The Changing Anatomy of Britain
Until Mrs. Thatcher’s recent victory, no prime minister since Lord Salisbury in 1900 had won an election, served a full term, and then been reelected. And these should be hard times for incumbents. Since the period of postwar prosperity came to its abrupt end in 1973, no Western leader has made it back to power with the exception of Helmut Schmidt, and the coalition that he led collapsed within two years. During Mrs. Thatcher’s four-year regime, unemployment increased from 5.4 percent to 13.9 percent. (That would be about 16 percent, as unemployment is measured in the US.) Nevertheless she routed her opponents.
It is most unusual for the name of a Conservative politician to attach to an -ism. Conservativism is against -isms. In Mill’s jibe it is supposed to be the “stupid party.” “Thatcherism” is a brew of market economics and of populism with an authoritarian flavor, seasoned with patriotic fervor. I would call it more of a style than a doctrine. But Margaret Thatcher is seen as an ideologue not only by the intellectual left but also by the older-style paternal pragmatists of her own party, who are now being sacked. Von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was her girlhood reading, and later, in the Sixties, she fell for Milton Friedman. These ideas, I suspect, did not open her mind so much as reinforce her experience as a grocer’s daughter brought up under Labour governments and confirm her in her early convictions. She is the first political leader in Britain whose formative experience was not in the Thirties, colored by mass unemployment and those gathering clouds of war. She is a child of the cold war and free of all class guilt. In her interview with Anthony Sampson for his latest Anatomy book she quoted her favorite passage from Von Hayek. “Few are ready to recognize,” the old Austrian warned, “that the rise of Fascism and Nazism were not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period, but a necessary outcome to those tendencies.” She was one of the few.
Rolling back the frontiers of socialism was her explicit goal when she came to power in 1979 following the “winter of discontent” and amid the wreckage of the Callaghan government’s attempt to govern by compact with the trade unions. She believed Britain to be on the socialist road to Eastern Europe and vowed to turn it back. This, rather than the arcane theory of economics that had filled her head, made her the first party leader to abandon the postwar “consensus” that had maintained the welfare state. She hates the word “consensus” and equates it with compromise at the expense of the principle; she calls her style of politics “conviction politics.”
By the time she openly broke with the consensus nobody quite knew whether it still existed or, if so, what it was. Keynesian demand-management was no longer common ground between the parties because in the conditions of the …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.