Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher; drawing by David Levine

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 Seventies it had no longer seemed to work; Edward Heath, although he loathes her now, had been a premature Thatcherite in 1970 when he withdrew the support of the state from ailing industries and urged people to “stand on their own two feet.” But the difference with Thatcher was that she was out to change the world, not to conserve it by different means. She was the first who no longer felt bound by the postwar settlement in Great Britain, the treaty that was supposed to have ended the class war and that consisted chiefly in commitments to full employment and a welfare state organized on the principle that such benefits as health and education should be universally available. Because making good on these undertakings required economic growth with a reasonable degree of price stability, successive governments had sought to win the cooperation of the trade unions, rather than to confront them. For most of the time it was as if, whoever was in office, social democracy was in power.

So she came to office in 1979 pledged to cut taxes, roll back the state, and tilt the balance of power against organized labor. Things didn’t work out quite as she expected, but then she had once said that “in politics the unexpected always happens.” She has always had an air of destiny about her. Her venture in supply-side tax cutting sent prices rising faster and she soon abandoned that. By the end of her four-year term the tax burden was higher, and public expenditure, which she had promised to cut, constituted a higher proportion of a reduced gross domestic product. What she did achieve by the combination of restrictive monetarist policies and an exchange rate floating high on the oil from the North Sea was a level of unemployment higher than in other Western economies hit by the recession. If postulated a few years earlier, such high unemployment would have been generally deemed not only to rule out the reelection of the government that had brought it about but also to put at risk the institutions of the democratic system.


Halfway into her term, the opinion polls were rating her the least popular prime minister since Neville Chamberlain. There was a revolt in her cabinet whose members refused to sanction the still deeper spending cuts she was asking for. So she purged her cabinet and at her party’s annual conference declared, in the words of her theatrical speech-writer, “This lady’s not for turning.” Few of the delegates can have grasped, the allusion to an out-of-fashion verse drama by Christopher Fry, the middle-brow rage of her adolescence, but they knew what she meant well enough: no U-turns for her, no going back to the consensus as Heath had tried to do in 1972 when the going had got rough. She set off, unswerved, into a new winter and within six months was at war. The unexpected had happened.

What part the “Falklands factor” played in her reelection it is impossible to know. Only 1.4 percent of voters told the Gallup poll that it would affect their vote. But although you couldn’t see it, it was there. You could hear it, for example, at her press conferences and rallies where her presence was preceded by patriotic recordings, echoes of Elgar. She scarcely mentioned the subject—although her blundering Labour opponents twice brought it into the campaign—but Conservative candidates made sure that it was mentioned in the election addresses which, by right and free of charge, are delivered to every voter.

In any case, the Falklands factor had become the “Thatcher factor.” Her campaign slogan was “The Resolute Approach.” We all knew what that meant. The revivalist temper of her speeches—the “new spirit in the land,” the “new sense of national pride and determination”—and her use of the first person (not the royal we but the Gaullist moi)—“my people,” “my finger on the trigger,” and even, on her return from the Williamsburg summit, “my unemployed”—made this the most plebiscitary of British elections.

Sampson’s The Changing Anatomy of Britain is useful in understanding the Thatcher phenomenon in Britain. His chapter on her catches her zealousness but also the hint of small-town-girl insecurity which one suspects lies beneath the bossy manner. I think, however, he underestimates the breadth and force of her appeal. This is the fourth of Sampson’s “Anatomies” which have been international best sellers over twenty years and have had an important influence on perceptions of Britain’s decline in that period, especially in the United States. The first Anatomy of Britain, which was published in 1962, grew out of his efforts to elevate the gossip column into a higher form of journalism. He was fascinated by the private worlds of power—bankers, headmasters, civil service mandarins—with their peculiar rituals and often anachronistic mores. He took his readers on a conducted tour of what Henry Fairlie, some ten years earlier, had dubbed the “Establishment.” The themes that flowed from this technique were institutional resistance to change, nostalgia for lost empire, the failures of the educational system to produce a modern elite, and the inability of liberal-educated amateurs to organize and harness science and technology to the creation of wealth. He quoted in his first edition, and quotes again in this one, J.H. Elliott’s pointedly typical epitaph on imperial Spain of the seventeenth century:

Heirs to a society which had overinvested in an empire, and surrounded by the increasingly shabby remnants of a dwindling inheritance, they could not bring themselves at a moment of crisis to surrender their memories and alter the antique pattern of their lives.

Sampson is the chronicler of a failed, dispirited, and increasingly despairing ruling class.

