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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New New Labour: forget ideological purity – Jeremy Corbyn is building a mass appeal party

Rather than a Seventies revival, the Labour leader is creating a social democratic party giving opportunities to all parts of the population.

Does the general election result signal a new political and, dare I say it, public relations phase for Labour?

There is a consensus among commentators and MPs across the political spectrum that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has been a continuous struggle to revive the party’s ideological purity and rekindle its cultural and political relationship with the trade unions.

The Economist cover depicting Corbyn as Lenin with the caption “Backwards, Comrades!” encapsulated the mood about a leader thought to only offer old and sometimes toxic solutions to new problems such as the gig economy, Brexit, fintech and corporate taxation.

Criticisms about militant left politics and Seventies nostalgia exist in a political and cultural framework constructed and passionately preserved by New Labour and its proponents. New Labour was the mark of a newly reformed party that had detached itself from the politically and electorally incapacitating idea of common ownership of the means of production (known as Clause IV), and endorsed competitive market economics.

The 1996 manifesto “New Labour, New Life for Britain” set out the party’s “third way” approach to realign the free market with social justice. For New Labour, the state’s minimised role in the economy, the liberalisation of financial services and public-private partnerships can and will lead to an effective taxation system and investment in health, housing and education.

The intellectual architects of New Labour cast this ideological departure as a necessity for denouncing an alleged anachronistic and unrealistic socialist way of thinking, and effectively regaining the trust of the electorate.

Whereas Tony Blair’s New Labour embraced the free market for communicating the party’s modernisation, Corbyn subverts the logic of the free market for the same effect – to present a party fit to govern in the 21st century.

Corbyn’s leadership cannot and should not be perceived as a nostalgic return to a strong state thriving on high taxes and the provision of welfare at the expense of social mobility, entrepreneurship and ultimately electability. Instead, Corbyn’s leadership is an attempt to develop a New New Labour based on the premise of participatory democracy.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of perpetual financial crises, political volatility and consolidation programmes, citizens in the UK and across the world are frustrated with the lack of political imagination and determination.

The conviction of the efficiency of an independent market in every aspect of social life including health, housing and education prevents political leaders and policymakers from implementing radical ideas. Corbyn’s leadership and political programme highlighted the limitations of New Labour in times of crisis and distrust. New Labour has grown old, and the disbelief in socialism appears as a conservative dogma that only contributes to an ever-greater disparity between citizens and parliamentary politics.

The 2017 Labour manifesto, “For the Many Not the Few”, envisions a productive role for the state but such a role is neither restrictive nor a top-down affair. Corbyn’s New New Labour regains its legitimacy as a social democratic party – and the electorate’s trust – by striving to create opportunities on both national and local levels for all members of the population to make meaningful contributions to policymaking, and seeks to broaden the range of people who have access to these opportunities.

From crowdsourced Prime Minister’s Questions, massive mobilisation of activists inside and outside the party’s structures to the understanding of wealth creation as a collective endeavour, the Labour party has the potential to become a creative platform upon which membership, participation, individual ideas and anxieties do matter.

Progressive taxation, redistribution of wealth and nationalisation of key industries are nostalgic musings about lost political battles as long as there exist rigid boundaries between the citizen, politics and the economy. The restructuring of Labour and the redefinition of activism according to the principles of participatory democracy have enhanced the meaning of deliberation and proven that social democracy is capable of dynamic reform and renewal.

What does the future hold for Labour and its multiple ideological orientations? Condemning Tony Blair’s New Labour and praising Corbyn’s new kind of politics after beating expectations in the election is not enough. It should be the duty and aspiration of each Labour leader to formulate a New New Labour for a party that is faithful to its social democratic values and is able to govern by offering new solutions to new problems.

Dr Kostas Maronitis is a cultural and media sociologist, and lecturer at Leeds Trinity University. He is the author of “Postnationalism and the Challenges to European Integration in Greece”.