Was Thatcherism anything more than traditional Conservatism adapted to the conditions of the 1980s?

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Was ‘Thatcherism’ anything more than traditional Conservatism adapted to the conditions of the 1980s?

When Margaret Thatcher took up her position as the first female leader of a Western democracy, few would have envisioned the profound effect she would have in reshaping the political landscape. British politics had been in a state of near consensus across the main political parties since the Second World War ended, but Thatcher’s arrival on the political scene marked the death of the ‘ancient regime’. It was also the end of Keynesian Economics, subsidized welfare and trade union power.

Before Thatcher there was a general agreement across the political middle ground on many issues; such as a Keynesian interventionist economic policy with a focus of minimizing unemployment and a firm commitment to public spending on the Welfare State. This was at odds with Thatcher, who said herself in 1981 that, "political consensus seems to be the process for abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies”. It was in keeping with this declaration that Thatcher swiftly moved the Conservative party away from this political centre and to the radical new right. 

Furthermore, this quote can be seen as an indication of ‘The Iron Lady’s’ unwavering, unflinching public personality that came to dominate and influence much of the social change in Great Britain across the 1980’s and continuing right through to the modern day. It is a testament to Thatcher’s political acumen that, even the ‘left wing’ of the Labour Party has thus far, absconded from reversing the rates of her privitisation policies.

Thatcherism in the modern day has been popularly characterised as its own ideology, spawned from a hybrid of traditional Conservatism (emphasis on nationalism and a return to ‘Victorian values’), and Classical Liberalism (freedom of the market, promotion of the individual) yet it is still difficult to define. Thatcherism can be seen to be a coherent set of ideas and values, like Liberalism or Conservatism, but it is an important to question what aspects of Thatcherism are entirely novel and unique. This contentious issue has led to debates as to whether ‘Thatcherism’ really can be regarded as a separate, unique ideology.

Thatcherism did, however, successfully incorporated elements of economic neo-liberalism with a steely social neo-conservatism. With neo-liberalist pioneers Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, two of Thatcher’s biggest influences at the forefront, Thatcherism exported the belief that the instigation of unregulated market capitalism will consistently produce greater efficiency, economic growth and therefore widespread prosperity.

Furthermore, the rise of neo-conservative thought can be perceived as an attempt to redress the balance of the ‘swinging sixties’. By removing the socially liberal and radical pursuit of unrestricted pleasure, Thatcher reinforced authority’s importance to social stability. Traditional sources of authority, such as, the importance of religion, family and nationalism, are all influences of neo-conservatism. This form of neo-conservatism was needed, according to followers such as Norman Tebbit, who saw it important to adapt these traditional conservative values to this new ‘permissive’ society of the 1980’s.

For some, however, Thatcherism offers no novel insights into political theory whatsoever. Although it can be seen to be profoundly ideological on one level, (cut taxes for the rich, low public spending) it is essentially a formula for a practical state apparatus and therefore, ‘is better seen as a series of non-negotiable precepts than as a consistent body of thought’.  From this view Thatcherism, rather than dismantling the popular welfare state, was seen to be streamlining it, making it more efficient and less prone to waste by ‘propping up’ failing British Industry, all with the view to make Britain a competitive nation on the world stage again. Therefore, Thatcherism can be seen to be adapting a new practical import-led economy, with an emphasis on controlling inflation rather the employment, to the traditional manufacturing base of Britain that had existed since the industrial revolution.

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Popular Leftist thinkers such as Tony Benn went further and attacked Thatcherism from a hegemonic perspective. For Benn the term ‘Thatcherism’ acts in a deliberately misleading manner to mask the ‘real developments in British politics’. From this outlook, to term this new Conservative programme of financial deregulation ‘Thatcherism’, is merely to humanise it, and to sell it to the electorate. For these reasons, Thatcherism can be seen to continue the Conservative tradition of ‘statecraft’, the ability of preserving bourgeois interests to create new forms of political and cultural domination over the underprivileged, whilst successfully winning elections and retaining power.  


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