It has been Margaret Thatcher Week for some in the Conservative Party. Monday (22 November) marked the 31st anniversary of her fall from power, and the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS, a think tank she helped form) commemorated the occasion by hosting the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Trade. To underline her continued significance and relevance, both David Frost and the Prime Minister addressed the conference.
Some people’s minds may have recently drifted back to November 1990 as they recalled a blonde, charismatic, electorally successful but divisive prime minister losing the confidence of their MPs and being forced from office.
I would not draw the parallels too far. As I argued last week, I do not think Conservative MPs are about to remove Boris Johnson. In addition, because she was such a substantial figure, her defenestration was an extraordinary moment in our political history that will not be replicated, even by Boris Johnson’s eventual political demise.
The post-1990 history of the Conservative Party has been defined by the events of that November. Which side were you on? For the Lady, or against?
Margaret Thatcher may have lost office but a powerful new legend was created. She perished because she resisted the moves to a European super-state; her pro-European cabinet colleagues had betrayed her at the end but even before that, she had been forced into the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) against her better judgement; and she was clear-eyed as to the risks of UK membership of the single currency. She was punished, much of the Conservative Party has concluded, for being right about Europe.
Of course, the truth is a little more complicated. The poll tax was a colossal error and cost Thatcher support. Had she survived, Labour may well have won the next general election. I think she was right about the ERM but its strongest advocate, Nigel Lawson, was and is a prominent Eurosceptic. And her scepticism about the single currency was justified, but even without her we stayed outside it.
Nonetheless, for many Conservatives the events of November 1990 were an occasion when they picked a side – the Eurosceptic side, the “anti-establishment” side, the plucky, heroic and romantic side – and few had reason to regret it.
A generation later, unexpectedly large numbers of Conservative politicians and then Conservative voters, when faced with a binary choice, went for the romantic option – Leave. It is easy to believe that for some this was an act of consistency. If you were Eurosceptic in 1990, you supported Margaret Thatcher, and if you were Eurosceptic in 2016, you backed Brexit. Pick a side and stick to it.
On this point, however, the truth is a lot more complicated. Contrary to the hopes of many of its advocates, Brexit does not constitute continuity Thatcherism.
The Prime Minister’s speech to the CPS post-conference dinner on 22 November will not be as long remembered as his performance in front of the Confederation of British Industry earlier the same day, during which he referenced Peppa Pig and lost his place in his notes. It was, however, interesting in its appraisal of Thatcher. Johnson professed to be “a Thatcher fan” and noted the “amazing things” she did for free markets and her “critical role” in support of free trade. But he also declares that she has “a blot on her record” and she had “a blind spot”. Not only did she campaign to join the common market that “handed away this country’s ability to control its own trade policy”, but that “she was later persuaded that she needed to go further and agree to another cession of powers in the mid-1980s” by creating the single market.
The cognitive dissonance is striking. In a speech supposedly celebrating free trade and Margaret Thatcher, Johnson criticised the two policies she supported – joining the common market and creating the single market – that did most to remove trade barriers.
Brexiteer “free-traders” appear incapable of understanding some straightforward points that Thatcher grasped when in office. Free trade is not defined solely by tariffs (as it largely was in the 19th century); non-tariff barriers are a bigger issue in modern economies (see the government’s complaints about Britain-to-Northern Ireland trade); and that the most effective means of reducing them is a system of shared rules with institutions to enforce them. You can withdraw from those institutions, but it comes at a cost of higher trade barriers.
David Frost’s speech at the conference argued that the UK must use its new autonomy to diverge from the “European social model” and, if not, “we will not succeed”. His “formula for success” consists of “low taxes” (“I agree with the Chancellor … our goal must be to lower taxes,” which some took as a dig at the Prime Minister – “Et tu, Frostie?”) “light-touch and proportionate regulation” and “free trade”.
This is all very Thatcherite but a world away from the realities of Brexit. Free trade, as I have mentioned, has been diminished as we have erected barriers with our largest market; businesses face a mountain of new regulatory burdens if they wish to trade with the EU; and taxes are going up, in part because the economy will be 4 per cent smaller than it would otherwise have been. Meanwhile, the Conservatives’ support has become more social democratic in its outlook.
Brexit may have been seen by its advocates as a reaffirmation of Thatcherism, but the reality is that – in giving us a higher taxed, more bureaucratic, less open economy – it is its repudiation.