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

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.