Of all the documents released today under the 30-year rule, perhaps the most striking is the former prime minister Harold Macmillan’s memorandum to Margaret Thatcher on the economy.
In it, he refers to the sense of “shock” to the nation caused by Thatcher’s hardline monetarist policies and contrasts this (rather sniffily) with the “sense of exhilaration” among her supporters. He goes on to warn of a “dangerous” increase in unemployment and concludes: “Devisive [sic] politics in a democratic system are unlikely to become effective even if such methods were desirable.” Sound familiar? Substitute David Cameron for Margaret Thatcher and all the same criticisms would still apply.
Thatcher, of course, rejected Macmillan’s appeal for a return to “consensus politics” and at the 1980 Conservative conference famously declared: “The lady’s not for turning.”
All of which raises the question: is Cameron a Thatcher or a Macmillan?
The Prime Minister is an admirer of Supermac (he even had a picture of his fellow Old Etonian above his desk in opposition) and, as the coalition agreement proved, a believer in pluralism. His political pragmatism and his belief in the “big society” (not words that could ever have passed Thatcher’s lips) also suggest a greater affinity with Macmillan. But on economics, Cameron remains a child of Thatcher. Unlike Macmillan, who famously attacked Thatcher’s privatisations as “selling off the family silver”, the Tory leader has an ideological attachment to free-market economics and to the small state.
In one of the most revealing exchanges since he entered government, Cameron memorably warned a Fire Brigade worker that the cuts to public services would be permanent. He said: “[T]he direct answer to your question, should we cut things now and go back later and try and restore them later, [is] I think we should be trying to avoid that approach.” The deficit merely provided the opportunity to make the cuts.
His arrogant dismissal of calls for an economic “Plan B” is reminiscent of the Iron Lady’s own insistence that she was “not for turning”. As is his declaration that “there is no alternative” to the coalition’s draconian spending cuts. Cameron may have performed U-turns on individual issues from free milk to child benefit to VAT, but there is no prospect of him performing the biggest U-turn of all and delaying the coalition’s cuts.
At a time when the economy is the only game in town, it is Thatcher, not Macmillan, who is Cameron’s true guiding spirit.