Thirty years ago, as the British public prepared to vote in the most important general election in our modern history, few could have imagined what a lasting imprint the victor would leave. Even now, no day goes by without her name appearing in the press, across the world. Every year brings new biographies, from hagiographies to hatchet jobs. Television dramas lovingly re-create her rise; documentaries pick over the details of her fall. Her Tory admirers treat her like a god; her former opponents invite her for tea at 10 Downing Street. Who would have thought that Margaret Thatcher – written off, mocked, despised during her first years as party leader – would cast such a long shadow?
To those who hate her, Thatcher must seem like the title character in Stephen King's novel Carrie. She never knows when she is beaten; she never stops coming. And for three decades, the creed that bears her name, Thatcherism, has been the dominant paradigm of British politics. "We are living in a post-Thatcherite world, a Margaret Thatcher theme park," is the verdict of her best biographer, John Campbell. For the columnist Simon Jenkins, Britain since 1979 has been a family firm, Thatcher & Sons. She "saw the need for change", declared the latest proprietor, Gordon Brown, shortly after taking charge. "I am a conviction politician, like her."
But all that was before the financial crisis. For the past few months, the conventional wisdom that once intoned "There is no alternative" (or TINA, in Tory shorthand) has been telling us that "Thatcherism is dead". Out go the teatime dates with the lady; in come intensive revision sessions with a dog-eared copy of John Maynard Keynes's General Theory. As the government pours billions into the beleaguered banks, Robert Peston hails the birth of a progressive capitalism, Oliver James predicts an end to greed and a return to sanity, and Tony Benn gleefully declares that he was right all along. "Thatcherism has now been formally discredited. Let's throw a party!" runs the name of one Facebook group. Left-wing commentators rub their hands at the thought of a return to big government; right-wing newspapers shudder at the prospect of "socialists" stalking the corridors of power. The age of Thatcher, it seems, is over; her statue has lost its head for good.
The bad news for the left, however (and the good news for the right), is that reports of Thatcherism's demise have been grossly exaggerated. Certainly the notion that the current crisis marks the end of free-market capitalism seems completely bizarre, even allowing for the understandable attractions of wild hyperbole. We may have entered what threatens to be the deepest recession in decades, but, as yet, there is no sign that capitalism is about to give way to a new form of state socialism. Bankers are still taking home great wads of cash, much to the horror of their shareholders and the press. For all the analogies with the Great Depression and the New Deal, few commentators point out that during the 1930s the motor of global capitalism continued to chug along, albeit at a slower rate than before. And while free-market ideas have certainly been badly tarnished by the crisis, there is little sense of intellectual ferment on the hard left, and certainly no sign of voters deserting the centre ground for more challenging options. If we held a general election tomorrow, let us not forget, the Tories would probably win it.
If the 1930s represent an increasingly popular, if often ill-drawn parallel, then the events of 20 years ago offer an alternative one. The revolutions of 1989 dealt communism a blow from which, judging by the enfeebled state of Marxist parties the world over, it has never recovered, and for some commentators, neoliberalism now faces a similar fate. True-blue Thatcherites would doubtless shudder at the thought, but in truth it is a comparison they have been inviting for years.
In documentary series such as BBC4's fascinating Tory! Tory! Tory!, the veterans of 1979 typically present themselves as a tight-knit band of dedicated outsiders, plotting their way from the wilderness into the heart of government, as faithful to the gospel of Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman as any Bolshevik was to Marx and Engels. Theirs, they never cease to remind us, was a peasants' revolt, an uprising against the paternalistic consensus, a revolution. So they can hardly complain when their opponents crow that, for the Thatcherite revolution, the Berlin Wall has just come down.
But all of this rests on a deeply misleading version of Thatcherism's origins, meaning and consequences. In many ways, it was not a revolutionary gospel at all, and in operation it was more fluid, more improvised, more complicated and more contradictory than the neat, sterile neoliberalism of the political science textbooks. For while devotees and opponents alike often give us a stereotyped account of fanatical deregulators, obsessive privatisers and uncompromising free-marketeers, the truth is that its standard-bearer would never have been so successful for so long, had she not been much more cautious and pragmatic than is often remembered. Behind the icy blue eyes about which her admirers rhapsodised, and beneath the strident rhetoric of a lady not for turning, Thatcher was a dedicated career politician, just as capable of backtracking, compromising and changing her mind as any other.
One thing that many people overlook about Thatcherism was that it was never a “creed” in the sense of a coherent, self-contained, carefully worked-out set of beliefs. Thatcher’s personal principles were rigid (unlike, say, David Cameron’s), but judging by the record of her governments, Thatcherism in practice was both more and less than formal neoliberalism, which would never have tolerated, say, the retention of the National Health Service. How much, after all, did ministers like Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd really owe to the theories of Hayek or Friedman? Even the 1979 Tory manifesto – supposedly the founding document of a 30-year revolution – reads now as remarkably moderate. “A strong and responsible trade union movement,” it says at one point, “could play a big part in our economic recovery.” There is no mention of privatisation at all – which is hardly surprising, given that Thatcher and her senior aides had barely contemplated the possibility before the election.
