How revolutionary was Thatcherism?
How revolutionary was Thatcherism?
The result of 1975 leadership election for the Conservative Party heralded a new era in right wing politics. Margaret Thatcher was not only in control of a male dominated and male orientated party but she had brought with her a new ideology that is best described by political theorists as Thatcherism. The British economy and state was transformed between 1979 and 1990 as ‘she maximised her power to achieve the things she wanted’1. There is a dispute however as to whether the period of Thatcherism was a revolution of the British State or if it was more of a reaction to Labour Socialism that had taken hold of society in the 1970s. Furthermore there is a belief that Thatcher's revolution was more within the Conservative Party, providing it with a new sense of direction, rather than on Britain as a whole. It is these notions that I intend to analyse before drawing a conclusion as to what extent Thatcherism was revolutionary.
Throughout Thatcher's leadership of the Conservative Party it was not uncommon for her opponents to claim that ‘she was not really a Conservative at all’2, as a result of her transformation of it. Political observers are unclear as to whether the changes to the party were actually the rise of a new right or just a ideological return to the grass roots of Victorian politics, which is the judgement of one political scientist who claims that ‘Thatcherism can be explained as a reassertion of nineteenth-century liberalism’3. By taking the party further to the right, the Victorian attitudes of laissez-faire and the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor were perhaps inevitably going to be reinstated, which is clear by the way that the idea that the state should provide from cradle to the grave was so readily rejected by Thatcher. This was a huge ideological change, arguably the greatest, to conservative principles in post-war politics as it heralded a reduced commitment to the welfare state and individualism was once again a major aspect of Tory ideals.
The cut back in state intervention was not only within social politics as it also stretched across the approach to the economy as well. Thatcher was greatly influenced by the American
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1 B. Jones, D. Kavanagh, M. Moran, P. Norton, Politics UK (4th Edition) (Pearson, Edinburgh, 2001) page 107
2 R. Garner and R. Kelly, British Political Parties Today (Manchester Uni Press, Manchester, 1998) page 62
3 E. Evans, Thatcher and Thatcherism (Routledge, London, 1997) page 122
economist Milton Friedman who was a staunch believer that Keynesianism did more damage to the economy than good, therefore a free market economy should be allowed to operate. This was
once again a reverse of post war conservative policies as preceding Tory governments had taken control of the economy by spending their way out of depressions, thus there was a prolific use of state intervention. Monetarism was seen by Thatcher as the best approach towards the British economy and it was hoped it would make Britain prosperous again and would lead to greater efficiency as there would no longer be a ‘government grants to prop up inefficient firms, so that only those which made themselves competitive would survive’4, therefore government spending would be vastly reduced. This new ideological advancement can be seen as a revolution of the party itself but the principles that Thatcher wished her party to follow did have parallels to that of a pre Disraeli Conservative government. There is also the question as to what extent it was actually a revolution or whether it was a more of a reaction. The answer to these lies in the desire of Thatcher to quash Labour socialism which she spoke of in key speeches. ‘I am extremely aware of the dangerous duplicity of Socialism, and extremely determined to turn back the tide before it destroys everything we hold dear’5. The 1970’s had seen a Labour government trying to tackle the declining economy by stronger co-operation with Trade Unions and more state intervention, but this was seen as a failing solution and the economy came to its nadir at the end of 1978 with the winter of discontent under Callaghan. Thatcher's reformation of her party can therefore be argued to be a reaction to needing an end to consensus politics that had taken hold of decision making since the end of the war and also to dispose of the socialist ideas that were ailing the economy.
There is an interesting argument put forward by Political theorists such as Bill Jones and Eric Evans, who believe that Thatcherism was not really revolutionary at all but a response to events else where in the world and to break with consensus and co-operation. Britains industries were in a steady decline and because they were not efficient enough they were unable to find markets for goods. Thatcher's response to this inefficiency by turning to monetarism was ‘necessary
because the traditional co-operative approach was responsible, at least in part, for the failed
4 P. Jenkins, Mrs Thatchers Revolution: The Ending of the Socialist Era (Pan Books, London, 1987) page 278
5 F. O’ Gorman, British Conservatism: Conservative thought from Burke to Thatcher (Longman, New York, 1986) page 220
policies of the past’6. In his writings Jones has compared the British economy with the rest of
the world and he comes to the conclusion that they were all turning to new right wing principles with regards to the economy and therefore ‘Thatcherism in Britain was a necessary adjustment to changing patterns in the world economy, without which Britain would lose its present modest place in the international economic hierarchy’7. It is therefore evident that Thatcherism was in part a reaction to consensus politics and the way in which governments overseas were handling their economies.
On winning the general election in 1979, Thatcher immediately set about putting her new right manifesto into practice. In her first budget of June 1979, the Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe took his first moves towards monetarism and the moves he introduced intended to control inflation that was running at ten per cent8 when the Tories had taken office. However just as with other revolutions in twentieth century history such as the Bolsheviks in Russia, the problems that the British economy were facing actually worsened and by May 1980 it was soaring at 22 per cent9. Despite this by 1983 the rate had fallen to 4.5 per cent10 but there were some drastic side affects such as unemployment shooting up to 2.8 million by the autumn of 198111, which was double that of when Thatcher had first taken office. Britain was also in its worst depression for 50 years and with monetarism taking hold of the economy and an attitude of laissez faire, hundreds of firms were going bankrupt. They refused to be beaten though and Thatcher's persistent refusal to back down from her revolutionary economic proposals began to lift Britain out of its slump and by the end of the 1980’s it was showing signs of growth.
