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THATCHER black and white

Matthew Bailey and Philip Cowley are both from the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham, and ran the twitter account @thatchersrise which charted the events of 1974 and 1975.

According to the OED, the first use of ‘Thatcherism’ came on 23 June 1977 in a document entitled ‘The Government’s Strategy: Note by the Secretary of the Cabinet’ (CAB/129/196/17):

“Governments do often recover several percentage points in an election campaign—and we might well do this with a long campaign to expose the unattractive face of Thatcherism.”

The OED’s next reference to the term comes from The Times on 24 November 1979 (‘The party was fighting off the shrill divisiveness of Thatcherism, with its simple monetarist policies’) but by that time an article by Stuart Hall had been printed in the January edition of Marxism Today.

‘The Great Moving Right Show’ is now seen as a seminal attempt to take seriously the changes occurring on the right in British politics during the late 1970s. It was much referred to in obituaries of Hall where it was said that in the piece he had coined the term ‘Thatcherism’.

The introductory page to the online archive of Marxism Today highlights the article as one of three (the others being Eric Hobsbawm’s 1978 ‘Forward March of Labour Halted’ and the ‘New Times’ special edition from 1988) which ‘define the historic importance of Marxism Today’ and claims that this was the first time that the term Thatcherism had been used.

Just after Hall’s death Peter Kerr at the University of Birmingham wrote:

“I often tell my students that the term ‘Thatcherism’ was quite possibly coined in the Muirhead Tower, here at the University of Birmingham. Whilst this is perhaps wishful thinking, it is certainly the case that the man credited with coining, or at least providing definition to the term, Professor Stuart Hall, was working here in 1979, in the then Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, when he wrote a seminal article that gave expression to the term Thatcherism and sparked off a lively academic debate over Mrs Thatcher’s likely future impact.”

It robs nothing of the quality and importance of Hall’s work on Thatcherism to suggest that he did not in fact coin the term. As the OED’s shows, someone in the Number 10 Policy Unit was using the word a year and a half before.

But having recently been rooting around in the dim and distant days of 1975 for a project charting the day by day events around the election of Mrs Thatcher to Conservative Party leader – which was tweeting at (@thatchersrise) – this weekend marked a rather special 40th anniversary for Thatcherism.

Speaking to the Conservative Central Committee in Harrogate Mrs Thatcher was making her first set-piece speech since becoming leader just over a month before. In the course of the speech she said:

“Do we become extremist Right-Wingers? Because that is what our opponents will say, that’s what they’ve been saying. To stand up for liberty is now called a Thatcherism. (Laughter.) They’ll dredge up all their tired and silly slogans, but we can deal with those. We can ask them, how can it be extreme to argue that men should be free?”

In other words, it is now 40 years since Mrs Thatcher herself uttered her eponymous ‘ism’, and she did so almost a full four years before Stuart Hall tackled it. She also beats the Number 10 Policy Unit and the OED by over two years.

It might reasonably be objected that although she says ‘Thatcherism’ it is not the definite article: standing up for liberty is not Thatcherism but a Thatcherism.

Moreover, there are in fact plenty of other uses of the term before either those listed in the OED or Hall’s famous article.

On 5 September 1975, for example, The Guardian interviewed the directors of the publishing firm Virago. In the course of the interview with Carmen Carill, she said that she didn’t want books with heroines: ‘She wants to have done with heroines, special women, what she calls Maggie Thatcherism and what Mary Scott once called with stinging precision, The Queen Bee Syndrome’.

By October 1975 Thatcher was attending her first Party Conference as leader in Blackpool. Anticipating her speech to Conference was The Guardian’s Peter Jenkins, who mused in his column about the direction she was taking the Tory Party. Jenkins noted:

“Among the members of the Shadow Cabinet and the backroom policy makers there is beginning to develop the shape of a new Conservatism which, if it is dubbed “Right Wing” or named Thatcherism, will nevertheless remarkably resemble the radical popular Toryism which used to be preached by the late Ian McLeod.”

The word obviously went down well among the Guardian journalists dispatched to cover the new leader’s address, as the next day Ian Aitken – in a piece headlined ‘Maggie wins all their hearts’ – reported part of the speech in which Thatcher attacked Health Minister, Barbara Castle’s policy on hospital pay beds:

“In a characteristic phrase, she declared: “We Conservatives do not believe that because some people have no choice, no-one should have it. Every family should have the right to spend their money as they wish and not as the Government dictates.

“That had the ring of authentic Thatcherism, and it won a massive cheer.”

After this the term appears to lay fallow for 1976. Then, in 1977, we get the mention in the Cabinet papers referred to by the OED in its definition of Thatcherism and a mention in the Times’ Business Diary in September in a piece on political donations to the political parties (for the Tories ‘there is no large-scale disaffection with Thatcherism’).

In February 1978, Alan Watkins writes an open letter to the Conservative Shadow Cabinet member, Ian Gilmour (well known as being on the liberal wing of the Party) following Mrs Thatcher’s remark that the UK was being ‘swamped’ by immigrants. Watkins questions what Gilmour is doing keeping such company and returns to that towards the end of the letter:

“I asked you earlier what you thought you were doing with this lot. We have talked about this before, in a peripheral and tangential way, and in relation, not to immigration but to what might be called general Thatcherism.”

A week later The Guardian published Gilmour’s reply in which he refuted that any such ism existed: ‘I told you that it was quite wrong to think that the Tory Party had made a wild lurch to the Right’. (Readers – do we believe him?)

But in quoting back to Watkin’s the phrase ‘general Thatcherism’, Gilmour becomes, it appears, the first politician since Thatcher to use the phrase on the record.

Hot on his heels however was Liberal leader David Steel who, in a speech in early March 1978 said: ‘There are aspects of Thatcherism as unacceptable to majority opinion as Bennery’.

Not soon after, in May 1978, in a pamphlet published by the Institute for Workers Control, the future Labour Cabinet Minister Peter Hain wrote:

“Thatcherism’s glorification of the little man is fraudulent, because the Tories have a shabby record on race and human rights, and are above all the party of monopoly capitalism which in reality seeks to dwarf and exploit the individual.”

By now the Left had clearly identified Thatcherism as something to fear and loath. A letter to The Guardian in April 1978 from the Chair of the National Organisation of Labour Students, Nigel Stanley, stated that students were, ‘[i]ncreasingly…seeing behind the moderate mask to naked Thatcherism lurking beneath.’

And Michael White, reporting from the 1978 Labour Party Conference on a debate about free collective bargaining, marvelled at the Unions’ stance:

“The obvious answer, one imagined, would be for them to vote Conservative, since that is what the lady has promised. But no, the lads, so their leaders kept repeating yesterday, want free collective bargaining in order to save a Labour Government (which is opposed to it) and avert the “nightmare of Thatcherism” (which favours it).”

That nearly brings us up to the beginning of 1979 and the publication of the article in which Stuart Hall is said to have coined the term Thatcherism.  Whatever the immense perspicacity of his work on that subject, there is no way he can be credited with the word’s creation, which had been widely used by then.

The word’s creation belongs squarely to somebody else – and probably to Margaret Thatcher herself, forty years ago this weekend.

6 comments for: Matthew Bailey and Philip Cowley: Thatcherism – not born in Birmingham

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