Word Games: Thatcherism

You know you've made it in life when you've got an ism. Marx, Buddha, Darwin. They're all ism'ed up to the gills. And then there's Thatcherism, an equally hardy ism that still looms over us all, like a shadow blocking out the sun. Small state, free markets, deregulation, privatisation, tax cuts, union-breaking: that's Thatcherism told simply, an 11-year premiership condensed into a concept.

The term itself was said to have been first employed, in a nice twist, by Marxism Today in 1979 (the year Mrs T took office). But there is some dispute - others claim they had used it long before. It's a slightly absurd debate: I'm not sure how you argue that you invented the concept of Thatcherism when all you've done is taken a name and whacked three letters on the end. It's hardly the pinnacle of innovation. Look: Cleggism, Cameronism, Osbornism, Goveism, Picklesism (Picklesism!). Not hard, coming up with isms.

I wonder what people feel like when they become an ism, their name fashioned into an ideology. Grantham, Denis, Mark and Carol, the handbags and the hair: the personal details are wiped as time moves on. That's not Thatcherism, that's her life. The name, meanwhile, morphs into abstraction, and posterity.

Perhaps some politicians or thinkers aim for it, their ultimate ambition to be immortalised as a political theory. I can see George Osborne lying in bed at night, the covers pulled up under his chin, whispering into the air: "Make me a central tenet of the politics A-level curriculum. Make me a chapter heading in an economics textbook. Make me a big old ism!"

Or maybe creating isms is our way of computing the still-resonating impact that someone has on our lives. How can a single being, one who sleeps and eats and talks just like we do, who has all the messy complexity of a human, simultaneously have the power to reshape the world around us?

Make them an ism and it all makes sense: they're not a person, they're an idea. But there's the rub. Ideas are invulnerable, and infinite. Thatcherism, as we have seen of late, is here to stay.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman