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The Legacy of Thatcherism in Question : an Introduction

Raphaëlle Espiet-Kilty
p. 11-32

Résumé

On 8th April 2013, Margaret Thatcher passed away at the age of 88. The controversy over her funeral is the occasion for us to consider the sensitive question of her legacy not only in the decade that followed her resignation from office in November 1990 but also in the decade that culminated in the formation of a Coalition Government led by the Conservatives in May 2010. The term ‘legacy’ was associated with Margaret Thatcher before her death, almost immediately after she left office in November 1990. However, it was really at the turn of the 21st century that it became popular especially with the specialists of New Labour and the Third Way. Thatcher’s influence however was not limited to party politics. It filtered into all reaches of the very society she had considered non-existent. The result was that the transformation, which had begun under Margaret Thatcher, was almost completed in the first decade of the 21st century. However, after three consecutive defeats, Thatcherism was no longer considered as an electoral winner by the Conservative Party, and the legacy was proving a cumbersome one. David Cameron’s election victory in December 2005 signalled the onset of what many specialists describe as a new faction within the party, i.e. not a Thatcherite one. What seemed to be a clear repositioning of the Conservative Party to the centre ground was likely to relegate an ageing Margaret Thatcher and Thatcherism to history books and to the past.

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  • 1 In the 20th century, only Sir Winston Churchill was honoured with a state funeral, unlike Harold Wi (...)
  • 2 See the reactions largely reported in the media from “Ding Dong the witch is dead” (YouTube) to ant (...)
  • 3 See, for example, Gary Younge’s article in The Guardian 11th April 2013 in which he draws on the ex (...)

1On 8th April 2013, Margaret Thatcher passed away at the age of 88. The controversial question of whether she was to have a state funeral, usually reserved for members of the Royal Family or for outstanding statesmen, had been settled prior to her death at a meeting between Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister in office at the time, in accordance with Margaret Thatcher’s wishes. The ceremonial funeral was held at St Paul’s Cathedral on 17th April 2013, a rare homage1 paid to a very controversial political figure. This alone was enough to polarise public opinion2. Twenty-three years after the end of her third and last term in office, Margaret Thatcher was still dividing public opinion, and provoking heated debate amongst politicians and scholars alike. Such public discord surrounding a public figure, especially at the time of his or her death, is almost a unique phenomenon in contemporary Western Europe3. Funerals are usually the occasion on which a public consensus forms around the person who has passed away. Yet, two decades on, Margaret Thatcher was as controversial a figure as she had been when in office. Is it perhaps because Thatcherism was still alive and well at the time of her death? Was Margaret Thatcher’s legacy still too important for her to be considered a figure of the past? The controversy over Margaret Thatcher’s funeral is the occasion for us to consider the sensitive question of her legacy not only in the decade that followed her resignation from office in November 1990 but also in the decade that culminated in the formation of a Coalition Government led by the Conservatives in May 2010.

  • 4 To quote but a few : S. Evans, K. Ewing, P. Nolan, “Industrial Relations and the British economy in (...)
  • 5 Simon Jenkins, Thatchers and Sons. A Revolution in Three Acts, London : Penguin Books Ltd., 2006, p (...)
  • 6 Ibid.
  • 7 Tony Blair, New Labour. New Life For Britain, Party Manifesto for the 1997 General Election, Forewo (...)

2The term ‘legacy’ was associated with Margaret Thatcher before her death, almost immediately after she left office in November 19904. However, it was really at the turn of the 21st century that it became popular especially with the specialists of New Labour and the Third Way. The view that Tony Blair was Margaret Thatcher’s heir was largely adopted by both academics and political journalists. In his seminal Thatcher and Sons. A Revolution in Three Acts, published in 2006, Simon Jenkins presents not only John Major but also Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as Thatcher’s legatees or sons – as the “generation of politicians” she “bred” and who all “took her as their reference point.” All “dedicated themselves to the cause of reform”5 as she had done. This generation built on her legacy which, according to Jenkins, “became the ruling consensus of British government”6. Admittedly, few would deny that New labour’s embrace of free market ideology was inherited from the Conservatives’ economic record. And indeed, from the onset, Tony Blair justified this definite shift in the party’s economic stance, away from Clause IV, by explaining that his party was pragmatic and that “What counts is what works”7 would be its prevailing ideology. Once adopted by both ruling parties, the free market agenda became the new orthodoxy. The old social democratic consensus introduced by Clement Attlee in the wake of the Second World War, which Margaret Thatcher had spent her eleven years in office dismantling, was no more. The tone of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy was set. Her influence was to go beyond her own party.

  • 8 The term appeared for the first time in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1979. I would argue that t (...)
  • 9 Mostly the annual suveys carried out by NatCen : British Social Attitudes Survey.
  • 10 R. Espiet-Kilty, “David Cameron and the Big Society : A new deal for the citizen ? “, in Jean-Phili (...)
  • 11 Tim Bale, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, Cambridge : Polity Press, 2010, p. 136.
  • 12 The term “Thatcher’s child” appeared for the first time in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1986.

3Thatcher’s influence however was not limited to party politics. Helped not only by the New Labour governments’ economic policies but also by a right-wing press and an increasing number of Thatcherite Think Tanks and pressure groups, which were entirely in favour of neoliberal doctrine and entirely devoted to building on her legacy, it filtered into all reaches of the very society she had considered non-existent. The result was that the transformation, which had begun under Margaret Thatcher, was almost completed in the first decade of the 21st century. To a certain extent, Thatcher’s Britain8 became a reality long after she had left office. This was particularly identifiable in the public’s perception of the role and scope of the State in three areas: the economy, the public sector and the Welfare State. Surveys carried out between 2000 and 20109 reveal that a definite shift to the political right occurred at the turn of the century on such issues as government intervention, tax and spend policies, poverty, unemployment and law and order10. The irony of the situation did not escape Margaret Thatcher who often boasted that the younger generation of politicians was more Thatcherite than her former colleagues in government had been – or even more she may have been herself. Tim Bale suggests that the proportion of members of Conservative MPs committed to free market economics had risen from 56% in 1992 to 73% in 2001, while Eurosceptics made up 90% of the parliamentary party11. Arguably, the younger generation of British voters was also more Thatcherite in that there was general acceptance of free market economics albeit not necessarily one that meant that the NHS or education system should be privatised. Arguably, Thatcherism owes much to the Britons born in the 1970s and 1980s: Thatcher’s children12. She also made sure that this legacy would not be tampered with.

