It is a quarter of a century ago that Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street and ceased to be our Prime Minister.
There remains plenty of fond nostalgia for her extraordinary qualities of leadership. Her courage, clarity of purpose, and combative style are all warmly recalled – often quickly followed by the reflection that the subsequent generation do not measure up to the same standard.
But what about Thatcherism?
Vernon Bogdanor claims(£) in The Times this morning that it is on the way out.
“George Osborne wants to reduce the share of GDP taken by the state far below what it was when Margaret Thatcher left office. But, as the first chancellor to represent a northern constituency since Denis Healey in the 1970s, he also seeks to reshape the state and regenerate urban England through his northern powerhouse proposals. Yet this involves not building on Thatcherism, notoriously hostile both to devolution and to localism, but repudiating it.
“Thatcherism may have been a salutary philosophy for the 1980s. But it left as many questions as answers. When politicians finally succeed in finding the answers, they may come to discover that the ism has become a wasm.”
Bogdanor adds that:
“The writ of Thatcherism, unlike the Attlee settlement, ran only in one part of the country, the southern, more prosperous part. Even at the height of her power, after landslide victories in 1983 and 1987, it had little credence in Scotland or the northern cities.”
James Forsyth in The Spectator also suggests that Thatcherism may have had a bad week:
“Some ministers have also remained enthusiasts for reducing spending even though they now run departments. I understand that both the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, and the Environment Secretary, Liz Truss, had some of their proposed cuts knocked back by the Treasury. Indeed, the extent to which Osborne has tried to protect elements of the government’s ‘industrial strategy’ from sweeping cuts to the Department for Business shows how much he has changed in office. His politics now owe more to Michael Heseltine than Nigel Lawson.”
Given her aversion to u-turns and enthusiasm for balanced budgets it is reasonable to suppose that Thatcher would have insisted on a more cautious response to the improved OBR forecasts than Osborne decided on. Yet for all the (still familiar) talk of “Tory cuts” Thatcher presided over an increase in public spending in “real terms”: cash spent increased by more than inflation. However, state spending fell as a proportion of the nation’s wealth. As for her “aversion” to localism, the example of grant maintained schools showed power being devolved from the town halls. In the new form of academies that aspect of Thatcherite localism is proceeding very well.
Yet in broader terms, the triumph of Thatcherism not just survives but spreads ever wider. Bogdanor confuses the “writ of Thatcherism” with the difficulty in getting elected for Tory MPs in Liverpool or Glasgow. Of course such policies as privatisation, monetarism, trade union reform, lower income tax, and the sweeping away of such regulations as exchange controls, dividend controls, price controls and wage controls applied throughout the UK. They also proved a fantastic export with Thatcherism proving increasingly powerful around the world. Earlier this month comes the sign that it will even reach Argentina.
Since Thatcher left Downing Street the level of global poverty has halved. It continues to tumble with the prospect of another billion people coming out of poverty by 2030. That is not due to UN targets of aid schemes but the spread of Thatcherism – free trade, free markets, property rights, the rule of law and self reliance.
As Teddy Kennedy (whose ideas have proved rather less influential) used to say:
“For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”