The Left and Margaret Thatcher

Frederick Cowell


Margaret Thatcher’s death has resulted in many a hagiography, some national reflection and an almighty attack of political amnesia. Her pursuit of an agenda of ideological radicalism which either, saved or savaged Britain (depending on your viewpoint) created an ‘ism’ but was not done in vacuum.

Margaret Thatcher had long nursed radical ideologies but contrary to the right wing narrative of ideological triumphalism in her ascendency to power, her first election victory in May 1979 was on a very pragmatic and cautious ideological platform. The Conservative manifesto was, as the historian Andy McSmith notes, only little more radical than their 1970 manifesto and Margaret Thatcher had agreed to follow the generous recommendations of the Clegg Commission on Public Sector pay which had been set up after the winter of discontent – hardly the stuff of union smashing Tory fantasies.  Ken Clarke reflected that the election focused on bread and butter issues such as prices, inflation and the state of the national finances – many of the same concerns had encouraged the electorate five years earlier to replace Edward Heath with Harold Wilson. Nigel Lawson remembered she was preoccupied with “not frightening the electorate” and in the late 1970s she went out of her way to distance herself in public from more radical policies on spending cuts and privatisation and in office was even prepared to give in to the miners, delaying pit closures. It was two years from her election until the first full monetarist budget in 1981 and many of the largest privatisations and assaults on the unions took place later. The ideological zealotary, which she had always had, emerged openly in 1981 as the infighting on the left meant that it was unlikely that there would be any meaningful opposition to the Thatcherite agenda. 

The year 1981 is often remembered as being the nadir for the left politically; in January the ‘gang of four’ split to form the SDP, in February Tony Benn decided to challenge Denis Healy for the deputy leadership of the Labour party in a protracted six month contest and Militant completed their takeover of local Labour parties.  The political opposition to Thatcher spent their time looking inwards leaving the ideological terrain open, allowing Thatcher, as Hugo Young put it –  to “educate” the electorate about unemployment. Some trade unionists even reflected that by viscerally opposing everything that she did their opposition became lost in a wall of anti-Thatcher noise. When the Labour party had to actually face Thatcher in the 1983 election it was with a manifesto that was largely inspired by Tony Benn’s policies and the result was a disaster. The claim is often made that the 1983 election was won due to the Falkland’s factor, however as the historian Richard Vinen points out there is little evidence to show that the Falklands war had a significant impact on peoples choices and that issues relating to the economy were in fact more important in voters minds. To put it another way; the Falklands may explain the fact of Thatcher’s victory, but after the domestic disasters of 1980-82 the scale of the 1983 victory – a majority of 144 – can only be explained by a lack of electable alternatives. Equally many on the left blame the ‘treachery of the SDP’ breaking away from Labour to form another political party on the centre left splitting the electoral opposition to Thatcher and thus allowing her to achieve landslides on a declining vote share.  Again, this misses the point the SDP felt the need to split away precisely because the Bennites and union leaders had control of the party, encumbering it with polices that were un-electable and denouncing all opponents as traitors. For example as the British public had endorsed staying in the European Community (EC) in the 1975 on Community Membership, it took some considerable chutzpah, and was wildly undemocratic, for the 1983 Labour manifesto to commit to unilateral withdrawal from the EC without a referendum– something not even UKIP have dared to propose.

The destructive weakness of the left meant that many of the polices of Thatcherite electoral victories went unchallenged; the broken promise to tackle unemployment in the 1979 election campaign and the massive hike in indirect taxation in 1979-81 faced more effective opposition from inside the Tory party. It is also fallacious to assume that the electorate were duped or deceived into voting for Thatcher; double standards and lies projected by a supine media characterised Thatcherite campaigns but would never have been that effective had Labour not asked voters to endorse a manifesto which Gerard Kaufman called the “longest suicide note in history”. People probably should not be too coy about reasoned critique of her economic and social legacy but the occasion of her death has provoked an odd, near nostalgic hatred.  It is however the sort of hatred that blinded the left allowing Thatcher to conquer the ideological mainstream and splenetic venting at her funeral looks suspiciously like a rerun of a bad, and rather unfunny, 1980s sitcom.

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