  • 13 Tim Montgomerie, and Andrew Gamble, “Extraordinary times in British politics : A conversation [onli (...)
  • 14 Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher. The Authorized Biography. Volume One : Not For Turning, London : (...)
  • 15 Ibid., p xiii.
  • 16 Ibid., p. xi.

4Margaret Thatcher met with both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown because such consultations was not only the sign that her experience was valued but also because the transmission process could carry on. She used to say that New Labour was “her most important achievement”13. This slow but implacable consolidation of her legacy could thus proceed with Margaret Thatcher very much in the driver’s seat. She was instrumental in ensuring that there would be a legacy, and she was adamant that it endure although, as Charles Moore, her official biographer, put it “she always believed that the ‘-ism’ which derived from her married name would make a permanent difference to the story of human freedom”14. In 1995, when she and the policies of her Governments were under fire from all sides of the political spectrum, she published two memoirs15 in justification. According to Charles Moore, she was “furious at the way she had been forced from office” and she wanted to “set out her accomplishments for her eleven and a half years as a prime minister”16.

5She was a self-proclaimed politician of convictions and her uncompromising and dogmatic style were very much at the origin of the eponymous trend that was sparked off before she became PM, whilst she was still party leader, although Thatcherism later developed into a much more complex mixture of style and policies. In spite of the –ism, Thatcherism is not easy to define. Thatcherism is not a unified set of ideas or body of doctrine. Rather it is a set of policies that are not always coherent and that, more often than not, are simple reactions to circumstances and difficulties. The Falklands War, and the attack by the IRA are two such examples. On both occasions her personal reaction became integral elements of what Thatcherism was supposed to entail. Monetarism, on the other hand, was a deliberate strategy underpinned by a distinct body of doctrine but the theory and the practice often differed and to a certain extent, it is more Margaret Thatcher’s doctrinaire approach and her famous ‘There is No Alternative’ that define Thatcherism than Monetarism itself. Her attempt to curb trade union power only became one of Thatcherism’s defining features after she defeated Arthur Scargill and his National Union of Mineworkers in 1984. These and many similar examples show that Thatcherism is more an attitude to power that depends on the persona of the leader than a doctrine, although it is supported by certain defining principles: right-wing Conservatism on law and order, immigration, taxes, a Neo-liberal belief in the supremacy of the free market against government intervention and state ownership, and a vision of the individual as a free agent of his/her own destiny rather than a member of a society closely related to the State.

  • 17 Charles Moore, 2014, p. xiii.
  • 18 Tim Bale, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, Cambridge : Polity Press, 2010, p. 89.
  • 19 Ibid., p. 92.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 147.

6Margaret Thatcher believed that she “had rescued Britain from its post-1945 years of semi-socialist decline”17 and she was convinced that the principles she had adhered to were virtuous as opposed to Socialism, which was evil. It was because of these two strong beliefs that she attempted to ensure that good would prevail after she was gone and that all her work would not be undone. She was actively involved in the choice of John Major as her successor because he was a true, economic Thatcherite, albeit one who had a kinder and more compassionate vision of society. She was again instrumental in ensuring William Hague’s victory as John Major’s successor, regularly posing beside him in photographs or making an appearance during his speeches. And yet, the 1997 defeat of the Party by Tony Blair’s New Labour was increasingly interpreted by the Party as a sign that changes were needed. From the onset, it was clear that William Hague would not succeed in instituting change in spite of attempts, even from the Thatcherite faction, to distance the Party from Thatcherism. In 1999, Peter Lilley, a committed Thatcherite and a member of the No Turning Back Group, delivered a speech in which he explained that British citizens did not want the NHS to be privatised and the free market to be brought into health. He immediately incurred the wrath of Margaret Thatcher who, in spite of her age, was still as determined as ever that there should be ‘No Alternative’18. William Hague then put an end to the argument by declaring how proud the Party was of its past, of Margaret Thatcher and of being the party of the free market19. Hague’s successor, Iain Duncan-Smith (IDS, the current Work and Pensions Secretary) was also a member of the same group and a right-wing Conservative. However, in an attempt to lure voters back after the 2001 defeat, which was even more humiliating than that of 1997, IDS also tried to steer the Party away from what he described as the nasty party. Not wishing to simply disclaim his Thatcherite background, he insisted that Thatcherism was “a valued part of our past”20. Had Thatcherism become history? Iain Duncan Smith’s failure to bring about the necessary changes for the Conservative Party to come out on top can either be read as a sign that the Thatcherite faction within the party was too strong or that the leader was too weak and hesitant. Duncan Smith was defeated in a vote of confidence in October 2003. His successor, Michael Howard, elected in November, was considered as a true Thatcherite. He was also a more experienced politician. He did not succeed however in ensuring victory for the Conservative Party at the 2005 General Election in spite of obvious signs that New Labour was beginning to be worn out by eight years in office and despite Tony Blair’s loss of credibility over Iraq. Three consecutive electoral defeats meant that the centre ground of politics, where most voters were, rejected the image of the Conservative Party, i.e. that of a nasty party bent on privatising the NHS and increasing inequalities through tax rebates for the rich, a party that did not represent women, ethnic minorities, or in fact any minority. In addition, the Conservative Party could no longer boast of being the only party capable of managing the economy given New labour’s adoption of the free market consensus. Thatcherism was no longer considered an electoral winner, if it ever was after 1990, and the legacy was proving cumbersome for the Conservative Party.