Thatcherism blew away the cobwebs of self-hatred that made the British economy a laughing stock worldwide in the 1970s
But then Thatcher's image and prospects 30 years ago were much weaker than is commonly remembered. As the first female leader of a British political party, she was always bound to feel vulnerable; what was more, even in her own team she was a largely isolated figure, surrounded by the former allies of her defeated rival Ted Heath. Her early years as leader were certainly nothing like the relatively smooth ride that Cameron has enjoyed so far. In the press, she was routinely mocked as a kind of female Iain Duncan Smith, an aberration who would shortly be consigned to the history books. In the Commons, her shrill, hectoring style came over poorly, especially when rebroadcast on radio, and made her an easy target for more accomplished speakers such as Denis Healey and Michael Foot. And in the polls, she lagged well behind the avuncular prime minister, Jim Callaghan, who even during the Winter of Discontent remained easily the most popular party leader in the country.
To most observers three decades ago, the notion of Margaret Thatcher as an uncompromising revolutionary, poised to unleash changes that would alter the political landscape for ever, would have seemed ridiculous. In many ways, as John Campbell has pointed out, she was a distinctly familiar type: the bossy, ambitious Tory lady from the Home Counties, complete with extravagant hats and cut-glass accent - a far cry from the populist Boudicca we remember today. It was for precisely that reason that her chief PR man, Gordon Reece, advised her to ditch the hats and lower her voice on television. It was at this point, too, that she began to rebrand herself as the grocer's daughter from the market town of Grantham, which she had left in the early 1940s and with which she had virtually no remaining associations. In the context of the late 1970s, with the Tories hoping to pick up disgruntled working-class and trade union votes, a provincial grammar-school scholarship girl was bound to attract more support than a rich businessman's wife with a big house in Chelsea.
What is striking about Thatcher, however, is that although her image changed, and although the record of her governments involved more U-turns and sheer improvisation than her acolytes like to recall - for example, the abandoned experiment with monetarism in the early 1980s - her own basic principles remained remarkably constant. In his brilliant though rarely acknowledged book on the origins of Thatcherism, the late E H H Green pointed out that most of her views on low taxes, private enterprise, home ownership, strong families and the small state were firmly established as early as 1950, when she first stood for parliament. These remained perennial themes of her election addresses right the way through the next two decades; by the 1960s she was already lecturing audiences on the dangers of consensus and the need for clear blue water between the two parties. It is a myth, in other words, that she was somehow converted to "Thatcherism" by Keith Joseph after the debacle of the Heath government. In her personal principles, she was a Thatcherite all along.
To her admirers, this merely strengthens her revolutionary credentials, though it does make one wonder what happened to her during the Heath years, when she was closing grammar schools and presiding over a free-spending regime at the Department of Education. (Once you see her not as a Tory Joan of Arc but as a conventional career politician, however, the answer is obvious: she was doing what she thought best for her department and her career, in line with the political fashions of the day.) But a bigger question is why, if she was such a radical, the Finchley Tories picked her, and what she was doing climbing the ladder so swiftly in the Butskellite 1950s and 1960s. The answer is that, rather than being a radical from the very beginning, Thatcher was not a radical at all.
How can this be true? It runs counter to everything we are usually told about Thatcherism, which is that it represented a dramatic break with postwar Tory orthodoxy. This is the argument, for instance, of Ian Gilmour's elegant and influential book Dancing With Dogma, which sees Thatcher as a heretic, a fanatic who somehow seized control of a moderate, consensual, even classless party and lurched it to the right. Even David Marquand's fascinating political history of Britain since 1918, published last year, sees her as a "Tory nationalist" in the tradition of Hobbes, Salisbury and Powell - a very different tradition, he argues, from the "Whig paternalism" of Burke, Macmillan and the One Nation do-gooders who dominated British politics during her early career.
But while Marquand is right to emphasise Thatcherism’s debts to the gloomy, authoritarian nationalism of Salisbury and Powell, for whom the barbarians were always at the gate, he also underestimates its affinities with mainstream 20th-century Conservatism, as, in fairness, do most commentators of both left and right. Thatcher was not, for instance, the first Conservative politician to look back to the tradition of Victorian free-market liberalism; Stanley Baldwin was doing it as early as the late 1920s. She was not the first Tory leader to trumpet the values of provincial small businessmen, either: in many ways, that was the heart of Neville Chamberlain’s appeal when she was growing up. Indeed, Chamberlain, a master of public finance adored by the Tory grass roots but whose reputation is now almost wholly eclipsed by appeasement, was in many ways a prototype for Thatcher: ostentatiously rigid and humourless, suspicious of foreigners, mocked as the epitome of middlebrow provincial parochialism, yet venerated for his supposedly iron will and clear mind. She had her handbag; he had his umbrella.
