Saturday, June 21, 2014

Time for the Conservatives finally to put Margaret Thatcher behind them

The absence of giants in our current politics meant that some venerate Margaret Thatcher in a sort of misty memory of "greatness". This tendency has, of course, been given a turbo boost by her still recent death  and by Charles Moore's very good first volume of biography. The short version for those who didn't particularly like her but "admire" her is that desperate times demanded desperate measures. The problem with this is that in fact the times weren't desparate at all. 

James Calaghan's government in 1978 was actually pretty competent. Callaghan was a well-liked and able PM who regularly wiped the floor with Thatcher in the Commons and elsewhere. Denis Healey was a fine Chancellor, and most of the other Ministers were capable. Tony Benn, for example, was an excellent Secretary of State for Energy in those difficult Energy times. The Achilles heel was Union power and the failure of "In Place of Strife"  still clouded Labour's credibility as a potentially reforming force in this area. But with the "young Turks" - Owen, Williams, Rogers and with the brilliant Healey a Labour victory in 1979 would certainly have kicked off a new emphasis on Union reform. Well we all know what happened in the Winter of Discontent - the biggest tragedy for the Left and for Britain in peacetime Britain in the 20th Century.

Margaret Thatcher ridiculed the whole idea of "consensus". This is the delusion of a dictator not a modern politician. In complex modern societies you have to bring the people with you. Thatcher never did that. Her election victory in  1983 gave her a minority of the votes against the challenge of the soft (SDP/Libs) and harder (Labour) Left. Thatcher won because the Left was divided and in the still bright glow of the Falklands. The Myth was well under way to being created. Then, empowered by a wholly unjust majority in the House of Commons she elected to confront the Unions without any real grounding in public support. There was no precedent in a British society for the military-style attack on the NUM. It was contradictory to British Values and driven by an obsessional refusal to even consider consensus. (That same obsession had led to the Falklands War - that last irrational, preposterous Imperial adventure). 

Of course the hubris of Thatcher was eventually to be her downfall. Not, sadly, at the hands of the electorate but in the "Fall of Caesar" drama of 1990 when her colleagues in the Conservative Cabinet acted as a collective Brutus to stab her in the back (and the front as well). They were acting patriotically to remove from office a woman who was clearly at the time unfit for power. 

The post hoc deification of Margaret Thatcher is, as I said, a reflection of the feeling on part of many Conservatives that there are no giants of her stature around. She had charisma and a certain perverse style. She had energy and a commitment to hard work and she was a patriot. But she was the exception that proves the rule that politics is the "Art of the Possible". Conservatives should long ago have put Thatcher and Thatcherism behind them. And should they fail to do that and adopt neo-Thatcherite policies and even choose a Thatcher clone as leader (is there one?) the only result will be unelectability. Is that what they want? 


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