Warrior woman. Thatcherism was a "Bolshevik movement" that wrecked the Tory party and opened the way for new Labour. John Gray recalls how he fell in and out of love with Maggie

Thatcherism and British Politics 1975-1999

Brendan Evans <em>Sutton, 276pp, £45 </em>

ISBN 07509

When Margaret Thatcher came to power, she was equipped with few of the ideas that others, some years later, came to call Thatcherism. She combined a fierce contempt for what Britain had become with a quixotic attachment to what she believed to be its traditional values. Her readiness to confront any interest or institution that stood in the way of the policies she judged necessary for economic success set her on a trajectory of collision with old elites that had - in her view - presided over a period of national decline. She did not perceive that the effect of the brutal shake-up she was imposing on the British economy would be to consign the Britain of her imagination to the dustbin.

It can be safely said that there were few readers of Gramsci in the right-wing think-tanks, discussion groups and dining clubs in which Thatcherite ideas were discussed during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yet, side by side with pious invocations of tradition, there was a pervasive sense that Thatcher was engaged in something like a hegemonic project. I recall how meetings of the Conservative Philosophy Group and seminars at the Institute of Economic Affairs were marked by an almost Bolshevik sense of urgency. It was felt that, partly by chance, the opportunity existed to bring about a far-reaching transformation in the way that the government and the economy worked in Britain. The feeling was one of radical discontinuity with the past. To be sure, it was not a feeling shared by the majority in Thatcher's cabinet, which distrusted her style and viewed many of her policies as half-baked. As events soon showed, however, it was her Tory critics, not Thatcher or her apparatchiks in the think-tanks, who had lost the plot.

Thatcherism and British Politics is a wide-ranging survey of the interpretations of Thatcher and Thatcherism that have been advanced by political historians and theorists. Brendan Evans has a thorough grasp of this academic literature, and no doubt for students of the subject his book will be a valuable research tool. But his narrowly academic purview leads him to miss some of the Thatcher period's most distinctive features. As a result, he presents a picture of Thatcherism that few of those who were engaged with it - whether as partisans or as opponents - will recognise.

If the book has an overall thesis, it is that Thatcherism is best understood as an episode in the history of the Conservative Party. Repeatedly, Evans takes to task those who argue that Thatcher's ideas and policies expressed, or produced, an unprecedented rupture in British Conservatism and, for that matter, in British politics more generally. As Evans presents her, Thatcher did little more than bring back into play a long-familiar Conservative vision of free markets and limited government. She was influenced by the neoliberal ideology of the "new right", he concedes, but took from it themes that chimed with her own Conservative beliefs. According to Evans, Thatcher was essentially a practical politician, applying traditional Tory ideas to the problems at hand.

There are many things wrong with this interpretation. To begin with, it is very much at odds with how things seemed at the time. It was not just that the ideas that had guided Conservative governments throughout the postwar period were regularly trashed in the Centre for Policy Studies and other right-wing think-tanks. By itself, that did not mean much. More significantly, the most important of Thatcher's policies were from the beginning based on an outright rejection of a consensus that had guided all postwar governments. In effect, Thatcher proposed a radically diminished economic role for the British state.

It is true that ideas of limited government go back a long way in the Tory party - back to Edmund Burke in the 18th century. To that extent, they are part of a genuine Conservative tradition. But reviving these ideas in the late 20th century was not a recipe for continuity. Nor did Thatcher mean it to be. Evans cites Thatcher finding herself, in the first months in Downing Street, "a Bolshevik leading a Tsarist government". This is an accurate description of how she was perceived, and how she perceived herself, at that time, but Evans fails to follow through its implications. This is symptomatic of a default that runs right through his account. Because his prime focus is on Thatcherism as an intra-Tory phenomenon, he has a blinkered view of the larger environment - economic, political and intellectual - in which it developed.

Although Evans mentions them only in passing, it was among thinkers of the left that early Thatcherism was best understood. The hegemonic ambitions of Thatcherism were first recognised in the "New Times" analysis of Stuart Hall and in the pioneering work of Martin Jacques at Marxism Today. Thinking not in social- democratic but in Marxian terms, these writers understood that Thatcher's aim was not to maintain continuity in British society but instead to reshape it irreversibly. Unlike the Tory wets and most people on the left, they understood that Thatcherism was not a conservative project but in some ways a revolutionary one. This is a view developed more systematically in the best academic study of Thatcherism to date, Andrew Gamble's The Free Economy and the Strong State, and it is a recurring theme in Hugo Young's magnificent biography of Thatcher, One of Us.

The Bolshevik sense of urgency felt in the early Thatcherite salons was fated to become a form of hubris. But, as one who attended those salons, I believe it was based on an accurate perception of the cul-de-sac into which Britain had been led by the mid-1970s. I felt then - as I do now - that Thatcherism was only incidentally a development in Conservative politics. Its real roots were in the decay of British corporatism and the failures of the Callaghan government. The first post-Keynesian politician of importance was not Thatcher, still less Enoch Powell, but Denis Healey. The collapse of the postwar settlement did not begin in 1979, but in 1976 with the intervention of the International Monetary Fund. By the time Thatcher came to power, Britain's social-democratic settlement was already history.

For me, the appeal of early Thatcherism was that it promised to do what no Labour government had done: to shake up Britain's hidebound hierarchies and set the country on a new course. Whatever else it may have been, Thatcherism was a modernising project. To be sure, Thatcher's policies changed British society in ways she had not envisioned. But not all of them were malign. Even as they inflicted great harm on established institutions and communities, they destroyed Britain's semi-medieval social order for ever. A project that was in part devoted to the renewal of traditional values became their nemesis. The irony was lost on neoliberal ideologues for whom Thatcherism had become a suffocating, quasi-religious creed.

By the end of the 1980s, it had reached an intellectual - though not yet a political - dead end. But the course on which Thatcher had set the country went on to alter it beyond recognition, nearly wrecking the Tory party and leading Labour to become the vehicle of another, as yet only partly defined, experiment in modernisation.

John Gray's most recent book is "False Dawn: delusions of global capitalism" (Granta, £8.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 20 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: yet again, they are lying to us