In other words, for all its apparent novelty, Thatcherism was a creature of the mainstream of British history, rather than an exotic heresy imported from without. Grass-roots Tories in the postwar years did not need to have read Hayek or Friedman to dislike the welfare state and call for lower taxes, any more than ordinary Labour voters needed to have read Marx or Tawney to recognise the benefits of the NHS.
There is even a case that we have long paid more attention to Thatcher and Thatcherism than they deserve. Just as both left and right routinely exaggerate the supposedly seismic changes of the 1960s (a golden age on the one hand, an era of decadence and decline on the other), so they also exaggerate the importance and impact of the Tory governments of the 1980s. It is a myth, for example, that Thatcher broke with the tradition of full employment. It was dead already, unemployment having risen steadily during the Wilson, Heath and Callaghan governments. It is a myth, too, that she pioneered monetary targets, cash limits on spending and the battle against inflation: Denis Healey was there first.
It is a myth that she launched the backlash against progressive education and permissive morality: Jim Callaghan was well ahead of her. It is even a myth that she single-handedly destroyed British manufacturing: it had been ailing throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and many firms were probably doomed to collapse, even without the austerity of her first government. If anyone thinks that, had Thatcher fallen under a bus in 1974, Britain today would have booming coal mines, a roaring steel industry and car factories the envy of the world, then they have been reading the wrong history books.
From the perspective of 2009, therefore, the verdict on the Thatcher years must be very different from the caricatures of her opponents and admirers - and much more cautious. One of the odd things about Thatcherism, in fact, is that it is hard to come to a fair judgement that captures the experience of the entire electorate. At its best, it blew away the cobwebs of complacency and self-hatred that had made the British economy a laughing stock worldwide in the 1970s; at its worst, it provided a rationale for greed and callousness that left millions of people in the gutter of unemployment. But the crucial point is that Thatcherism itself was, in many ways, irrelevant to the changes that affected Britain in the last decades of the 20th century. Even under a Labour government, mines would have closed, businesses would have gone under, council houses would have been sold off, markets would gradually have been deregulated - because it was already happening, or at least being planned, during the Wilson and Callaghan years.
Thatcher's historical role, as Marquand suggests, was that unlike her predecessors she made no effort to stand in the way of these changes, and indeed hastened them when she could. Unlike, say, Tony Benn, with his protectionist vision of an "alternative economic strategy" that would banish the outside world and maintain Fortress Britannia behind a wall of tariffs, she acknowledged that, in a milieu of competitive international capitalism, Britain had to shape up or give up. If she was not globalisation's high priestess, she was at least one of its senior handmaidens. And so the chief charge against her ministers is not that they pursued the wrong direction in economic and industrial policy, but that they made no effort to soften the blow for those who suffered, and even sometimes seemed to relish their pain. They were right, for example, to see that many of the old industrial leviathans were finished. Yet, by any standards, they were wrong to stand idly by as those who had depended on them were reduced to penury.
Where does this leave Thatcherism in the next ten years? Clearly the pendulum, at least among the political and chattering classes, has swung to the left:
almost everyone now agrees that the markets were woefully under-regulated over the past ten years, that the financial sector was infected with a culture of greed, and that only decisive state
intervention can avert or at least alleviate a prolonged depression. But there are many ways, too, in which Thatcher’s legacy is here to stay.
Most observers concede that globalisation is irresistible; there seems little appetite for a return to the Little England socialism of the 1970s left, with its talk of a New Jerusalem sealed off from the outside world. Similarly, the values of individualism, consumerism and personal ambition (which Thatcher did not create, but came to embody) are so deeply rooted in generations of voters, and so deeply embedded in the culture of modernity itself, that it is hard to see Britain rallying to some latter-day Aneurin Bevan, railing against the affluent society and the culture of materialism. Turning back the clock to 1978, let alone 1948, is a lost cause, for good and ill.
Above all, however, the values Thatcherism came to embody are never going to go away. Indeed, it is precisely because its values were the stuff of mainstream Conservatism, rather than heretical novelties, that they are likely to prove so enduring. Even during a recession, and despite the new vogue for a return to regulation, middle-class voters will always be enthusiastic for low taxes and small government, just as free markets, law and order and militant patriotism will always have their fans. Traditional conservatism, let us not forget, was supposed to be dead more than 60 years ago, when Winston Churchill was kicked out in the landslide of 1945. Yet only five years later, the young Margaret Roberts first stood for parliament on a platform that now looks distinctly Thatcherite, and 20 months after that the Tories were back in office. That should be a lesson, a wake-up call even, for those on the left who assume the battle is already won. Like wealth and poverty, like boom and bust, Thatcherism will always be with us.
Dominic Sandbrook's "White Heat: a History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties" is published by Abacus (£12.99). He is a contributing editor of the New Statesman