  • 21 Agnès Alexandre-Collier, Les Habits neufs de David Cameron. Les Conservateurs britanniques 1990-201 (...)
  • 22 P. Kerr, P, “Cameron chameleon and the current state of Britain’s ‘consensus’”, Parliamentary Affai (...)
  • 23 David Cameron, interview for the Times on 2 December 2006 quoted in Stephan Evans, 2010, p. 3.
  • 24 David Cameron presented Lady Thatcher with the Morgan Stanley Great Britons Lifetime Achievement Aw (...)
  • 25 Timothy Heppel, “The ideological composition of the Parliamentary Conservative Party 1992-1997,” Jo (...)

7David Cameron’s election victory in December 2005 signalled the onset of what many specialists describe as a new faction21 within the party, i.e. not a Thatcherite one. The new leader was a member of the One-Nation Group, a Conservative Think Tank clearly distinct from the No Turning Back Group. If anything, David Cameron was the heir to Tony Blair rather than to Margaret Thatcher, given his age, his insistence on controlling the Party in the media and on controlling his own image, and given that his social agenda was partially based on New Labour’s22. This does not mean to say that David Cameron rejected the Thatcher legacy. On many occasions between 2005 and 2010, he seized every opportunity offered him to re-affirm his admiration of his ‘illustrious predecessor’ because “she (had been) right”23 and because she had modelled a new Britain: “Margaret Thatcher is a fitting recipient of the Morgan Stanley Great Britons Award, when we judge greatness as it should be judged: the scale of the legacy. She made the landscape in which we live today”24. And he did indeed try to follow in some of her footsteps both because he shared certain beliefs but also for strategic reasons, given the size and power of the Thatcherite faction in the parliamentary Conservative party25. The case of Europe is an example of the concessions he had to make to the right of the Party. Nevertheless, three consecutive electoral defeats had left the Party in no doubt as to the fact that a new agenda needed to be presented to British voters. David Cameron henceforth endeavoured to convince them that his Conservative Party was no longer the nasty party, i.e. a party that did not have sympathy for those at the bottom of society, for the less privileged, or a party that wanted to bring free market economics into health and education. David Cameron defined himself publicly as progressive with a more liberal vision of the family and of relationships, who was in favour of same-sex marriage for example, who was socially compassionate and indeed believed in society, a Big Society in fact. He also played the green card by cycling to work and he highlighted the “environmentally friendly” agenda of his new Party. Economically speaking, he risked making many enemies amongst Thatcherites, and in general, on the right of the Party, by insisting that the priority was to repair the economy not to cut taxes. He condemned the damaging consumerism that was said to be the most important legacy of the Thatcher years. In short, David Cameron made sure that the Conservative Party he was leading would be seen as changing and moving to the centre ground rather than to the right.

  • 26 Vinen, Richard, Thatcher’s Britain. The Politics and Social Upheaval of the 1980s, London : Simon (...)

8The suggestion that there might have been a rupture therefore debunks the notion that Cameron’s party is the legatee of Thatcher and that Cameron was her heir. As of 2005, the very notion of legacy seemed to have become antithetic to whatever Cameron and his party wished to embody, at least on the face of it. What seemed to be a clear repositioning of the Conservative Party to the centre ground was likely to relegate an ageing Margaret Thatcher and Thatcherism to history books and to the past. In 2008, in his conclusion to Thatcher’s Britain, historian Richard Vinen presented the Thatcher era as an “episode in history rather than an aspect of present-day politics”26 thus implying that the Thatcher era had come to a close. And in many ways, the Britain of the 21st century was indeed very different from that which Margaret Thatcher had inherited in 1979 and then transformed. However, in spite of what may appear to be a break away from Thatcherism, in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death, there seems to be a widespread assumption that Thatcherism still forms part of Britain’s political culture and that her legacy is indeed an enduring one.

The legacy on the Public Sector

9On becoming Prime Minister in May 1979, one of Margaret Thatcher’s priorities was to cut public spending not only as part of her government’s economic programme to curb inflation and restore growth, but also to help roll back the state in order to roll forward individual initiative in a free market. The public sector was accused of having become so large that it “crowded out” the private sector, thus impairing economic growth and creating inflation. It was also described as monopolistic and not cost-effective. In addition, public sector workers were accused of lacking in efficiency and of pursing their own personal interest at the expense of customers, i.e. the taxpayers whom they served. Ever-growing, the state also encroached upon people’s lives and welfare policies were blamed for rendering recipients helpless and dependent on assistance. Public sector reforms were two-fold. The part of the public sector that the Thatcher governments could not do without would have to change its structure and culture, to become better value-for-money or, cost effective, and more competitive. The rest would be dismantled or privatised. Three sectors that were to be reformed with the aim of creating a public sector market and to introduce a private-sector management ethos, were the National Health Service (NHS), the civil service and education. All three are examined respectively by Peter Dorey, Louise Dalingwater, Françoise Granoulhac and Anne Beauvallet.

  • 27 Peter Dorey quotes from Philip Norton and Arthur Aughey, Conservatives and Conservatism, Temple Smi (...)