In his latest version he puts less weight on interviews and more on analysis. He rejects the notion of a single, conspiratorial “Establishment” but presents the power structure of Britain as a set of overlapping circles. (The American publisher has omitted to print the diagrams referred to in the text.) I fear that he has become stuck with a technique of reportorial writing with which he no longer appears to be satisfied; but Sampson’s Anatomy, like Gray’s Anatomy, has become an institution—a valuable “property,” which must go on forever.

A new anatomy of Britain, I suspect, would need to be written “from the bottom up.” Margaret Thatcher belongs to no Establishment circle, nor do many of the new MPs who rose to power on her skirts. Sampson makes much of the power of Old Etonians but only one remains in her cabinet. Her promotion policy in the civil service has favored grammar school provincials such as herself. Her election victory is owed in large part to deep social and demographic changes, which Sampson does not adequately investigate, particularly the move of many workers away from the fading industries of northern England and into the more modern enterprises of the south. By the Seventies Britain’s difficulties were no longer caused chiefly by the inadequacies of the governing elite. The governed were becoming more difficult to govern. The ancien régime Sampson anatomizes was already crumbling when Thatcher launched her counterrevolution in 1979.


Her reelection, four years later, was by a plurality of 42.4 percent, hardly less than her party had achieved on the first occasion. This yielded her a landslide in parliamentary seats, first, because the opposition was now divided between the Labour Party and the new Social Democrats (SDP) in alliance with the Liberal Party, and secondly because Labour achieved its worst result, in votes per candidate, since the year of its birth in 1900. According to the old adage, in British politics, “Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.” On this occasion the adage was stood on its head. Thatcher won, but in an even more striking fashion, Labour lost.

Labour’s campaign was conducted with an ineptitude almost beyond belief. Instead of a succinct statement of basic aims its manifesto was a book-length compendium of policies that had been brokered between the warring ideological factions of the party. It attempted to advocate both unilateral nuclear disarmament and an active role and influence in NATO, and to reconcile a pledge to leave the European Common Market with a commitment to do nothing that would harm job prospects. A vast reflationary program was put forward, but only a vague and euphemistic reference to an arrangement with the unions was proposed to prevent an explosion of wages. The manifesto was at the same time the most socialist put forward by the Labour Party since 1945, and also reminiscent of the McGovern platform of 1972 insofar as it made thirty-one references to women, ten to sex discrimination, but only one each to the steel industry and to the training of apprentices.

The absurdity of this program was quickly exposed. The campaign soon stripped away the verbiage pretending to reconcile Michael Foot’s dedication to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, of which he had been a founding member in 1957, and the belief of his deputy, Denis Healey, as a former defense secretary, in arms control and multilateral negotiation.

Many Labour voters, bemused by these semantic contradictions, appeared to conclude that their party was proposing to abandon all effective defense, an impression reinforced, perhaps, by the image of the aging white-haired leader waving his stick at photographers, as if at the Russians, in contrast to the resolutely resolute demeanor of Mrs. Thatcher. Hounded by press and political opponents alike, Foot’s misfortunes were too many and various even for the press to record; it was typical of his luck that in one Yorkshire town he should have been set upon by angry fox hunters, whose sport Labour proposed to prohibit—a case of the unspeakable in pursuit of the unelectable.

An unpopular and probably unworkable program and a disastrous leader were themselves expressions of deep and endemic troubles within the Labour Party and the wider labor movement. Foot himself had been elected leader in 1980 by his fellow parliamentarians not because many of them believed that he would be the best alternative prime minister to put forward against Margaret Thatcher but because they judged that he was the only person who could hold the party together in the face of the onslaught from the left led by Tony Benn and the threat of defections by social democrats on the right.

However, within months of his taking over, the left scored its most important advance when it wrested the right to elect future leaders from the monopoly control of the parliamentarians, vesting it in an electoral college in which the bloc votes of the trade unions and the predominantly left-wing rank-and-file party activists would be dominant. This at once caused the defection of some thirty MPs, led by David Owen, Shirley Williams, and William Rodgers, to join Roy Jenkins in launching the new political party, the SDP.

Having thus “democratized” itself, by passing power over to unrepresentative minorities and cliques, the Labour Party proceeded to tear itself apart in a bitter power struggle between Denis Healey and Tony Benn for the deputy leadership During this unseemly process, Labour’s standing in the polls and Foot’s approval rating as leader dropped to an unprecedented low point. In the end, Healey won, by the narrowest of margins, but by then Benn’s policies were the policies of the party and the organizational coup by his supporters had gone too far to be reversed.

