The triumph of an unreasonable person

It was one of the most miserable experiences of my life. In November 1990, I was one of several Conservative ministers who had the painful task, after the first ballot in the leadership election, to tell Margaret Thatcher that it was in her own best interest that she should stand down. I did so because I feared that she would be humiliated in the next ballot. Denis Thatcher, I believe, was of the same opinion. But she was extremely upset to receive this unwelcome advice from people she regarded as supporters. Later, I also urged her to back John Major as her successor because he was the most likely candidate to protect her legacy. I still believe that was the right decision.

But what exactly is Margaret Thatcher's legacy? It is often said that New Labour was part of her legacy. By inflicting three successive election defeats on Labour while she transformed the economy, she forced Labour both to go back to the centre and to recognise the changed realities of Britain in the 1980s and 1990s. This was not an accident. Keith Joseph, her intellectual mentor, in a party conference speech, said that one day there would be a Labour leader who would tell his party that capitalism and markets were the best means of improving the living standards of the people. When that happened that would be the most important achievement of the Conservative Party. This was part of Joseph's pursuit of the "common ground" as opposed to the "middle ground". When Tony Blair became prime minister, got rid of Clause Four and accepted the mixed economy, Joseph and Thatcher's dream was realised.

In spite of the recognition she receives worldwide, Margaret Thatcher's legacy is still disputed in Britain. There is a view that somehow her reforms could have been realised less painfully or at a slower pace. George Bernard Shaw once remarked that progress depends on unreasonable people.
If Margaret Thatcher had been more "reasonable" she would probably have achieved nothing. The point was made in a brilliant pamphlet written by the Conservative MP Timothy Raison, a member of the One-Nation Group. He expressed the paradox that, in order to bring about "One Nation", it was necessary first to divide and to confront special interests such as the trade unions. Only then could a more prosperous and more harmonious society emerge.

Curiously, some Conservative politicians have associated themselves with her critics. The phrase "the Nasty Party" was a particularly ill-advised example and only handed a propaganda weapon to the party's opponents. It took great courage for Margaret Thatcher to do what she did. It requires much less courage merely to defend her, and that is the least she deserves from Conservatives.

Margaret Thatcher's strong opposition to the establishment of the euro and to a federal Europe ironically helped bring about her own downfall. But her views became increasingly accepted and eventually, after a period of turmoil, the settled view of the party and probably of the country. On foreign affairs, she was a supporter of Nato and strong defences but sufficiently flexible to see the opportunity to work with Mikhail Gorbachev. During her time, Britain certainly punched above its weight.

Margaret Thatcher was not a typical Conservative leader - very different from those who preceded and followed her, although she had a traditional Conservative respect for established institutions. She was more of a 19th-century Gladstonian Liberal. Peel would have approved of her policies, Disraeli less so.

It was always to be expected that after Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party would revert to a more conventional Conservatism but Thatcherism would be absorbed into the Conservative mainstream tradition. John Major correctly saw that, after a period of "permanent revolution", what the country wanted was a respite and a "kinder, gentler" Conservatism. David Cameron successfully married her economic liberalism with his own social liberalism.

There have been opportunistic arguments, after the recent financial crisis, that Margaret Thatcher pushed liberalisation too hard. But as the world economy recovers, these arguments are now losing traction. Margaret Thatcher rescued a country that was "the sick man of Europe" by taking tough decisions on government borrowing, inflation and trade union reform. Britain's economy recovered, as did its reputation, making us a model for other countries.

Margaret Thatcher changed British attitudes to business and wealth creation. Although the envy of success and "tall poppies" did not disappear, there was a new enterprise culture and a wider understanding of the need for a successful private sector.

I remember her once saying in a speech, “Our job is to change attitudes." I thought, "Politicians can't do that," but I was wrong.

Margaret Thatcher's reforms have lasted because they moved with the tide of history towards globalisation, free trade and a smaller state. A far-sighted example was her decision to open the City of London to foreign investment and competition, which established London even more as the leading financial centre of Europe. Typically, this decision was made despite the outraged protests of some leading supporters.

In my experience, Margaret Thatcher is always modest in conversation about her own achievements. I remember her once wistfully saying, "There are no final victories in politics." Circumstances can change; governments can reverse the decisions of their predecessors. So far, Margaret Thatcher's achievements have stood the test of time remarkably well.

Lord Lamont was chief secretary to the Treasury in November 1990. He served as chancellor under John Major until May 1993.

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.