Margaret Thatcher’s death must have been particularly poignant for Conservative ministers. Their electoral fortunes now resemble those of Thatcher’s government in 1981 – and they must hope that, like the UK prime minister after 1983, they will be born again to win a crushing victory and implement a radical manifesto. They must know, however, that it is likely they are about to relive the humiliations of the mid-1970s instead.
Prime Minister David Cameron and his associates are clever enough to understand that a simple resuscitation of Thatcherism is impossible. The alliance of economic liberalism, social conservatism and nationalism that underpinned the Tories in the 1980s no longer exists. The anti-Europe UK Independence party has picked up the social conservatism and the nationalism – the fact that it stands no chance of forming a government allows it to express both with a rumbustious vigour that even Thatcher never managed. The Conservatives remain economic liberals, but this offers little distinct appeal because the opposition Labour party and the Liberal Democrats – the Tories’ coalition partners – have accepted so many of Thatcher’s policies.
Alongside the narrowing of the gap between the main political parties, an emphasis on the “soft” politics of emotional engagement has grown. When he became party leader, Mr Cameron was good at this but being nice is easier in opposition than in government. And Mr Cameron has a special problem. More than anything, the quality that earned him the leadership was his optimism and, in 2005, he had every reason to be optimistic: the prosperous classes he represents felt more secure than at any point since the first world war.
What Cameronian Conservatism lacks is the bite conferred on the Thatcherites by decades in which their party and country seemed on the ropes. Norman Tebbit, one of Thatcher’s most loyal ministers, approached every debate as though it was a fight in a pub car park. George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, sometimes makes political argument look like an embarrassing encounter with an ex-girlfriend at a dinner party. The Thatcherites benefited from the pessimism that attended the formation of their first government; when economists are predicting “apocalypse”, mere survival can seem like triumph. Mr Cameron, by contrast, governs a country with expectations still rooted in the boom that preceded 2008.
But the differences between the 1980s and now are not just matters of style. There is also a difference in the configuration of class interests. The 1979 Tory party represented a middle class terrified of two things: organised labour and inflation. People with savings feared a spiral of rising wages for the unionised working class and rising prices. Today Mr Cameron proclaims himself a “fiscal conservative but a monetary radical”. This means that he is not frightened of inflation. The middle classes are richer than in the 1970s, and more sophisticated when it comes to surviving inflation. As for “organised labour”, it is a term of purely historic interest. Today’s Tories see inflation as a good way to cut real wages, especially in the public sector.
In the short term, things do not look good for the Conservatives. They do not, for that matter, look good for incumbents in any democracy. Whether any sane Labour politician would want to win the next election is another matter. Imagine forming a weak government, possibly propped up by Lib Dems, when Cameron-stoked inflation starts to hit living standards, and when your party has no economic policy beyond saying honest capitalists are better than dishonest ones.
Tories are starting to wonder whether Mr Cameron is Edward Heath – in Thatcherite eyes, a disastrous prime minister from 1970-74. Some of the Labour party’s shrewder minds must be wondering whether Ed Miliband, their leader, is Harold Wilson, the notoriously unprincipled Labour prime minister of the 1960s and 1970s.
And what of Thatcherism? Well, perhaps it has achieved that greatest of all political successes: to reach a stage when it can no longer be reversed through politics.
The writer teaches history at King’s College London. He is the author of ‘Thatcher’s Britain’
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