This self destructive cultural revolution in the Labour Party can be seen as the counterpart of the Thatcherite coup in the Conservative Party. Benn provided the corresponding -ism to Thatcherism with his mix of state intervention and workers’ control, which also contained a strong dose of nationalism in the form of a neutralist foreign policy, both anti-American and anti-EEC. Benn, like Thatcher, pronounced the consensus over. In his case what had become unworkable, and no longer acceptable, was the “revisionist” version of socialism in which equality was to be pursued through economic growth and redistributive spending strategies without recourse to the socialization of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.

Like most revanchists, the Bennites were equipped with a stab-in-the-back theory: they believed that socialism had been betrayed by successive Labour governments, just as Thatcher contended that postwar Conservative governments had been soft on creeping socialism. Moreover, just as the Thatcherites, like the Reagan Republicans, were many of them a new breed of self-made and hard-faced radical Conservatives, the followers of Tony Benn were in large part the “class of ’68” now come of age, graduates of the new and vastly expanded universities, students of Marcuse and Marx and not of Friedman and Von Hayek. Thus on both sides of the party barricades the “outs” were challenging the “ins,” a generational change was taking place, the old order was breaking down, and a postindustrial as well as a postimperial politics was beginning to take shape.

Like the American election of 1932 this one involved changes in the distribution of social forces, with new voters coming into the electoral marketplace and new coalitions mobilizing around new issues. In 1979 and again this year—which election was the “watershed” is of no importance—the Thatcherite Conservative Party broke decisively into the working-class vote. The figures are shattering. Traditionally the Conservative Party has relied upon a quarter of the working-class vote; this time the Labour Party took only 38 percent of the working-class vote, and only 32 percent of the votes of trade union members. As Professor Ivor Crewe of Essex University summed up the result, “The Labour vote remains largely working class; but the working class has ceased to be largely Labour.”

This is partly because the Labour Party drifted away from the people as its organization was taken over by middle-class activists and ideologues who put forward policies that failed to appeal to, and were often inimical to the interests of, the new home-owning and car-driving working class. This new working class has shifted increasingly southward, away from the declining regions of the old industrial north and into the populous, prosperous triangle of the Midlands and the southeast where they have adapted to new patterns of living, often in recently built housing developments.

Partly the change is the result of a dissolution of class consciousness itself, an erosion of solidarity and the “individuation” (to use the political scientists’ word) of voting behavior. And partly it is owing to Margaret Thatcher’s remarkable ability to appeal across class and party lines—even, in this election, to the unemployed. Her appeal is to the acquisitive spirit rather than to the social solidarity that once underpinned the welfare state.

One of her most popular policies, which had a symbolic effect reaching beyond the numbers of those immediately concerned, was to establish the right of municipal housing tenants to purchase their dwellings on favorable terms. To be a secure householder rather than a tenant is a deeply held wish of many people whose parents could not have hoped to own a house during the 1950s. Mrs. Thatcher’s legislation regulating the trade unions and insisting that leaders be democratically elected and strikes be democratically voted—of which she has promised more—is denounced by the union leaders as an attack upon the working class but welcomed by a majority of union members. And like all good populists she knows how to run against herself, criticizing the bureaucracy over which she now presides and waging war on the crime that has risen sharply under her own administration.

She has shown that a right-wing government can win and hold on to power in spite of mass unemployment. She has exploded the postwar, post-Keynesian politics of full employment and put a question mark against the future of the welfare state. During her election campaign she promised, “I have no more intention of dismantling the National Health Service than I have of dismantling Britain’s defenses.” Nevertheless, the Victorian self-help ethic she admires is subversive of the entire notion of the tax-financed social wage which has underpinned Britain’s welfare state since the war. She came to office in 1979 pledged to arrest and reverse the country’s relative economic decline; indeed hers was the first government to admit officially to that condition. Since then output, especially in manufacturing, has fallen further and her claims to have set in motion a regeneration rest solely upon her faith in the efficacy, physical and moral, of market forces. Even if a modest rate of growth can be sustained by a more competitive industry, unemployment will not come down by much. A substantial hard core of unskilled, educationally and socially deprived, long-term unemployed will inhabit the inner cities of Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain, among them young people who have never worked and may never do so. Her government proposes to give new powers to the police. Her prisons are already overflowing and are an inhuman disgrace.

Britain for the time being has no effective opposition. The electoral system, which discounts all votes except those of the local candidates who win, combined with the demographic concentration of the Labour vote, gave the Labour Party 209 seats in Parliament for 27.6 percent of the vote and the SDP-Liberal Alliance twenty-three seats for 25.4 percent. There seems no serious prospect that proportional representation will be installed to reflect the popular vote. British party politics are de-aligned but not yet realigned. The left is divided and dished. Mrs. Thatcher’s victory looks remarkably like the end of the socialist era in Britain.

This Issue

July 21, 1983