The left struggled to understand Margaret Thatcher. When it finally did, the result was New Labour

The New Statesman was at the forefront of anti-Thatcher campaigning. But in common with much of the left, it never properly understood the forces she unleashed.

In this week's centenary edition of the magazine, we republish a 1983 article about Margaret Thatcher by Angela Carter. Scornful and contemptuous, it exemplifies the way in which many liberal-left intellectuals and artists wrote about Thatcher, whom they despised like no other British politician of modern times.

They despised the way she spoke (the theatre director Jonathan Miller, the embodiment of champagne socialism, described her voice as sounding like a “perfumed fart”) and dressed. They despised her petit bourgeois, lower-middle class origins and arriviste aspirations. They despised what they considered to be her small shopkeeper’s mentality (the third album by the Eighties pop band the Blow Monkeys was titled She Was Only a Grocer’s Daughter – note the scorn of that adverb “only”) and hectoring manner. They despised her Victorian moralism and reluctance, as Britain’s first female prime minister, to call herself a feminist. They despised her audacity, conviction (“this lady is not for turning”) and resolution.

She was considered cruel and compassionless. The power of her ideas helped first to split and then slowly, painfully, to reform the Labour Party. She took on and fatally weakened the unions. She sought to remake the British nation through conflict (on her watch, there were prolonged strikes and inner city and poll tax riots). And yet, she kept winning general elections.

The New Statesman was at the forefront of anti-Thatcher campaigning. But in common with much of the left, it never properly understood her. Or, more accurately, it did not begin to understand her until too late and then, when it did, New Labour was the result.

The word “Thatcherism” – the doctrine combining economic liberalism and social conservatism – was first used in Marxism Today, the journal of the old revisionist wing of the Communist Party of Great Britain edited by Martin Jacques from 1977 until its closure in 1991. More than any other publication, MT offered a consistent and penetrating analysis of the Thatcher project. Jacques and Stuart Hall and Eric Hobsbawm never underestimated or scorned Thatcher. Instead, they understood from the beginning that we had entered a quite new era. In an interview with the NS last year, Hall said that Thatcher was what Hegel called a “historical individual”: her politics and contradictions “instance or concretise in one life or career much wider forces that are in play”.

As early as January 1979, before Thatcher defeated an exhausted Labour Party to become Prime Minister for the first time, Hall published an essay in MT, “The Great Moving Right Show”. It began: “No one seriously concerned with political strategies can afford to ignore the swing to the right.” What was happening, he said, “no longer looked like a temporary swing”.

Thatcher would not have agreed – she was a conservative after all – but there was something Bolshevik in her method and in the way a small group of highly motivated ideologues, several of them disaffected former Marxists, emerged from the margins to seize control of the Conservative Party. As Thatcher saw it, Britain had been enfeebled and impoverished by socialism. The welfare state had created a culture of “dependency”. The unions had for too long used their power to resist necessary labour market reforms. The nationalised industries were failing. Full employment was a chimera; instead, there should be a “natural level of unemployment”.

But the project was never as clear cut as some would like to have it. Although the health service and schools were deprived of resources throughout the Thatcher years and although public spending fell from 45.1 per cent of GDP in 1978-79 to 39.2 per cent in 1989-90, it in fact rose in real-terms in every year except 1985-86 and 1988-89 (largely because of increases in social security spending owing to high unemployment). And she raised as well as cut taxes: in his 1979 Budget, Geoffrey Howe reduced the top rate of income tax from 83 to 60 per cent (it was cut to 40 per cent by Nigel Lawson in his 1988 Budget) but raised the standard rate of VAT from 8 to 15 per cent. In 1981, Howe raised taxes and cut public spending in the face of fierce resistance from leading economists, but unlike George Osborne today, he had the flexibility simultaneously to cut spending and lower interest rates.

No one would doubt today that Thatcherism was profoundly disruptive, a counter-revolution against the postwar Keynesian consensus. It had real victims, caused waves of popular anger, and has left the Tories all but unelectable across large parts of the country. But in truth, that consensus was already unravelling before she came to power, undone by persistently high inflation, the oil price shocks of the early Seventies, deindustrialisation and union unrest.

With Thatcher’s death, at the age of 87, we are at end of an era in every sense. The financial crisis had already marked the end of three decades of excessive “financialisation” and free market hegemony, since when recession and mass unemployment have returned to Europe as the continent has embraced collective austerity.

“Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul,” Margaret Thatcher once said, a saying of hers I like very much and with which no Marxist would disagree. But the paradox of this strange and compelling woman was that her economic liberalism was at odds with her social conservatism: the destructive, amoral market forces she helped unleash and channel undermined her most cherished values. As a religious pessimist, a believer in original sin, she deplored the culture of hedonistic individualism that flourished in the 1980s and beyond. She naively believed the family, private property, the church and ancient institutions would help serve as bulwarks against permissiveness and chaos. She believed the fall of the Soviet Union and the defeat of communism would herald a new order of peace and free market prosperity under the rule of law. It did not happen. It could never have happened. 