10Peter Dorey describes the Thatcher legacy in the public sector as an enduring one, which was continued not only by John Major but also Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, especially if one considers the cases of both the NHS and education. He first explains the ideological premises on which the profound transformation of the public sector by the Conservative Party, which came to power in May 1979, were based. What he calls the “combative Conservatives”27 led by Margaret Thatcher, built on mostly American research to draw a negative picture of public sector workers who had no incentive to work and be cost-effective in the work place where competition did not exist. The impression that taxpayers’ money was a bottomless pit was predominant and, with it, the perception that money would flow to further the interests of a corporatist sector and of its workers. These public servants could adopt these positions as they were protected by powerful trade unions. Disputes would usually end in strikes that would inconvenience a great number of users who had no alternative to turn to. This monopoly over one activity meant that the public sector had no incentive to improve and develop so as to offer the best possible service to its customers. This was especially an issue in education where teachers were accused of being politicised and of furthering their own socialist agenda. What was needed to make the public sector more accountable and cost-effective was the introduction of an internal market created either by fragmenting some services and making them compete against one another or by directly introducing the private sector into the public sector by the out-sourcing of various activities. The private companies selected for their value-for-money would be hired and their employees paid by state agencies created specifically for the purpose of managing those services. Public-sector workers would have to integrate what Peter Dorey describes as “the principles and practices of the private sector” that generally revolve around the notion of payment by results whether for the individual worker or the service, department or company as a whole. Thus at each level, there would be competition to provide the best service and therefore obtain the most funding. This ethos is best exemplified by the importance attributed to league tables that became the benchmark by which services were evaluated whether they were provided in hospitals or schools. Users and parents became consumers and acquired the right to choose in a public-sector market. The education market significantly grew under New Labour, with a multiplication of the number of places of learning. An increase in the number of audits, to evaluate the performance of each service and assess whether their objectives, usually set out in five-year plans, had been reached, can also be attributed to New Labour. The number of agencies, directly accountable to central government and responsible for ordering these audits and processing the information was also multiplied. This policy was pursued by the Coalition Government as well. This leads Peter Dorey to conclude that this culture of payment by results, five-year plans and central government targets and control “bears an alarming similarity to aspects of governance in the former Soviet union”. The irony of Peter Dorey’s final analysis will not, of course, escape anyone: he concludes that the legacy of Margaret Thatcher is “a sovietisation of the public sector”.

  • 28 Louise Dalingwater quotes from W.H. Greenleaf, British Political Tradition : vol. 1 – The Rise of C (...)
  • 29 Lord Fulton, The Civil Service, Volume 1. Report of the Committee 1966-68, Cmnd 3638, London : HMSO (...)

11Louise Dalingwater’s chapter focuses on Civil Service reform and the Thatcher legacy. To a certain extent, Margaret Thatcher’s distrust of civil servants was possibly as pronounced as her dislike of teachers, for the same reasons. They were viewed as highly politicised, bent on pursuing their own personal and indeed sometimes political agendas, rather than on serving the state and citizens. This negative image was the subject of abundant literature including Leslie Chapman’s, Your Disobedient Servant published in 1978, or TV shows such as Yes Minister. The image of the dull, self-interested, self-serving, unionised and inefficient civil servant was also spread by the right-wing press, demonstrating that in 1976 one in five workers was employed in the public sector28. This all contributed to creating the motive for sweeping reforms of the public sector in general, and of the civil service in particular. Like the NHS and education, the civil service was introduced to managerial techniques, a change of culture compounded in Improving Management in Government: The New Steps, a Command Paper published in 1988. To further these changes, performance-related pay was introduced also in 1988. However, the main characteristic of the reform of the civil service as opposed to the reform of other public-sector departments was that it included plans to drastically reduce the number of employees either through redundancy and voluntary departure schemes, or by not replacing a retired civil servant, at the same time as reducing individual departments’ funding. By stressing that there was a significant degree of continuity under John Major and then Tony Blair, although New Labour initially recruited more civil servants, Louise Dalingwater’s confirms that Margaret Thatcher’s legacy was continued in that civil servants had to carry on adopting the ethos of the private sector and that customers, here British voters, were consistently viewed as consumers who paid for a service through their taxes. Although the largest cuts in the public sector were introduced by the Coalition Government with the 2010 Spending Review, which particularly targeted the civil service, a policy which could be viewed as reminiscent of that introduced in 1979, Louise Dalingwater does not link David Cameron’s policies with Margaret Thatcher’s. Most of the reforms of the public sector, including Welfare reforms, are part of David Cameron’s Big Society Programme which, for Louise Dalingwater, is not Thatcherite in essence. In addition, she highlights that what is attributed to Margaret Thatcher more often than not existed before her time, or was part of a global political agenda followed by many other countries. For instance, in 1968, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson commissioned Lord Fulton to survey the civil service. He produced a report29 which “set out most of the objectives and recommendations that were later put into policy by Thatcher.” Louise Dalingwater also argues that public management has been reformed elsewhere. She gives the example of Australia where a New public Management initiative bearing the exact same features as the British version (marketisation with the creation of quasi-markets, disaggregation and incentivisation) was introduced by a Labour government. She then concludes that rather than leave a legacy, Margaret Thatcher gave the impetus for reforms.

12Françoise Granoulhac and Anne Beauvallet both consider the Thatcher legacy in education and although both stress there is indeed an important degree of continuity from Thatcher to Major, Blair and Cameron, they suggest different perspectives. Françoise Granoulhac first presents David Cameron’s election as leader of the Conservative Party in 2005 as “a break away from the burdensome Thatcher legacy in education and its market-based approach.” Although she insists that the Conservative Party’s vision of education owes more to New Labour’s managerial approach than to Thatcher’s, in terms of the pursing of the New Labour policy leading to the creation of academies, she is also keen to stress that David Cameron needed to distance himself from Blair. The result was the use of a whole new rhetoric with David Cameron emphasizing his duty to restore social justice which, in educational terms, meant helping all children achieve whatever their social background. However, for Françoise Granoulhac, the problem was that this new discourse did not involve a structural reform of the system. For David Cameron, the education market initiated by Margaret Thatcher and developed by Tony Blair was not the problem. Education was. It no longer delivered social justice or facilitated social promotion because it was not adapted to people, to communities. The reason for this was that it was controlled from the top by government officials, who were disconnected from the grassroots. Schools needed to be liberated from central government control, and therefore from the structural constraints established by Thatcher. The Conservative Party’s flagship policy was the creation of free schools that were supposed to be managed by parents, charities or faith groups, with government support. Another reason why schools were failing to deliver social justice was that they lacked strong leadership. Parents were called upon to become involved along with teachers. They were supposed to be the new actors of this revolution. There were, however, aspects of the Conservative Party’s educational programme that echoed the Thatcher years. Obviously, the fact that the expansion of the education market carried on unabated, was one. Also, the insistence on traditional values such as respect for authority and a return to basics was another. Michael Gove, the Coalition Government’s Education Secretary (2010-2015), is described by Françoise Granoulhac as “a true heir to Thatcher.” The problem was the 2008 crisis and the concomitant spending cuts introduced by the Coalition Government in 2010. The money that was supposed to flow from central government into the Big Society and its schools, via local authorities, only trickled. In the absence of appropriate public funding, some free schools fell into private ownership, that of companies specialised in the education business. This leads Françoise Granoulhac to consider what can be described as a Thatcherite turn in education as an “option by default” rather than David Cameron’s vision.

