Stumbling and Mumbling

Thatcherism is dead: Thatcherism lives

chris dillow
Publish date: Thu, 31 Aug 2023, 01:17 PM
chris dillow
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An extremist, not a fanatic

Thatcherism is dead. It has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its maker. It has kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the bleedin' choir invisible. That seems to be the obvious inference to draw from Penny Mordaunt's call for the reintroduction of national service.

Let's call this what it is - forced labour. Whereas Thatcher long and loudly proclaimed the value of freedom - so much so that the Economist's obituary labelled her a "freedom fighter"- her epigones now want to deny people the most basic of freedoms of what to do with their lives, thus rejecting Thatcher's assertion that "a man's right to work as he will" is "the essence of a free economy." Thatcher

This, however, is by no means the only way in which today's Tories are profoundly anti-Thatcher.

She declared the single market to be "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." The Tories have of course ripped up these freedoms.

Thatcher also thought that a key role for government was to provide stability, so that companies could plan better for their futures:

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, lurched from creating years of uncertainty about Brexit to inflicting the ideological fanaticism of Truss upon the economy. "Fuck business" was perhaps the only sincere thing Boris Johnson ever said.

Also, the Thatcher government favoured a tax system that was neutral between income and capital gains, so that labour was not penalized relative to capital ownership: Nigel Lawson argued that taxing the two differently "creates a major tax avoidance industry". Today's Tories, however, regard tax-dodging as a feature not a bug, and want to encourage rentierism at the expense of real work.

And then, of course, there's home ownership. Thatcher was smart enough to know that if you wanted people to support capitalism you had to give them at least a chance of owning property. Today's Tories have forgotten this. Which explains one massive difference between the 80s and now - that in the 1987 election the Tories actually led Labour by 39-33% among 25-34 year olds, whereas today (pdf) less than 15% of under-50s support them.

It's not just the Tories who have abandoned Thatcher, though. So too in many regards has public opinion. The majority of voters support public ownership of utilities and transport companies and a wealth tax. And many opponents of London's ULEZ plan favour vandalising cameras, which would have horrified Thatcher with her strong support for the rule of law.

Thatcher, it has been said (by John Gray, I believe), hoped to create a society of men like her father - a hard-working entrepreneur in a market society - but in fact left us one with men like her son, a talentless amoral grifter who made money by exploiting political contracts. We see evidence for this is not just in the economy's regress to feudalism in which wealth depends upon political power and asset ownership, but also in daytime TV. Programmes such as Homes Under the Hammer and Bargain Hunt show that the British public prefer to make money from rising house prices and selling tat rather than from the hard work, innovation and entrepreneurship which Thatcher lauded.

But, but, but. Despite all this. many Tories still think of themselves as Thatcherite, and many leftists believe our economy is Thatcherite. How can we explain this?

Simple. Although Thatcherism was an abject failure in terms of promoting support for widespread freedom and creating an entrepreneurial property-owning market economy, it was a success in another respect. It certainly did increase inequality. What matters here is not just income inequality, although the share going to the top 1% has risen from 6.8% to 12.7% since 1980. Inequalities of power in the workplace have increased with the smashing of trades unions and reassertion of "management's right to manage" (a now-overlooked Thatcherite slogan). And so too have inequalities of political power: whereas Labour used to be "in hock to the unions", it now defers abjectly to the billionaire-owned media.

And it is these inequalities that the right values far more than rhetoric about liberty and free markets. As Corey Robin has said, "the priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power." Or as the man put it:

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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