Margaret Thatcher with Tony Blair. Photo: Getty

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

Photo: Getty
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Who will take responsibility for the rise in far-right terrorism?

Muslims are asked to condemn Islamist terrorism – should the mainstream right do the same when the attackers are white?

Following the attack on a Finsbury Park mosque, both Theresa May and Amber Rudd have issued statements and delivered speeches adopting hard lines against Islamophobia and right-wing extremism. May has gone so far as stating that Islamophobia itself is a form of extremism.

These pronouncements have drawn positive responses from prominent members of the Muslim community such as Miqdaad Versi of the Muslim Council of Britain. But it is important to question whether or not this change in rhetoric signifies a genuine change in government policy.

On the face of it, there are reasons for tentative optimism. The seriousness with which politicians took the Finsbury Park attack is a significant change. On this, the government is ahead of the media. While other terrorism attacks have been condemned as unjustifiable violence, some newspapers framed the Finsbury Park attack as a "revenge".

In fact, radicalisation is not a one-off event, but takes place in a web of institutional, social and ideological conditions. Furthermore this ignores a much longer story about the drip, drip, drip of Islamophobic or anti-Muslim discourse which permeates British society. 

The government has played a part in legitimising this anti-Muslim sentiment. Let’s not forget that Prevent has, since its inception, disproportionately targeted Muslims. The impression of an "us and them" mentality is only underlined by its secrecy. Moreover, the Prevent agenda has conflated a variety of other social policy concerns relating to gender equality, sexual violence, and unemployment as "extremism" issues. For example, Amber Rudd herself suggested that Islamophobia would decline if grooming stopped, which can not only be seen as victim-blaming, but further contributes to stereotyping Muslims as the enemy within.

So are promises to get serious about Islamophobia more empty words from the Prime Minister?

Think about timing. Far-right extremism has been deadly. Mohammad Saleem was brutally murdered in 2013 in Birmingham by a far right extremist. Mushin Ahmed was killed in 2015 (and was notably called a "groomer" by his attacker as his head was stamped on).

Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right extremist this time last year. This is not even mentioning individuals such as Ryan McGee, who made a nail bomb and was intent on murdering immigrants.

Just twelve days ago, the Prime Minister claimed that Britain was too tolerant of extremism, and she was right. Just not in the way she meant it.

Britain has indeed been too tolerant of extremism of the far right kind. This is a rising problem, not just in the UK, but also in Europe.

According to the defence and security think-tank RUSI, far right extremists make up 33 per cent of the threat, with Islamic extremism slightly more at 38 per cent. Furthermore, one in four referrals to Channel, the UK deradicalisation programme, are from the far right.

We cannot forget the government itself peddles the tropes of far right hate. Think of David Cameron referring to migrants as "swarms", May’s hostile environment policy, complete with "go home vans" driving around in multicultural areas, and the uncritical embrace of Donald Trump’s presidency by the Prime Minister. 

The Muslim community has been told many times to fight terrorism from within, but will there be a similar response to far right extremism? The ongoing rhetorical attacks on multiculturalism, and the longstanding association of Islamist radicalisation with a lack of integration, rather than religiously inspired political violence, make it difficult to see how real change will happen.

This would require deep soul-searching, followed by serious changes in public debates about policies relating to both immigration and extremism. Until that happens, May’s words on Islamophobia will be nothing more than political PR.

But this PR also has a more sinister element. Although no specific new counter-terrorism legislation was announced in the Queen’s Speech, there was a promise that the government would review existing counter-terrorism laws, with a spokesman stressing that new legislation would be brought forward if needed.

May continues to lobby for increased executive powers to fight terrorism, which she has done since her time as home secretary. The policy on right-wing extremism is likely to follow that of Islamic extremism: it will focus only on ideology and it will ignore the wider context of structural racism and white privilege.

Ask yourselves, will white men ever be stopped and searched to the same extent as brown men? Will white women be seen as easy targets for violent attacks as Muslim women disproportionately are? Will far right extremists fear for their citizenship status?

And does the solution to extremism, in any form, truly lie in further oppressive legislation and more government power? We also need to be aware that powers extended to address extremism are likely to continue to have a disproportionate effect on minorities.

As long as there is no change in government policy, the status quo will continue to reinforce the same divisive narrative which is the bread and butter of every extremist group. After the Queen’s Speech, we continue to see no evidence of any serious attempt to reform policy and seriously address far right extremism. May’s empty words after the Finsbury Park attack represent nothing more than an opportunistic political move from a weakened Prime Minister who is desperate for approval – and for power.

Dr Maria Norris is a political scientist researching terrorism and national security. She is a Fellow at the  London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.

Dr Naaz Rashid is a Research Fellow at the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex and is author of Veiled Threats: Representing the Muslim Woman in Public Policy Discourse (Policy Press 2016) about the UK government's engagement with Muslim women as part of its Prevent agenda. She can be followed on Twitter @naazrashid.

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