13Anne Beauvallet contests this analysis, believing that the Thatcherite “enterprise culture” impressed upon the education system, its structure and syllabus, is “the legacy of the Thatcher years” and that “it is an enduring one.” Margaret Thatcher, who had been Education Secretary under Edward Heath (1970-74), had a very clear vision of the role of education, that depended on her personal values. This vision was a mixture of traditional Conservative and New Right thinking. She was a true Conservative in that she stressed the importance of traditional values such as respect for authority and hard work, the values which schools were supposed to transmit. In addition, she believed in the necessity for schools to all work together on a shared programme, or national curriculum, that would focus on the basics, “a basic curriculum with universal standards”, another entrenched Conservative value. The introduction of a national curriculum would not only help set standards, it would also counter the controversial methods used by some progressive or socialist teachers. Her market-based approach also meant that she believed education no longer matched the needs of the market. Her objective on becoming Prime Minister was three-fold: to reform the system so as to bypass local authorities, to create an education market to give parents the right to choose, and to push educational standards up by giving central government more control over programmes. The outcome was a transfer of power from local authorities to central government. The introduction of a public-private partnership initiative (PPI) into education was central to John Major’s reform. The role of PPI was then substantially increased by Tony Blair. The belief that pupils should be assessed more regularly to stop levels from declining, led to the further development (already existed but was not so pronounced) of a culture of assessment and targets. The best schools, i.e. those that were at the top of the league tables would attract the best pupils, for the consumer-parents would reward excellence. These schools would consequently have more funding which, in turn, would help them stay at the top. For Anne Beauvallet, this performance-based culture, overseen by the Office for Standards in Education, feeds into the neo-liberal ideology initiated by Margaret Thatcher. She concludes that, even if some schools, especially at primary level have been able to resist, the Thatcher legacy, in the field of education, is an enduring one. In this, she concurs with Peter Dorey’s position: Thatcherism was not a thing of the past in 2015.

14The reform of the public sector is an element that forms an integral part of Thatcherism. To examine the policies of the governments from 1990 to 2015 in this regard, is therefore necessary to consider the question of her legacy. Thatcherism is also a set of emblematic policies, moments, issues, ideas: Europe, Monetarism, Neo-liberalism. What impact did these issues have on ensuing governments? Do they still influence parties, governments and political agendas today? Is Thatcher’s legacy still an aspect of present-day politics?

The legacy of an ‘ideology’ ?

  • 30 Guifford, 2014, p. 519 quoted by Agnès Alexandre-Collier.
  • 31 A. Szczerbiak & P. Taggart P., Opposing Europe ? The Comparative Party Politics of Euroscepticism, (...)
  • 32 The Single European Act was signed in 1986.

15The centrality of Euroscepticism in the Thatcher legacy is a case in point for, ironically, the legacy exceeds what was transmitted. Guifford even argues that “Euroscepticism became fundamental to protecting the Thatcher legacy.”30 It is on this paradox that Agnès Alexandre-Collier begins her analysis, explaining that although Euroscepticism is often associated with Margaret Thatcher, she cannot really be defined as a Eurosceptic herself. To define Euroscepticism, Agnès Alexandre-Collier refers to Szczerbiak & Taggart’s work in which hard Euroscepticism is described as downright rejection of the project of European integration, and soft Euroscepticsim as acceptance of the project, but rejection of any further move towards integration31. Obviously Margaret Thatcher’s position vis-à-vis Europe is not easy to explain. Although she was directly involved in renegotiating the terms of Britain’s financial contribution, which culminated with the famous “I want my money back” at the 1984 summit, she was also a strong supporter of the creation of Single Market32. Many view the Bruges Speech of 1988 as the turning point and as the moment when her ‘soft Eurosceptic’ views became clear or clearer. Yet, for Agnès Alexandre-Collier, although her style became more divisive, the policies of her governments before and even after 1988 were not Eurosceptic. She concludes that Margaret Thatcher’s so-called Euroscepticsim was “more a question of style than of substance.” Arguably, Euroscepticism only appeared during the long debate that led to the signature of the Maastricht Treaty by John Major in 1993, a key moment for Agnès Alexandre-Collier. The formation of the Bruges Group was the symbol of this Euroscepticism that henceforth “became institutionalised within the Conservative Party.” The very name of the group leading the fight against Europe was a sign that Margaret Thatcher was presented as its “spiritual mother.” Agnès Alexandre-Collier argues that her position and style provided the basis on which Euroscepticism developed and became entrenched within the party. Her contention, however, is that Euroscepticism and its place in today’s Conservative Party is not solely the outcome of Margaret Thatcher’s attitude to Europe, her legacy, but also the result of organisational changes within the party. These changes enabled a new generation of MPs, most of them Thatcherite and Eurosceptic, to dominate the Parliamentary Party. She identifies similarities between David Cameron’s and Margaret Thatcher’s rhetoric but, she argues, “the comparison ends here”. Changes in the organisation of the party and in the way the leader is elected mean that David Cameron is now compelled to listen to his grassroots and more likely to bow to their pressure. His promise to hold a referendum on Europe is the illustration of this latter point. The legacy of Thatcherism vis-à-vis Europe is a toxic one. It has divided the party since the mid-1990s and it may well prove a tipping point as the referendum approaches.