The major development in Britain during the Thatcherite era, which was revolutionary, was the privatisation of the nationalised industries. This was to develop free market forces and was hoped would lead to greater efficiency as there would no longer be a monopoly of firms within different sectors of industries and companies would be accountable to their shareholders, so
therefore competition could thrive. Statistics show that between 1979 and 1990 ‘the number of
6 E. Evans, Thatcher and Thatcherism (Routledge, London, 1997) page 78
7 B. Jones, D. Kavanagh, M. Moran, P. Norton, Politics UK (4th Edition) (Pearson, Edinburgh, 2001) page 587
8 N. Lowe, Mastering Modern British History (Third Edition) (Macmillan, London, 1998) page 271
shareholders rose from 3 to 9 million’12.
The change in attitudes towards the economy had considerable effects upon the welfare state which Thatcher had a seemingly laissez faire and leave it to nurture itself approach to. Within the NHS she proposed the introduction of ‘private health insurance, charging for doctor’s visits and increasing prescription charges’13. This was designed to save between 10 and 12 per cent14 of the NHS budget but it was an extremely unpopular move although revolutionary on the ideas of the past. She was the first Prime Minister since the formation of the welfare state in 1945 who was determined to cut back on the amount of support it gave society. This change can also be seen in the Education system where a series of government acts in 1980, 1986 and 1988 ‘extended parental choice..imposed a national curriculum on all state schools…and allowed schools to opt out of LEA control’15. This was again promoting individualism and allowing schools to control themselves without the state intervening. Her other social policies were similar to this which had a huge impact on society and major consequences such as the prolific miners strikes of the mid 1980s.
In my opinion from studying the different interpretations of Thatcherism is was revolutionary in the impact that it had on Britain’s economy and society as she was the first leader to reduce the governments role in the welfare state and other areas of the economy. The fact that John Smith and Blair were forced to reform the Labour Party as a result of Thatcher's implementations, show that it was also revolutionary on the British Political system. However to say that it was a total revolution would be unsubstantial as the reasons for the so-called revolution were not revolutionary but more of a reaction to the post war consensus and the fear of the rise of Labour
Socialism. It also argued that it was only ‘half a revolution’16 and that it split Britain into two
nations in two minds ‘torn between the old welfare ideal and the new enterprise ideal, rejecting socialism but not yet at moral ease with the new order’17.
12 M. Lynch, An Introduction to Modern British History 1900-1999 (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2001) page 178
13 E. Evans, Thatcher and Thatcherism (Routledge, London, 1997) page 66
15 E. Evans, Thatcher and Thatcherism (Routledge, London, 1997) page 72
16 P. Jenkins, Mrs Thatchers Revolution: The Ending of the Socialist Era (Pan Books, London, 1987) page 378
17 P. Jenkins, Mrs Thatchers Revolution: The Ending of the Socialist Era (Pan Books, London, 1987) page 378
B. Coxall and L. Robins, British Politics Since The War, (Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1998)
E. Evans, Thatcher and Thatcherism (Routledge, London, 1997)
R. Garner and R. Kelly, British Political Parties Today (Manchester Uni Press, Manchester, 1998)
P. Jenkins, Mrs Thatchers Revolution: The Ending of the Socialist Era (Pan Books, London, 1987)
B. Jones, D. Kavanagh, M. Moran, P. Norton, Politics UK (4th Edition) (Pearson, Edinburgh, 2001)
N. Lowe, Mastering Modern British History (Third Edition) (Macmillan, London, 1998)
M. Lynch, An Introduction to Modern British History 1900-1999 (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2001)
F. O’ Gorman, British Conservatism: Conservative thought from Burke to Thatcher (Longman, New York, 1986)
M. Smith, ‘From Thatcher to Major’, Politics Review, Vol 5 No. 2 Nov 1995 (Philip Allan Pub, Oxfordshire 1995) pp.2-5
Here's what a teacher thought of this essay
This is a good essay (the author submitted an upper middle mark, I would have given it a mid-2.1 depending on the level of the module). It shows an adept command of information, which is communicated clearly and systematically. The structure is good. Three things could have been improved upon, although this is within the context of an essay that is already more than satisfactory: 1) More critical use of literature. More often than not the quotations are used to corroborate, not to question. A more thorough and critical engagement with the literature would show greater intellectual depth. 2) Argument - although the structure of the essay is reasonably good (paragraphs flow, their point is clear, and they follow on nicely from each other) a stronger argument to explain the role of each paragraph in expanding an angle would be beneficial. As it is, there are numerous themes here (such as internal party revolution, ideological revolution, state revolution, economic revolution and party system revolution) which could be differentiated between more successfully to contribute to a very nuanced, interesting argument. 3) Greater evidencing of controversial points. Quite a lot of the statements made here are debated and a greater sensitivity to this would elevate the use of information in the essay.