Dr Tim Bale is Chair of Politics at Queen Mary and is the author of The
Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron and of The Conservatives since 1945: Drivers of Party Change
In 1975, Margaret Thatcher gave a demoralised and divided Tory Party a damned good shake – and told it to pull itself together. Someone certainly needed to. The 'quiet’ but apparently neo-liberal revolution that Ted Heath had promised in 1970 had quickly given way to a chaotic corporatist compromise that had left the economy in tatters and the party out of office. That shyster Harold Wilson was back in Downing Street, and so were the trade union barons. Britain was now ‘the sick man of Europe’ – a basket case falling further behind its competitors, as inflation raged and taxes rose to pay for counter-productive industrial subsidies and a deeply dysfunctional welfare state.
Both country and party needed a new direction and, although very few Conservatives were quite sure what that should be, at least this woman – the only one of Heath’s colleagues who had the guts to stand against him, mind – looked like she knew where she wanted to go.
Many MPs had voted for her faute de mieux – not so much because they agreed with the free-market solutions she was proffering, but because it really did seem as if there was nowhere else to go. Yet once it became clear (as it quickly did) that she knew what she was doing, and that she didn’t intend to be pushed around or pushed out, most of them swallowed any reservations they had about her stridency and her supposed lack of voter-appeal, and got behind her. It was a gamble, but one that paid off – and handsomely.
Securing a swing of 5.2% and three million more votes than Heath had managed five years earlier, as well as achieving the biggest lead in vote share over Labour since 1945, Thatcher delivered the Tories a comfortable majority of over forty seats – a majority which she went on to increase in both 1983 and 1987, and which helped her bring about not only a social and economic revolution in the UK but, (with a little help from Ronald Reagan), in the wider world, the defeat of one of the most murderous empires in all human history.
Not exactly a bad record. Yet no thinking Conservative can be blind to the downsides of the Thatcher legacy, if not for the country, then at least for the party. Indeed, some would even argue that the Tories – electorally and organizationally – are in worse shape now than when she took over in 1975.
Back then, after all, they still had a foothold (or at least a toehold) in constituencies in northern England (and to a lesser extent Scotland ) which they have no chance whatsoever of winning nowadays. Just as importantly, at least for David Cameron’s ability to win a majority at Westminster, they face a third party that is now much better able to concentrate and convert its vote share into MPs in the Commons.
It is hard to believe that all this had nothing whatsoever with Margaret Thatcher and her policies, namely the destruction – creative or otherwise – of large swathes of the UK’s heavy industry, on the one hand, and, on the other, her image – well-deserved or not – as a driven and divisive enemy of consensus and compassion.
Lastly and most ironically, of course, the very success Mrs Thatcher enjoyed in the 1980s, both in terms of routing the unions and liberalising the economy, forced Labour finally to shed its rhetorical commitment to socialism and a degree of pacifism, meaning that the Conservatives are unlikely ever to face such an easy target again.
Organisationally, Mrs Thatcher’s sin – if sin it was – was more one of omission than commission. The party was already in trouble in terms of membership, activism and institutional capacity when she took over. Yet, although her failure to do so was temporarily disguised by her fortune in lighting upon, in the shape of Peter Thorneycroft and Cecil Parkinson, a couple of the best Chairmen that the Party has ever had, she – like almost all of her predecessors and successors – never took the slightest interest in that side of things.
Partly as a result, one of the best-funded, brainiest, and most adaptable political parties the world has ever seen has been no more successful than any of its rivals in trying to offset the atrophy, even entropy, at the grassroots (and some activists would say at the centre, too) that besets it today.
All this, however, pales into insignificance against what is surely the most disabling aspect of the legacy to the Conservative Party and, its enemies are bound to argue, the country that it seeks to govern. Before Margaret Thatcher, the Tories were a self-consciously non-ideological outfit. True, they had a common-sense understanding that, wherever possible, the market should be left to get on with what it did best and that Britain should act at all times in its national interest. But within that framework, the party left itself maximum room for manoeuvre, happy to let its opponents tie themselves up in knots trying to remain true to doctrine.
Margaret Thatcher was different. Although she could be pragmatic – at least in the beginning – she nevertheless believed in, indeed tried to personify, eternal truths. She regarded her opponents as enemies, even set tests of faith to establish who was ‘one of us’. In so doing she turned her party turned from a broad church into something closer to a sect, some of whose members equate compromise with weakness and modernisation with betrayal. She also, especially after she lost power, elevated one particular aspect of policy – this post-imperial island nation’s inevitably fraught relationship with the EU – into an over-riding obsession. Similarly, the simplicity and supposed success of her economic policies has arguably trapped her successors into thinking that there is no alternative, even when perhaps – just perhaps – there might be.
To borrow from the words that one of the Conservative Party’s greatest leaders, Stanley Baldwin, once used to describe his Liberal rival David Lloyd George, Margaret Thatcher was ‘a dynamic force’ – perhaps the greatest such force ever seen in post-war British politics. However, as Baldwin went on to warn his colleagues, ‘A dynamic force is a very terrible thing; it may crush you but it is not necessarily right.’