16Nathalie Champroux and Nicholas Sowels’ chapter on the Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS), Monetarism, and fiscal policies is arguably the only one that quite clearly relegates Margaret Thatcher’s “pure” Monetarism to history books and denies that her legacy went beyond her years in office. The authors begin by examining the theoretical and ideological underpinnings of the MTFS. Like many other policies, Margaret Thatcher’s monetarism was not new. What was new however, for Nathalie Champroux and Nicholas Sowels, was the “Government’s determined focus on the strategy”: the monetary and fiscal policies of the MTFS were introduced in their pure monetarist form (money supply reduction and spending cuts) and their exclusive objective was to curb inflation. Although inflation almost doubled between 1979 and 1980, it started falling in 1981. Albeit late in coming, this reduction in inflation could be read as a sign that monetarism was working and that Margaret Thatcher had been vindicated in her dogmatic defence of it: “You turn if you want. The Lady’s not for turning.” Nathalie Champroux and Nicholas Sowels, however, contend that “there were fundamental flaws in the government’s management of the situation, and indeed in the whole pursuit of pure monetarism”. The essential problem was that the government had made policy commitments that “undermined the application of monetarism”. Cutting direct taxation was one of them. There were others, which meant that the government could be charged with incoherence and in fact, in spite of the tenacity with which Margaret Thatcher “stuck to monetarism and the MTFS”, Nathalie Champroux and Nicholas Sowels explain that the “pure” monetarist policies of the first two years were abandoned in favour of a more “mixed” version in the 1981 Budget. In the last part of their chapter, Nathalie Champroux and Nicholas Sowels suggest that: “it is tempting to declare that nothing remains of the early Monetary Thatcherism,” given that even Milton Friedman, the father of Monetarism, agreed that strict Monetarism had worked nowhere. Yet Monetarism is still used today as “an instrument to tackle high unemployment.” Nathalie Champroux and Nicholas Sowels argue that to use Monetarism for this purpose is the opposite “to Margaret Thatcher’s perception of the role of monetary policies” that were destined “to only cure monetary issues.” In addition, she would have disagreed with saying that tackling high unemployment was a priority. Was her legacy being trampled on? Obviously, with inflation at around 2% (Consumer Price Index) since 1993, priorities had changed and the 2008 financial crisis arguably exposed the failures of a model that she had contributed to developing. The Coalition Government’s Spending Review in October 2010, which planned cuts of 19% were reminiscent of the 1981 budget. The question of the Thatcher legacy was raised again. Nathalie Champroux and Nicholas Sowels conclude however that Britain’s economy is now very different and that although the neo-liberal model has become the orthodoxy in Britain as well as in many other countries, if not most parts of the world, the legacy of the MTFS and of Thatcher’s Monetarism was not an enduring one.

  • 33 Marc Lenormand quotes from P. Gould, The Unfinished Revolution : How the Modernisers Saved the Labo (...)
  • 34 Ibid., p. 396.

17Margaret Thatcher boasted that her most important legacy was New Labour. Marc Lenormand examines the re-positioning of the Labour Party that was the inevitable consequence of four consecutive electoral defeats (1979, 1983, 1987, 1992). This long interval in the political desert was not the first one (1951-64). The divisions that appeared at the time between the left and the right wings of the party were just the first in a long series of bouts of division in the 20th century. Michael Foot was the last Labour leader to attempt to steer the party towards more Socialism. His successor, Neil Kinnock, although he was defeated twice, started the move of the party towards the centre-ground of politics. John Smith then carried on in the same direction until his premature death. The new leader, Tony Blair, took the party farther, towards acceptance of a free-market economy, accordingly to meet the voters’ needs, with Phillip Gould asserting, in 1999, that “the old working-class was becoming a new middle-class” of consumers who had “left collectivism behind in the supermarket car-park33. Marc Lenormand then shows that Labour traditionalists were derided for being the “new Conservatives” because of their inability to change, early evidence that Tony Blair’s communication strategy was already mastering the art of ‘spinning’. Marc Lenormand suggests that the main argument of the modernisers in favour of accepting the Thatcherite consensus was that years of Thatcherism had changed Britain profoundly and that these changes were irreversible. One of these changes was that, according to Gould, “mass politics (was) becoming middle-class politics” with 60% of people defining themselves as middle-class.34 To learn to accommodate the new political, social and economic model seemed a better option than to produce an alternative. It was an electoral winner. For Ed Miliband, who became leader in 2010, both Thatcher’s and New Labour’s legacies were toxic and, although not as left-wing as his successor, Jeremy Corbyn, he attempted to steer the party towards Socialism again with proposed re-nationalisations, for example. He failed. Jeremy Corbyn will no doubt attempt to seal the fate of the Thatcher legacy.

  • 35 It was indeed a Marxist one but obviously, the use of the term Communist instead of Marxist is pejo (...)

18Thierry Labica describes Margaret Thatcher’s ceremonial funeral as the supreme moment of irony of the Thatcher legacy. The Anglican Church, which had been so critical of her, delivered a message of unity around one of the most divisive politicians Britain had known. The celebration itself was presented as a moment of national unity, the very unity which, according to Thierry Labica, Margaret Thatcher had destroyed. The funeral cost British taxpayers millions of pounds at a time when austerity was biting, an austerity that was the result of the financial crisis of 2008, arguably caused by the 1986 Big Bang and deregulation of the financial markets introduced by the second Thatcher Government. Thierry Labica is interested in symbols and in the role they played in building Thatcherism and ultimately its legacy. He looks at three events, to which he attributes great symbolic value. First the assassination in 1989 of Northern Irish human rights lawyer Pat Finucane by Loyalist paramilitaries acting in collusion with MI5, a fact later acknowledged by David Cameron who publicly apologised for the undeniable involvement of the state in this assassination. No proper inquiry was ever conducted so that suspicions run high that the Government at the time might have known. Thierry Labica reads this event as a great embarrassment and one of the symbols of a legacy that he describes as a series of moments for which the party should apologise. The second incident is the Hillsborough disaster in April 1989 when 96 Liverpool Football Club fans died in what was described, by a biased part of the media, as a consequence of hooliganism. In spite of the publication of the Taylor Report, a damning indictment of the police, the Thatcher government refused to make the police accountable. The third, Orgreave, in 1984, was one of the defining moments of the Miners’ Strike of the same year. A confrontation between the police and a picket line degenerated into battle. The strikers were consequently depicted in the tabloid press as animals who were entirely responsible for the violence, although it was later proved that only a series of false statements had prevented the police from being accused of having deliberately provoked the incident. Thierry Labica then draws a parallel between both Hillsborough and Orgreave presenting them as two moments of denunciation of the working-class that, like the public sector for which the miners worked, were the “enemy within.” According to Thierry Labica, to discredit them was part of a strategy. The goal was to dismantle trade unions, this bastion of corporatism and socialism. This denunciation of the working-class and its culture is paralleled with a critique of the class sytem, a so-called Communist construction35. But far from creating a classless society, for Thierry Labica, Margaret Thatcher reinstated a class society and what relative power the working-class possesed, was taken away from them to be given once again to a capitalist elite, the dismantling of trade unions being simply envisaged, here as a way to break the barriers preventing capital from accumulating in the hands of a few. Thierry Labica then concludes that the result of this was the destruction of society and with it of some parts of Britain situated on the geographical fringes (North of England and Wales), as well as some on the social margins, i.e. ethnic minorities and homosexuals. This, according to Thierry Labica, was the legacy of Thatcherism.

