" Labour Party accepted it as an irreversible historical reality.
DE MORTUIS nil nisi bonum – of the dead speak only good – is a compassionate maxim. I’m not sure Margaret Thatcher would have followed it, but in writing about the late British Prime Minister, I will do my best.
Perhaps the kindest (and certainly the truest) observation I can offer about Baroness Thatcher is that she tested the British Left and found it wanting.
So absolute has “Thatcherism’s” ideological triumph been that few now remember how little prospect of success the British Conservative Party’s new leader was granted – even by her colleagues.
The 1970s represented the high-water mark of the Left’s success in the English-speaking world. Even as late as 1979 – the year in which Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female prime-minister – the ideology we know today as neoliberalism was dismissed as extremist folly by practically all “serious” public intellectuals (including a number on the Right). If the Keynesian economic policies that had underpinned thirty years of post-war prosperity no longer seemed to be working, the cure was generally supposed to lie in a shift to the Left – not in a lurch rightwards to the laissez-faire precepts of the Victorian era.
In this context, the election of the Margaret Thatcher-led Conservative Government was interpreted not as some sort of ideological sea-change, but as the British working-class’s angry response to the multiple economic and political failures of Jim Callaghan’s Labour government.
Under the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the Conservatives had (as always) benefited from the large number of votes cast for the Liberal Party. But the size of the Conservatives’ majority in the House of Commons by no means reflected the party’s share of the popular vote. With 13.6 million votes (43.9 percent) the Conservatives enjoyed a clear plurality, but the party’s tally was still well below that of the 15.8 million votes cast for their opponents – Labour and the Liberals.
Baroness Thatcher’s admirers may be loathe to admit it, but at no time in her eleven year reign did the Conservative Party’s neoliberal programme ever attract more than the 43.9 percent it received in 1979.
What she was able to do, however, was unite the Right's plurality and bind it ever-more-tightly to the Conservative Party’s radical economic and social programme. The middle-class voters who, under the hapless Ted Heath, had all but given up hope that the “lower orders” would ever be put back in their proper place, were both inspired and invigorated by the Tories’ “Iron Lady”.
This unity on the Right was not, however, answered by unity on the Left. The right of the Labour Party simply wasn’t willing to follow Tony Benn into the radical territory dictated by the party’s socialist ideology. Egged on by the right-wing British media (which needed no assistance in recognising an opportunity to divide and conquer when it saw one) the 15-17 million British voters who opposed Thatcherism fruitlessly divvied up their support between Labour, the Liberal Party and the Labour Right’s breakaway Social Democratic Party.
In sociological terms this splitting of the Left reflected the professional middle-classes’ political refusal to surrender either their status (or their taxes!) to working-class people. When the chips were down (and Thatcherism made damn sure the chips were always down) even these ostensibly “conscience-driven” members of the British bourgeoisie refused to recognise working-class Britons as their social and intellectual equals.
As Margaret Thatcher set about defeating the organised working-class in the mines and factories, their middle-class "comrades" were waging a parallel campaign of class warfare inside the Labour Party.
Thatcherism’s ultimate triumph, therefore, is not represented in Britain’s pulverised trade unions and privatised industries (unions can be rebuilt, industries can be renationalised) but in the person of Tony Blair and his ideologically de-fanged “New” Labour Party.
“You turn if you want to.” Margaret Thatcher famously told the 1980 Conservative Party Conference. “The Lady’s not for turning!”
If only the British Left had been equally determined to stay the course.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News. The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 April 2013.