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

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.