19In the first part of his chapter, Dennis Kavanagh offers a sweeping survey of the period 1979-2015, starting with a presentation of the Thatcher years and an explanation of how the –ism came about. The conclusion is that Thatcherism was meant to endure given the depth of the transformations and the length of time the Conservatives were in office. In addition, a host of Think Tanks and policy groups, as well as a media almost entirely favourable to her, carried on spreading the ‘good word’ long after she had left office. Dennis Kavanagh quotes Margaret Thatcher in April 1992: ‘Thatcherism will live, it will live long after Thatcher has died because we had the courage to restore the great principles and put them into practice.” He also discusses Margaret Thatcher’s haunting presence after she left office, presenting John Major as the legatee whom she destroyed and Tony Blair as the one she moulded. It is indeed Tony Blair who is seen as her true heir because once he had accepted her views on the economy and on the need to preserve and even complete most of her reforms, he fulfilled her dream, according to Dennis Kavanagh, the dream of every politician, of leaving a legacy. However, the story of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is also one of “discontinuity” with David Cameron the first and only Conservative leader to genuinely distance himself from Thatcherism and, most of all, the first to have enough political discipline to maintain this narrative. Dennis Kavanagh describes the Conservative leader’s attempts to do away with what he calls “a toxic legacy”, the necessary prerequisite to justify Tim Bale’s “brand decontamination.” This leads Dennis Kavanagh to describe Cameron’s Conservative Party as “Post-Thatcher”. There is, however, a notable difference between the Conservative Party that campaigned for the 2010 election and the Coalition Government that was formed in May. Most of the more progressive electoral pledges seem to have been either moved to the bottom of the agenda or quietly abandoned. Whether this was because of circumstances, or because David Cameron did not really believe in them in the first place, is another question. In many ways, however, David Cameron has proved a much more flexible Prime Minister than expected, sending what Dennis Kavanagh describes as “different signals.” This contributes to making his Conservatism an elusive subject for those who wish to analyse it. For this reason, he has proved to be a different style of politician from Thatcher, i.e. one who is lacking in convictions, whereas she tenaciously, or stubbornly, clung to hers. This, along with his distancing himself from the policies that symbolised Thatcherism, leads Dennis Kavanagh to conclude that: “Her style of leadership and her programme belong to a period and mood in modern British politics, one which she helped to shape. But both are now more suitable subjects for historians than a guide to contemporary politics.”

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Bibliographie

Alexandre-Collier, A., Les Habits neufs de David Cameron : Les conservateurs britanniques (1990-2010), Paris, Les Presses de Sc. Po, 2010.

Auda-André, V. (dir.), La Grande-Bretagne de l’Après Blair, Observatoire de la société britannique, N° 9, 2010.

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D’Ancona, M., In It Together: The Inside Story of the Coalition Government, Viking, 2013.

Dorey, Peter, British Conservatism. The politics and philosophy of inequality, London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2011.

Espiet-Kilty, R. “David Cameron and the Big Society: A new deal for the new citizen?” In Fons, J.-P. (dir.), La nouvelle donne politique en Grande-Bretagne (2010-2012), Observatoire de la Société Britannique, N° 12, pages 49-68, octobre 2012.

Evans S., Ewing, K., Nolan, P., « Industrial Relations and the British economy in the 1990s: Mrs Thatcher’s legacy », Journal of Management Studies, vol. 29, Issue 5, pages 570-589, September 1992.

Evans, S., “‘Mother’s Boy’: David Cameron and Margaret Thatcher”, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Volume 12, Issue 3, pages 325-343, August 2010.

Gamble, Andrew, The Free Economy and the Strong State: The Politics of Thatcherism, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988.

Jenkins, S., Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts, London: Penguin, 2007.

Kavanagh, D., Thatcherism and British Politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Montgomerie, Tim and Gamble, Andrew, “Extraordinary times in British politics: A conversation [online]. Quadrant, vol. 59, No. 10, Oct 2015: 24-28.

Moore, Charles, Margaret Thatcher. The Authorized Biography. Volume One: Not For Turning, London: Penguin, 2014.

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Thatcher, M., The Path to Power, London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1995.

Vinen, Richard, Thatcher’s Britain. The Politics and Social Upheaval of the 1980s, London: Silon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2009.

Wilding, P., “The British Welfare State: Thatcherism’s enduring legacy”, Policy & Politics, vol. 20, Number 3, pp. 201-212, July 1992.

Wilson, Rob., 5 Days to Power: The Journey to Coalition Britain, London: Biteback, 2010.

