"All Thatcherites now"? Not us, say the voters

A new YouGov poll shows voters reject policies including the sell off of council housing, the privatisation of public utilities and prioritising inflation over employment.

"We're all Thatcherites now," declared David Cameron yesterday, implying that the former prime minister's values had become the nation's. But YouGov's new poll on her reforms suggests the voters take a more nuanced view than Cameron's narrative allows.

It is true, as Cameron said, that some "big arguments" have been permanently resolved in the right's favour. Asked whether a "stronger and more influential trade union movement would be a good thing for Britain", just 34 per cent said it would and 45 per cent said it would not. By a similar margin - 52 per cent to 27 per cent - the public agree that "companies and industries that are not competitive or profitable should be allowed to close", even if this means job losses, rather than receiving government subsidy.

The voters also overwhelmingly reject one of the policies that featured in Labour's 1983 "suicide note": unilateral nuclear disarmament. Asked whether Britain should "maintain its nuclear deterrent" or whether it is "no longer necessary for Britain to have its own nuclear weapons", 59 per cent said the former and just 26 per cent the latter. Finally, on deregulation, by 45 per cent to 40 per cent, voters agree that businesses work best when free to grow "without government interference", rather than when "strongly regulated to protect the interests of their customers and workers". In his interview on the Today programme, Cameron argued that "no one wants to go back to trade unions that are undemocratic or one-sided nuclear disarmament or having great private sector businesses in the public sector" and, in these areas, the poll bears him out.

But more striking are those parts of Thatcher's legacy that the public now reject, including the totemic "right to buy". Only 42 per cent said that social and council housing tenants should be allowed to buy their homes, with a greater number (49 per cent) agreeing that social housing should be kept in public ownership for "future generations in need". The voters also take a sceptical view of another of Thatcher's emblematic policies - privatisation. A large majority - 61 per cent - believe that public utilities, such as energy and water, are "best run by the public sector", compared to 26 per cent who said they should be run by private companies. Ed Miliband has consistently rejected calls to renationalise the utility companies, largely on the grounds of cost, but expect to see this proposal pushed by the Labour left as the party's policy review continues.

The public also doesn't share Thatcher's narrow, monetarist focus on price control. Forty one per cent agreed that the government's economic priority should be to "keep down prices, inflation and government borrowing" but 49 per cent said that its priority should be "to protect jobs, ensure full employment and maintain spending power in the economy".

If it is clear, to paraphrase Thatcher, that few want to return to the days when the state ran Pickfords removals and the Gleneagles Hotel, it is also clear that most would like to see a more mixed economy, with the state intervening to provide affordable housing and utilities and to enable full employment. All of which suggests that the social democratic Ed Miliband may have a better grasp of the new centre ground than that son of Thatcher, Tony Blair.

A member of the crowd holds up a sign along the route of the procession during the ceremonial funeral of Margaret Thatcher. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder