Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Tue, 29 Sep 2020, 4:14 PM


Tories against Thatcher

Author:   |    Publish date:

Be careful what you wish for. This old saying applies to us lefties. For years, we've wanted to see the end of Thatcherism. And we've now got it. And it's an ugly sight.

I say this because of Johnson's campaign to end working from home and get us back into the office. This is anti-Thatcherite in two senses.

For one thing, Johnson is contradicting two of Thatcher's favourite principles - that "you can't buck the market" and that managers have a right to manage. Many big employers are happy for staff to continue working from home. So why should the government say otherwise? Ryan Bourne expresses the spirit of Thatcherism when he says it is "quite frankly none of the govt's business" to tell us what we should be doing.

Also, Johnson is motivated by a fear that city centres are becoming ghost towns. Thatcher, however, was content for large areas of the country - mining towns - to meet this fate. She thought that miners could move to better jobs. A genuine Thatcherite would think the same should be true of sandwich makers.

These, however, are not the only differences between Johnsonism and Thatcherism. There are others, even if we disregard the massive increase in state intervention triggered by Covid-19.

First, Thatcher placed great emphasis upon the importance of stability, believing this to be necessary to help businesses plan and invest:

An economy will work best when it is built on a framework of clear and predictable rules on which individuals and companies can depend when making their own plans. Government's primary economic task is to frame and enforce such rules.

Today's Tories, by contrast preside over huge and continued instability. Since the start of 2016 policy uncertainty, as measured by Baker, Bloom and Davis, has averaged twice as much as it did from 1998 to 2015.

Secondly, Thatcher was an architect of the single market, which she saw as "a fantastic prospect for our industry and commerce!" which offered "complete freedom for our manufacturers, our road hauliers, our banks, our insurance firms, our professions to compete." Johnson, of course, is destroying that achievement. And whereas Thatcher wanted to cut red tape, Johnson is imposing it at a cost of billions. Johnson once said "fuck business" - a sentiment as far from Thatcherism as you can get.

Thirdly, Thatcherism was in many ways a modernising project. She wanted to modernise industry by removing over-manning and restrictive practices - which she did in the nationalized industries before selling them, as David Edgerton points out in The Rise and Fall of the British Nation. She attacked Labour for wanting to "put back the clock" whilst celebrating "the wealth creators, the scientists, the engineers, the designers, the managers, the inventors-all those on whom we rely to create the industries and jobs of the future."

Today's Tories, by contrast, offer no such modernising project. Instead, their vision is an atavistic yearning for an imagined past. Whereas Thatcher offered young people hope - not least the hope of owning their own home - today's Tories do not. Yes Thatcher wanted to achieve cultural change, but she saw economics as the means of achieving that. Trigger

Hence another stark difference between Thatcher and Johnson. Thatcherism was popular with young people. In the 1987 election, the Tories beat Labour by 39-33% among 25-34 year olds. In the 2019 election, they trailed massively. Thatcher created from young graduates a bunch of shoulder-padded, big-haired, champagne-swilling yuppies. From the same material, the Tories now have created a mass of discontent.

In all these respects, the Tory party is now fundamentally anti-Thatcherite. In one sense, it has to be, as Thatcherism failed, and not just because it ran out of other people's assets to sell.

And yet for all its intellectual revolutions the Tory party is still the Tory party. Just as Trigger's
broom had 17 new heads and 14 new handles but stayed the same, so the Tory party is still the Tory party. So where's the consistency?

It lies, I suspect in the reason why Johnson wants to get us back to the office. It's not because he cares about sandwich shop workers (many of whom are migrants) but because he's worried about the landlords of office blocks. As Marx said in 1852:

The Tories in England long imagined that they were enthusiastic about monarchy, the church, and the beauties of the old English Constitution, until the day of danger wrung from them the confession that they are enthusiastic only about ground rent.

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