Thatcher's victories are too old and complete to help Cameron

Conservatives are winning a cultural campaign to nationalise their political bereavement and it will do them no favours in the end.

The late Baroness Thatcher is now the subject of two different categories of controversy, inseparable but in crucial ways distinct. One is about her life, the other about her death. The former is by far the greater argument. It is a debate that is triggered by her passing but not generated by it. Its contours have been visited, explored, surveyed and mapped many times already over the past decades.

There is a huge body of academic literature and memoir analysing the historical scale and moral implications of her victories – over the Labour party, over the miners, over the essential ambition of Socialism by state enterprise. Nothing new will be added in the days between her death and her funeral. Reviving the arguments now is the intellectual and journalistic equivalent of repeating on TV the great Hollywood performances of a recently deceased movie star. The over-familiar is made poignant by events but not changed by them.

The second controversy is much smaller and is, in adherence to the parochial laws of Westminster that amplify pettiness and shrink intellectual ambition, the more rancorous. It is the question of whether the unarguable historical significance of Thatcher’s accomplishments justifies their treatment as a subject of national reverence.

Most of the Tory party and the Conservative-leaning press appear to want this week to be a moment of culture war consolidation – expressing not just sadness at the death of an individual but recapitulation of an immutable moral-political axiom: the politics of Thatcher (and of any who tread in her footsteps) are salvation; Labour’s way leads to ruin.

The ceremonial funeral is a state function in all but name; many of this morning’s paper’s attack opposition MPs for not attending yesterday’s parliamentary tribute, although plenty did. The discussion of statues, memorials and minutes of silence is all meant as a celebration of the woman and her works but it is also hostile to rational appraisal of them. Sadly at this point it probably becomes necessary to interject a comment condemning celebrations of the death. I doubt I could put it better than Norman Geras, the Marxist academic and blogger, who said the following in his “six theses on the death of Margaret Thatcher”:

To publicly rejoice at the death of a democratic political opponent, talk of dancing on her grave, hold street parties for the occasion, and so forth, is contemptible. It says more about the morality inspiring those who engage in such activities than it does about the object of them. Consider that one day it will be you who are dying, and whatever you have done or failed to do in your life, you will deserve the love of those who feel it for you and something better than cruel glee from those who don't.

… And notice, too, that Thatcher's political legacy, the continuing influence of what she did in office, is not altered one way or another by her death. It will continue to make its way in the world, as also to be opposed there, for a good while yet. The expression of public enjoyment has no possible justification, therefore, on these grounds either.

The reasonable demand that dissent from the heroic interpretation of Thatcher be expressed with respect does not, however, resolve the question of whether that interpretation should be embraced as a kind of state doctrine.

The implication in Conservative expectations of collective mourning is that, since the changes Thatcher wrought turned out to be irreversible, they should also naturally be cherished by all. Plainly that isn’t true. They can be cherished by the right and lamented by the left. The centre can pick and choose. It is absurd to expect Labour MPs to acquiesce in the hagiography of their nemesis and it is to Ed Miliband’s credit that he didn’t do that in parliament yesterday, yet managed to fulfil every demand of respect that protocol required.

My instinct is that the Tories will win this little cultural skirmish and that it will do them no favours at all. BBC presenters will don black ties and put on their most solemn voices. The Queen will attend the funeral. None shall speak ill of the deceased, except in terms laden with caveat and leavened with praise. Some monument will be erected for sure. And then what? We will be back to the first of our two controversies, the one about Thatcher’s life, the one that was never going to be resolved by her death.

Meanwhile, it is Labour that will have been forced into an uncomfortable but necessary re-examination of its feelings and attitudes to Britain’s most potent post-War Prime Minister. It is the Labour leader whose position with relation to that leader’s legacy will be clarified and, by a small measure, enhanced given the smart calibration of his response. By contrast, the Conservative view will go back into aspic. It cannot much help David Cameron when his party drapes itself in the ceremonial robes of the unhealthy Cult of the Perfect Leader with its peculiar undercurrent of matricidal guilt.

The core presumption behind the Tory party hagiography of Thatcher is that her policies were so successful as to transcend politics. They entered the fabric of the nation and so became part of what it means to be British rather than simply what it means to be Conservative. Even though that is largely true it doesn’t actually help the Tories politically. The dispersal of Thatcherism into the cultural and social ether over a generation or two doesn’t make it a better weapon in today’s political debates. On the contrary, it diminishes its currency.

Specific policies of the period 1979-90 are, as a point of historical fact, obsolete. British Airways cannot be re-privatised. Bob Crow is not Arthur Scargill, neither is Len McCluskey much though many on left and right wish he would be. Only battles whose outcome was unclear can be re-fought. Thatcher’s victory was so comprehensive that craving re-enactment is a pursuit for hobbyists in fancy dress not a credible programme for government.

The renewable portion of Thatcherism is not its prescriptions for the economy but its spirit of political insurgency – the will to impose change; the capacity to turn a partisan agenda into an election-winning movement for national renewal. That element does not belong to any one party or wing of politics. Indeed, it is arguably hardest of all for modern-day Thatcher disciples to possess and re-animate it precisely because the Revolution they celebrate became an Empire to defend – as tends to happen with successful revolutions.

That which became the established consensus cannot, by definition, be the basis for anti-Establishment upheaval. Whatever the next Thatcher-style disruption in British politics may be, it is just as likely to go against the grain of what Thatcher achieved as with it. That is how history tends to proceed.

The problem that poses for the Conservatives is made all the greater by the confluence at the very top of party – incarnate in David Cameron - of the post-Thatcher economic consensus and a pre-Thatcher cultural and social class hierarchy. Cameron, a second-generation Thatcherite with patrician Shire Tory sensibilities and royal relations is about the least plausible candidate you might find to lead a transformative economic, social or political revolution.

Cameron’s strategy for re-election in 2015 relies not on an offer of epic change but of grim determination to continue as before – a steady-as-she-goes appeal to the stoical side of Britain that takes austerity on the chin, surrenders to its inevitability, makes do and mends. It presumes that, faute de mieux, when the Labour counter-offer is either scary or implausible, Britain defaults to Tory rule. That was true once. It clearly wasn’t true in 2010 otherwise Cameron would have won a majority. There isn’t any evidence it is true today, not before a week of national mourning for Margaret Thatcher and, in all likelihood, not after it.

A floral tribute outside Downing Street. Source: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

0800 7318496