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Notes

1 In the 20th century, only Sir Winston Churchill was honoured with a state funeral, unlike Harold Wilson, for example, in spite of his serving four non-consecutive terms in office. A ceremonial funeral is very similar to a state funeral. The latter has to be approved in Parliament and the carriage carrying the coffin is escorted by the Royal Navy, but a ceremonial funeral is otherwise just as expensive.

2 See the reactions largely reported in the media from “Ding Dong the witch is dead” (YouTube) to anti-Thatcher demonstrations in the North of England Scotland and Northern Ireland.

3 See, for example, Gary Younge’s article in The Guardian 11th April 2013 in which he draws on the example of Martin Luther King to show that a consensus is usually reached when public opinion and historians have arrived at a ‘resolution’ : “At that point his legacy could be understood by enough people, not as the source of division – as his contributions were seen at the time – but of resolution. The polarised, polemical and at times problematic response to Margaret Thatcher’s death has highlighted that, in her case, there has been no resolution and therefore there can be no consensus.”

4 To quote but a few : S. Evans, K. Ewing, P. Nolan, “Industrial Relations and the British economy in the 1990s : Mrs Thatcher’s legacy”, Journal of Management Studies, vol. 29, Issue 5, pages 570-589, September 1992 ; P. Wilding, “The British Welfare State : Thatcherism’s enduring legacy”, Policy & Politics, vol. 20, Number 3, pp. 201-212, July 1992, etc.

5 Simon Jenkins, Thatchers and Sons. A Revolution in Three Acts, London : Penguin Books Ltd., 2006, p. 1.

6 Ibid.

7 Tony Blair, New Labour. New Life For Britain, Party Manifesto for the 1997 General Election, Foreword by Tony Blair.

8 The term appeared for the first time in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1979. I would argue that today’s Britain is more Thatcherite than it ever was during her eleven years in power.

9 Mostly the annual suveys carried out by NatCen : British Social Attitudes Survey.

10 R. Espiet-Kilty, “David Cameron and the Big Society : A new deal for the citizen ? “, in Jean-Philippe Fons (dir.), La nouvelle donne politique en Grande-Bretagne (2010-2012), Observatoire de la Société Britannique, N° 12 octobre 2012, Toulon : Presse de l’université du Sud Toulon-Var, pp. 54-58.

11 Tim Bale, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, Cambridge : Polity Press, 2010, p. 136.

12 The term “Thatcher’s child” appeared for the first time in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1986.

13 Tim Montgomerie, and Andrew Gamble, “Extraordinary times in British politics : A conversation [online]”, Quadrant, vol. 59, No. 10, Oct 2015 : 24-28. Availability : <http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary ;dn =516715056376875 ;res =IELLCC>. [cited 05 Nov 15].

14 Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher. The Authorized Biography. Volume One : Not For Turning, London : Penguin, 2014, p. xiii.

15 Ibid., p xiii.

16 Ibid., p. xi.

17 Charles Moore, 2014, p. xiii.

18 Tim Bale, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, Cambridge : Polity Press, 2010, p. 89.

19 Ibid., p. 92.

20 Ibid., p. 147.

21 Agnès Alexandre-Collier, Les Habits neufs de David Cameron. Les Conservateurs britanniques 1990-2010, Paris : SciencesPo Les presses, 2010, pp. 87-88.

22 P. Kerr, P, “Cameron chameleon and the current state of Britain’s ‘consensus’”, Parliamentary Affairs, 60 :1, 46–52 quoted in Stephan Evans, “‘Mother’s Boy’ : David Cameron and Margaret Thatcher”, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Volume 12, Issue 3, pages 325-342, August 2010, p. 2.

23 David Cameron, interview for the Times on 2 December 2006 quoted in Stephan Evans, 2010, p. 3.

24 David Cameron presented Lady Thatcher with the Morgan Stanley Great Britons Lifetime Achievement Award, at the Guildhall in London on 31st January 2008.

25 Timothy Heppel, “The ideological composition of the Parliamentary Conservative Party 1992-1997,” Journal of Politics and International Relations, 4 (2), 2002, pp. 299-324 & Pippa Norris and Joni Lovenduski “Why Parties fail to learn : electoral defeat, perception and British party politics”, Party Politics, 10 (1), 2004, p. 94 quoted in Tim Bale, 2010, p. 136.

26 Vinen, Richard, Thatcher’s Britain. The Politics and Social Upheaval of the 1980s, London : Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2009, p. 319.

27 Peter Dorey quotes from Philip Norton and Arthur Aughey, Conservatives and Conservatism, Temple Smith, 1981, pp. 79-82.

28 Louise Dalingwater quotes from W.H. Greenleaf, British Political Tradition : vol. 1 – The Rise of Collectivism, London : Routledge, 2011.

29 Lord Fulton, The Civil Service, Volume 1. Report of the Committee 1966-68, Cmnd 3638, London : HMSO, 1968.

30 Guifford, 2014, p. 519 quoted by Agnès Alexandre-Collier.

31 A. Szczerbiak & P. Taggart P., Opposing Europe ? The Comparative Party Politics of Euroscepticism, vol. 1 & 2, Oxford : Oxford University Press, vol 1 pp. 3-7 and vol 2, 2008, pp. 247-8.

32 The Single European Act was signed in 1986.

33 Marc Lenormand quotes from P. Gould, The Unfinished Revolution : How the Modernisers Saved the Labour Party, London : Abacus, 1999, p. 396.

34 Ibid., p. 396.

35 It was indeed a Marxist one but obviously, the use of the term Communist instead of Marxist is pejorative. The aim was, of course, not to state a fact but to denounce a certain vision of society.

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Raphaëlle Espiet-Kilty, « The Legacy of Thatcherism in Question : an Introduction  », Observatoire de la société britannique, 17 | 2015, 11-32.

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Raphaëlle Espiet-Kilty, « The Legacy of Thatcherism in Question : an Introduction  », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 17 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2016, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL : http://osb.revues.org/1757

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Raphaëlle Espiet-Kilty

Maître de Conférences en Civilisation britannique à l'Université Blaise Pascal-Clermont 2

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Observatoire de la société britannique

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