The privatisations that underwrote Thatcherism cannot be repeated: there is nothing left to sell.
The Conservative Party is enduring an intellectual and political crisis. It is absorbed by the epic task of Brexit and is dependent on the reactionary DUP for its parliamentary majority. It has seen Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, which it deemed unelectable, become a contender for power.
But more than this, the Tories are haunted by an electorate that has lost faith in Thatcherite capitalism. By an overwhelming majority, voters favour the renationalisation of of the UK’s water (83 per cent), electricity (77 per cent), gas (77 per cent) and railways (76 per cent). Forty nine per cent believe that “socialist ideas are of great value”.
It was not meant to be this way. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher and her allies championed what they called “popular capitalism”. According to this theory, voters would be given a permanent stake in the market through the sale of council housing and shares in privatised utilities.
And, for a period, it worked. The sale of more than a million council homes helped transform Labour voters into Tory loyalists. In 1984, shares in the privatised BT were 10 times oversubscribed, gifted a windfall to the government and voters. The sale of British Gas (exemplified by the populist “Tell Sid” campaign), British Airways and the water companies followed. By the end of the 1980s, share ownership among the public had risen from seven per cent to a quarter.
The revenue from privatised assets, and the North Sea oil boom, underwrote Thatcherism as unemployment spiked, and funded costly income tax cuts. But these unique circumstances cannot be repeated. As left-wingers have taken to remarking, the problem with Thatcherism is that eventually you run out of other people’s assets.
“Popular capitalism” has become unpopular capitalism. With little left to privatise, the Tories no longer have a source of easy revenue. Voter discontent is now focused on the failures of the market, rather than those of the state. Forty per cent of sold-off council homes have been acquired by private landlords. Consumers are paying an estimated £2.3bn a year more for their water and sewerage bills than if the utility companies had remained in public ownership. The collapse of Carillion and the renationalisation of the East Coast Mainline have further dramatised the shortcomings of the market.
But the Tories have not adjusted accordingly. Most in the party continue to speak as if Thatcherism can be revived when its material basis no longer exists. Though Theresa May and her allies have challenged “vested interests” in theory, they have rarely done so in practice. Most Tory MPs would baulk at the action required to make the market work for the majority.
The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Europhobic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. But the party which once reviled ideology is now trapped by it.