I can’t help but feel a twinge of envy whenever I read about the Centre for Policy Studies’ Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty. Despite an invitation, and a very enticing line-up of speakers, I was unable to attend. I did attempt to persuade my employers that they might need someone to cover so significant a political event, but they saw through this cunning ruse with lamentable swiftness.
So I’ve been reduced to reading about it second hand, with the aforementioned envious pangs. But no matter how appealing I find the idea of a conference on liberty, I can’t help but find the central emphasis it places on Margaret Thatcher troubling.
Of course, the CPS was founded by Mrs T and we’re one year on from her passing, so some sort of memorial would be understandable. But the problem runs much deeper than that. The best summation of it that I could find is the title of Daniel Hannan’s blog on the event: “In death, Margaret Thatcher still leads the world’s conservatives”.
That’s true – and I moot that it’s a terrible shame.
To be clear, I don’t say this as some hand-wringing, milquetoast centrist or arch-moderniser. I’ve no burning enthusiasm for Cameron’s brand of patrician technocracy, nor modern conservatism’s tendency to make common cause with the judgemental left in the public health lobby. I am a firm believer in the ancient institutions of this country, (Crown, parliament and army); in Britain playing a strong role in the world stage; and in individual responsibility and the limited government that permits it.
But despite sharing a lot of Thatcher’s beliefs, I don’t identify as a Thatcherite. Why would I? For all her strengths Margaret Thatcher was a product of, and remedy to, the problems of 1979, not 2014. She faced challenges and a political and international environment fundamentally different to those of today.
Moreover, a large portion of this country doesn’t like her at all. Here at Conservative Home we’ve put quite an emphasis on the long-term health of conservatism – how to win the 2030 election, and so on. We’re doing this because of the bitter lesson taught this party by Thatcher’s failure to do any such thing. It was perhaps impossible to tell in the midst of three landslide election victories that our proudly ‘one nation’ Conservative and Unionist Party was being fatally poisoned in large parts of the country, but poisoned it was nonetheless.
Why do we so publicly and so continually venerate a woman the mere memory of which is enough to bar our party a hearing in Scotland, the north, and our great cities? I’m not just talking about giving proper recognition to her remarkable accomplishments – that much is understandable, even if we do tend to fixate too much on those past glories. “What would Thatcher do?” has become the yardstick by which much of the conservative movement measures our modern leaders and policies. And Thatcher in this context can stand for an awful lot – as Hannan writes:
“It’s natural that different groups should find their differing ideologies reflected in Margaret Thatcher. Anglospherists see an Anglospherist, libertarians a libertarian, conservatives a conservative, pragmatists a pragmatist. At the risk of boring readers, who tell me they have had quite enough of my lectures about Magna Carta, I see a Whig.”
There is probably a different Margaret Thatcher in the political imagination of every Conservative, which sharply limits ‘WWTD’s usefulness as an independent unit of measurement for ideological soundness. She would do whatever we want to do.
Yet by constantly attempting to define modern conservatism in relation to her, we remain in the rut in which we’ve been stuck since she was deposed, and constantly refresh in the minds of the electorate a relationship which is a barrier between us and much of the country. Constantly looking backwards also encourages a bleak, pessimistic outlook about modern Britain – the Chancellor’s speech at the CPS conference was to my mind as much a rebuke to the nostalgics in the hall as to those in charge of UKIP.
It might seem hard to swallow, given how history has judged them both, but in 1992 John Major won more votes than Margaret Thatcher – or any other Prime Minister in British history – ever managed. Even Blair in 1997 was half a million short. He strengthened our performance in Scotland and did all this on a programme that was far closer to Thatcher’s mix of small government and robust unionism that is remotely possible today, after thirteen years of Labour changing the ground rules.
The public was clearly ready for what we might term ‘post-Thatcherism’ – 80 per cent of the content, with a humbler, more personable face. For all that she “never lost an election”, the public had clearly run out of patience with the Iron Lady. Her decision to remain intimately involved with politics, and the willingness of her ideological partisans to take direction from her and effectively disembowel the Major administration – was selfish, short-sighted and intensely counterproductive to the long-term interests of her own beliefs. Like crusaders marshalled around a reliquary, we formed ranks around the memory of Thatcherism and set off into the desert, there to achieve little for thirteen years.
Again, I have a lot of sympathy with the great backbench rebellions of the Major parliament, whether on Europe or handguns. But the tendency of Thatcherites to resemble a sort of modern Jacobinism not only exacerbated the electoral slaughter of 1997 but ensured we made little-to-no progress in 2001 and 2005. Michael Portillo spells this out quite effectively in his documentary, ‘The Lady’s Not for Spurning’.
We need to let go. Whatever virtues we as conservatives ascribe to Margaret Thatcher, they predate her and can stand on their own merits. We need to separate in our understanding of Thatcher the timeless elements – whatever you as a conservative perceive those to be – with those elements that were a product of the times. The latter category includes the vast bulk of nostalgic, aesthetic Thatcherism, and the word ‘Thatcherism’ itself.
If we are to preserve the best of her beliefs, and apply them most effectively to the country and the challenges we face today, we need to drop the dewy-eyed wistfulness for a leader and an era which so deeply divides the country we want to govern. As I wrote for the International Business Times in response to her passing:
“Thatcher and the party just couldn’t bring themselves to let go of each other and in the end this unprecedented mutual loyalty has not been kind to either. She passes on as the pre-eminent politician of the postwar age. If the party she loved seems less than it was, perhaps it is because it stands in the shadow of a giant.”
Margaret Thatcher is dead. So are most of her enemies and an awful lot of her voters. It’s time to move on, and let the Lady rest in peace.