08 April 2013

On the death of Mrs T - part 1

Anyone with their head out from under a rock today will have heard that Margaret Thatcher has died.

I'd often imagined myself celebrating this day with a bottle of champagne (which would be very appropriate, given Mrs T's dislike of French socialists such as Mitterand, Jacques Delors and presumably Francois Hollande), but in the end, that would seem an indulgence when the current ConDem government is going way beyond Thatcher in implementing Thatcherism - an agenda of cuts, privatisation and the impoverishment of working people. If she'd hung on another couple of years and we were in the early stages of the first Ed Miliband administration then maybe it would have been a good excuse for a party. But Thatcherism as an idea lives on... perhaps more than ever.

There have been two big shifts in the political consensus in the last 75 years. One was in the 1940s, where the landslide victory of the Attlee government in 1945 established full employment, nationalisation of the 'commanding heights', the NHS and the welfare state as things that political parties had to commit to if they wanted to win power. Having opposed every one of these things in the 1945 election and been annihilated, the Tories adapted quickly to the post-war consensus and were able to return to power within only 6 years (albeit with less votes than Labour, as a result of  the ludicrous first-past-the-post electoral system).

The second shift began in the mid-1970s when Labour pretty much abandoned full employment (unemployment went up to 1.4 million, having been well under a million for the whole period between the late 1940s and 1972) and embraced money supply (M3) targeting under Callaghan/Healey. The Thatcher govt then introduced full-scale monetarism (for a few years at least), abandoned full employment completely (unemployment went over 3 million by 1985 as a result), began privatisation and chipped away at the welfare state. But this was a slower ideological shift. It wasn't really until 1997 that the Labour Party embraced most aspects of Thatcherism, although Labour began to drift right as early as 1982 after the short lived Bennite hard left insurgency of 1979-81 which came to an end when Benn failed by a whisker to win the 1981 deputy leadership contest.

Interestingly, Tony Benn was probably the one Labour politician who really understood what Mrs Thatcher represented; the end of the post-war settlement and a systematic attack on working class institutions - in particular, the trade union movement, which had played such a pivotal role in the establishment and development of the Labour Party. One feels that if Benn had been leading the party in 1981 (rather than the worthy but rather past-it Michael Foot) then Labour would at least have stood a chance of articulating an effective challenge to Thatcherism. Much of Benn's early 1980s analysis makes even more sense now, in the era of the ConDems.

Unfortunately, the split of the left with the formation of the SDP in 1981 was a death blow to the chances of defeating Thatcher electorally even though her vote percentage in 1983 and 1987 was lower than in 1979. It is probable that any Tory leader who had won in 1979 would have been able to stay in office for a decade even on a quite low share of the vote, due to that split on the centre-left. In the first past the post system, having a large and coherent voting bloc is everything - something the Tory party has always understood (at least up until now, with the emergence of UKIP).

However, the key election of the post-1979 era actually took place after Thatcher had been knifed by her own cabinet and MPs, after a leadership challenge from Michael Heseltine in November 1990. Heseltine did not manage to win the leadership election but he did do enough to make it clear to most of the cabinet that Thatcher would not survive a second round vote, paving the way for the John Major era. It was Major's 1992 victory - on a ostensibly softer brand of Toryism (though in reality it was largely the continuation of Thatcherism under another name) that really killed socialist politics in the Labour party for a generation and inaugurated New Labour (although it wasn't called that until Tony Blair took over in 1994). Ironically, Labour gave up on the possibility of fundamentally altering the Thatcherite settlement just before the Tory reputation for economic competence evaporated in the wake of Black Wednesday and sterling's ejection from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Strange days indeed.

There is a lot more to write here but I don't have enough time or energy to finish this off right now so I will write more tomorrow... watch this space.