Imagine yourself living in an economy so weak that even your own Prime Minister said “if I were a young man, I would emigrate.” Imagine fuel prices skyrocketing beyond affordable limits as fuel was not delivered to petrol stations as those who delivered it refused to work. Imagine the dead going unburied as gravediggers demanded a pay rise, some as high as 25%. Worst of all, can you imagine the rats scurrying about on British streets as the waste piled up outside houses and businesses, the rubbish collectors not working for a month; all of this while the Prime Minister seems blissfully unaware of the crisis unfolding around him. This was the situation that Britain faced during the winter of 1978-79, known by the Shakespearean title: “The Winter of Discontent”.
The policies of the last 34 years had done more damage to the economy than anyone had foreseen. Unemployment was high, and those who were in work continued to demand massive pay rises which the country simply could not afford, yet the power of the trade unions was such that the country could literally be brought to a standstill by a series of strikes. James Callaghan’s Labour government pursued a policy of negotiation with the unions, and often found compromises, such as offering the gravediggers a 14% payrise to end their strike. The people of Britain, however, were fed up with regular strikes, social disruption and irresponsible management from Labour. The leader of the opposition since 1975, had been Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party’s first-ever female leader, and she was offering solutions.
Following a vote of no confidence in the government in March 1979, Thatcher fought the election campaign offering controls on inflation, which had risen well beyond moderate levels, and curbs on the powers of trade unions who were continuing to support nationwide strikes. Thatcher’s policies were a radical change in the political philosophy of the Conservative Party. Thatcher herself had been part of the Young Conservatives in her years at Oxford University, even serving as the Oxford University Conservative Association’s president in 1946. She, along with many other Young Conservatives had been increasingly influenced by the writings of Friedrich A. Hayek, a Nobel prize winning Austrian economist, who had written extensively about the need for economic and social freedom in the vein of a neo-classical liberal movement. Famously, at a policy meeting at the end of the 1970s, Thatcher interrupted a presentation by another party member by holding up Hayek’s book The Constitution of Liberty, and slamming it down on the table exclaiming “This is what we believe!” Thatcher wanted to move the Conservative Party away from the centrist and conciliatory platform that had been followed by her predecessors. Her policies included a free market and capitalist approach to running public services, the privatisation of previously state-owned industries and utilities and a reduction in trade unions’ power.
Many of Thatcher’s ideas were American-inspired, based on the libertarian ideas of the American dream, and free market liberal capitalism. The Conservative Party logo was changed from the British Union Jack to the torch of liberty, inspired by the one held by the Statue of Liberty in New York. She maintained a close relationship with the American President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), who, like Thatcher, followed monetarist policies, believing that wealth and growth were made by individuals rather than given out by the state. Perhaps her most controversial statement was given on the existence of “society”:
We have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” …so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people should look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations.
Thatcher was criticised by both the middle way one nation Conservatives and those on the political left for claiming “there is no such thing as society”. How Thatcher exactly meant this is open to interpretation, but in general it seems that Thatcher was using her term of phrase as a criticism of the “nanny state” doctrine of the preceding years. She was afraid that if people became too reliant on the state for their needs, no one would have the resolve or energy to go out and create wealth for themselves, since they would expect it from the government. At the same time, she asserted that society was made up of individuals, and that it was the actions of individuals, ultimately who made countries function. Compared to her predecessors, it is obvious that Thatcher was very libertarian in her economic outlook.
In these respects, Thatcher was a radical reformer of conservative ideas, but in another, she was not so deviant from the British conservative tradition. Conservatives adopting a programme of economic liberalism and individualism had been seen before. Robert Peel and the founders of the Conservatives had been adherents of it, and Gladstone and his Liberals pursued economic policies similar to Thatcher throughout the 19th century. For all her liberal tendencies Thatcher did show conservatism as well. Her personal Christian faith instilled in her a traditional sense of morality and socially conservative policies such as banning the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities and in schools under the controversial “Section 28” amendment to the Local Authorities Act.
Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister would also see an old problem come to the fore: the threat of Irish nationalism. In 1980 and 1981, various Irish Republican Army and Irish National Liberation Army (both proscribed terrorist organisations) prisoners in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison staged hunger strikes and died from starvation. In Northern Ireland, terror attacks were frequent and violence was widespread. Even in the Irish Republic 79 year old Lord Mountbatten, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, was savagely murdered by an IRA bomb. The terror spread to mainland Britain too, and the period featured an assassination attempt on Thatcher herself in 1984. Just a few months before becoming Prime Minister, one of Thatcher’s close friends and staunch encourager of her political career, the Conservative MP Airey Neave, had been killed in a car-bomb attack by the INLA. Thatcher took the same line against Irish nationalists as British conservatives had at the time of Home Rule – unbending opposition. She refused to tolerate terrorism, and the violent methods by which the nationalists were seeking to enforce their agenda of a united Ireland. Thatcher nevertheless showed cooperation with the Republic of Ireland, signing an agreement in 1985 giving the Republic of Ireland an advisory role in Northern Ireland government (much to the disdain of Unionists), whilst affirming that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK as long as a majority of its people wished it to do so.
Thatcher also followed her conservative predecessors in her stance on foreign policy. She was fiercely anti-communist and anti-Soviet union. From her coming to power in 1979, she condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. She aligned mostly with the Cold War policies of Ronald Reagan, famous for calling Russia an “evil empire”, and controversially allowed the Americans to establish a nuclear missile base at RAF Greenham Common. When Argentina’s military junta, desperate for popularity and trying to distract its population from its own crises, invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, Thatcher immediately sent a task force to defend British sovereign territory. The Argentine dictator, Leopoldo Galtieri, had fundamentally misjudged Thatcher, believing she would not care to respond militarily to a threat thousands of miles away from the British homeland, and hoped he could capitalise on Argentina’s long-standing claim to the islands, and salvage his politically weak situation. Although a state of war was never formally declared, the Falklands War cost 255 British lives and 649 Argentinean. The British managed to defeat the Argentine invaders, and the result was the fall of the Argentine dictatorship, and a soar in popularity for Thatcher.
Thatcher kept the Labour Party out of power for eighteen years, and was never defeated in a general election. Ultimately, her downfall would come from within her own party. She famously never u-turned on policy decisions (remarking in one speech that “the lady’s not for turning”) and it was her failure to deviate from her introduction of the Community Charge in 1990 that was to be her undoing. The Community Charge, or “poll tax” was a single flat rate of tax per capita imposed by local authorities in Scotland, England and Wales. The tax was regressive (i.e. it affected the poorest in society the most) and whilst Thatcher believed the tax was fairer since it charged every person the same amount for the same provision of services in their local communities, a large majority of those on low incomes could not afford to pay the tax, and many outright refused to pay it. As Thatcher continued to refuse to budge on the poll tax policy, rebels (whom Thatcher had derogatorily called “the wets”) within her own party, led by prominent middle way Conservatives such as Michael Heseltine, began to challenge her for the party leadership and refuse to support her on the poll tax as public protests became increasingly violent.
Unable to gain the support required for her policy, as more and more of her supporters rebelled, but equally unwilling to compromise, Thatcher resigned the Premiership on 28th November 1990, and was succeeded by John Major, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who eventually replaced the poll tax with council tax – which was set in proportion to property value. Thatcher changed the face of British conservatism, and radically injected a large dose of “neoliberal” philosophy into it. In some respects, this is in line with British conservatism’s origins of classical liberal ideas within a moral framework, but in others respects, she polarised politics, the effects of which are still being felt today. After her death in 2013, large numbers of working class communities who were hit hardest by her policies celebrated, while others who had benefited mourned. Thatcher’s government from 1979-1990 created a new class of people – lifting many previously worse-off families into the middle class due to her aggressive pursuance of wealth creation; but she also failed to provide work and care for many who were put out of work by the closure of many traditional industries, notably the coal mines.
As to whether Thatcher’s ideas were beneficial or not is mostly down to a question of personal experience and perspective. Her ideas caused a rift in the ideas of the Conservative Party which still exists today – the rift between those who supported her and her ideas and were politically on the right, and the one nation conservatives, or wets, who wished to bring the party towards a more centrist platform.
The author’s book The Conservation of Liberty is available for purchase at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Conservation-Liberty-Examination-Conservative-Tradition/dp/1533341109/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1471620402&sr=1-1&keywords=the+conservation+of+liberty.