Like many individuals in the UK I have found that the death of Thatcher has been one of the most revealing events in recent British history. Rarely has Britain’s inherent political and ideological divides been more apparent among friends, politicians, celebrities and the press than since it was announced that Mrs Thatcher had tragically passed away in her room at the Ritz on the 8th of April 2013.
I want to try and avoid repeating what so many commentators have done so far (and no doubt historians will continue to do), and avoid talk of Thatcher’s specific policies, because while I am technically a child of Thatcher, as I do not remember her policies as they occurred I feel out of place to pass judgement on them (instead I’ll leave that to unemployed morons between 18-30 who “celebrated” her death in Brixton amongst other venues). Instead I would like to talk about her real legacy and by that I mean her ideology.
With the advent of New Labour Ideology has become an ugly word since 1997 and it is not so hard to understand why. Following Thatcher the old belief system of Britain’s political left had been thoroughly discredited with the Unions in tatters and the appeal of Nationalism and Socialism destroyed following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the increasing affluence of the British people (particularly in the South but also in Scotland due to the booming North Sea oil). With that in mind Tony Blair sought to re-write the play book on British politics and move away from any overtly “Ideological” policies, most famously removing clause 4 (Labour’s Nationalization policy) from the party constitution.
The consequence of this was the creation of “The Third way” where New Labour attempted to use the power of the free market that Mrs Thatcher had unleashed to achieve the social re-balancing that Labour had previously sought to achieve through the State. The result was a legacy of debt and further division of the country as the South grew increasingly affluent and the North became increasingly reliant on subsidies from Whitehall.
But why does this all matter and what does Mrs Thatcher have to do with it?
The answer is that the birth of New Labour, David Cameron’s Conservatives and the rise of UKIP are all because Mrs Thatcher essentially re-wrote the play book for British politics and most importantly because she installed the principles that shattered Britain’s post-war consensus that so closely mirrored that of Europe.
Her belief in individualism and in personal accountability undoubtedly are why she is so fondly remembered by the Political Right and hated by the Political left, but the legacy of that ideology has also caused deep divisions in Britain’s political parties today that are still unresolved.
For the Conservatives those on the party left remember the hatred on the street and the loss of party support in the North and Scotland, a legacy that still afflicts the party to this day. As a result they are reluctant to make many of the cuts which those on the traditional party right have clamored for during the coalition. Defence has been cut, policing has been cut, NHS spending has been ring-fenced, elderly welfare mostly ring-fenced, foreign aid ring-fenced. These are all policies that are a direct consequence of Thatcher’s “Nasty party” image and reflect a desire by the Conservative political left to re-brand themselves.
The irony of course is that Thatcher’s vehement belief in the free market, personal accountability and individualism have never been more popular on Britain’s political right. The defections from the Conservatives to UKIP owe far more to the popularity of Thatcher’s ideals and a rejection of “The politics of the Political centre”, or in other words Blair’s “Third way”. A rejection of excessive European regulation, a more simplified taxation system, a move away from a “Benefits culture” to one that rewards the entrepreneurs and risk-takers lies at the heart of this divide on the Political right which is tearing the Conservatives apart and fuelling the rise of UKIP.
For the Political Left the problem is no less acute, a fact that David Miliband and his brother know all too well. The victory of Ed Miliband, despite the Labour spin, is a sign of a rejection of the centrist agenda promoted by Blair and reflects a desire by the party’s main financiers and ideologues (Socialists and Trade Unionists) to move away from the free market and to involve the state more in the regulation of the economy. In particular it represents a move away from the support of the City to one where the City of London is “The enemy of the Proletariat and a symbol of Capitalism”….Or so many of the Labour party’s main support base would like it to be.
The fact is that the belief in the state and personal accountability are popular in the UK now and that simple fact is at the heart of the Labour party divide (and to an extent the Lib Dems). How can the free market be used to create a more balanced society in an ever more competitive world which lets not just finance, but people move easily from country to country? In many senses the Political Left know what they would like in an ideal world, a world where people asked for smaller salaries and paid higher taxes to help others. Sadly they also realise that is not likely to happen any time soon, perhaps again a legacy of Thatcher some might say, people who achieve success without the help of the state perhaps feel less inclined to give back to the state.
The base line however about Thatcher’s ideological legacy however is this: It is not the Political Right that was most affected by Thatcher, but rather the Political Left in Britain and hence why she is so despised by them. Thatcher more than anyone else but the nail in the coffin for the idea of a Socialist party running the UK, not just through embedding the Free Market into the British political mainstream, but also by making the concept of personal accountability a key component of how British people perceive fairness in our society. There is perhaps no better example of this issue, than the struggle that the current Labour party is experiencing with opposing Conservative cuts to the so-termed “Welfare Scroungers”. Thatcher’s legacy that individuals should not live off the state but rather they should be accountable for their own destinies has strong resonance in the modern UK and until the Political Left can reconcile this national consciousness into its vision for the future, the party will always be a contradiction between its desires and its actions.
Thatcher’s legacy I believe is a truly great one and one all British people should be grateful for. The belief in Personal accountability and Individualism is what made this country great and it is only when the UK rediscovers this that we will be truly able to survive and compete in the New world.
R.I.P Mrs Thatcher, this country will never be the same without you.