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Theresa May's Conservative manifesto buries dogmatic Thatcherism

The Prime Minister is more sceptical of the market and less hostile towards the state.

"Forward, together". The title of the Conservatives' election manifesto invites comparison with Margaret Thatcher. It was before these words that the Tories' great landslider spoke at her party's 1980 conference. But it is here that the similarities largely end. For Theresa May is the first Conservative leader to truly grapple with Thatcher's legacy.

The economic forces that the former prime minister unleashed – through privatisation, deregulation and tax cuts – had ambiguous and unintended consequences. While dealing a hammer blow from which the socialist left and the trade unions never recovered, they also undermined the ordered society that she revered. The speculative frenzies of the market, the decoupling of contribution and reward and the surge in private debt contradicted her values of responsibility, fidelity and thrift. Thatcher's ideological inheritors, many of them more doctrinaire than the Iron Lady herself, adopted a dogmatic faith in capitalism at odds with traditional Tory pragmatism.

May's mission is to rehabilitate this older strain of Conservative thinking. "We do not believe in untrammelled free markets," declares a section entitled "Our Principles". "We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality. We see rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous."

May's manifesto, authored by her fiercely loyal co-chief of staff Nick Timothy (along with Tory ministers George Freeman and Ben Gummer), proclaims a belief "not just in society" but "in the good that government can do". There are echoes of Beveridge ("five great challenges"), of Burke ("society is a contract between the generations") and of Blue Labour (whose founder Maurice Glasman recently met Timothy).

The ensuing policies do not seek to reverse Thatcherism (as Labour's manifesto does) but to correct it. The manifesto promises a "tarriff cap" on energy bills (which have continually risen under privatisation), "worker representation on company boards" (strengthening labour against capital), "a new generation of council housing" (neglected ever since Thatcher's Right to Buy) and a "modern industrial strategy" (legitimising the state as an economic actor).

Even in the case of Brexit, May is wrangling with another Thatcherite bequest. Despite her latter europhobia, it was the former prime minister who took the UK into the European single market, extending the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. As the EU expanded, the liberal imperative of growth clashed with the conservative imperative of order. Net migration from Europe now stands at 168,000, a level regarded by May as unsustainable. To this end, the manifesto recommits the UK to single market withdrawal (in order to limit free movement) and renews the aim of reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year.

Every prime minister since Thatcher has dwelt in her ideological shadow. The Brexit vote, one of the ruptures to which the UK is given roughly every 35 years (1906, 1945, 1979, 2016), constitutes a natural punctuation mark. Thatcher’s unintentionally liberal settlement could be supplanted by May’s harder-edged conservatism. Far more than David Cameron, who sought the middle way of “the big society”, she heralds the role of the state in promoting national greatness, maintaining social order and widening equality of opportunity.

Governments are frequently better judged by their actions than by their words. If, as the polls suggest, May's return to Downing Street is inevitable, the ensuing years will be defined by one task: Brexit. But the intention of her manifesto could not be clearer: to bury dogmatic Thatcherism.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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David had taken the same tablets for years. Why the sudden side effects?

Long-term medication keeps changing its appearance – round white tablets one month, red ovals the next, with different packaging to boot.

David had been getting bouts of faintness and dizziness for the past week. He said it was exactly like the turns he used to get before he’d had his pacemaker inserted. A malfunctioning pacemaker didn’t sound too good, so I told him I’d pop in at lunchtime.

Everything was in good order. He was recovering from a nasty cough, though, so I wondered aloud if, at the age of 82, he might just be feeling weak from having fought that off. I suggested he let me know if things didn’t settle.

I imagined he would give it a week or two, but the following day there was another visit request. Apparently he’d had a further turn that morning. The carer hadn’t liked the look of him so she’d rung the surgery.

Once again, he was back to normal by the time I got there. I quizzed him further. The symptoms came on when he got up from the sofa, or if bending down for something, suggesting his blood pressure might be falling with the change in posture. I checked the medication listed in his notes: eight different drugs, at least two of which could cause that problem. But David had been taking the same tablets for years; why would he suddenly develop side effects now?

I thought I’d better establish if his blood pressure was dropping. I got him to stand, and measured it repeatedly over a period of several minutes. Not a hint of a fall. And nor did he now feel in the slightest bit unwell. I was stumped. David’s wife had been watching proceedings from her armchair. “Mind you,” she said, “it only happens mid-morning.”

The specific timing made me pause. I asked to see his tablets. David passed me a carrier bag of boxes. I went through them methodically, cross-referencing each one to his notes.

“Well, there’s your trouble,” I said, holding out a couple of the packets. One was emblazoned with the name “Diffundox”, the other “Prosurin”. “They’re actually the same thing.”

Every medication has two names, a brand name and a generic one – both Diffundox and Prosurin are brand names of a medication known generically as tamsulosin, which improves weak urinary flow in men with enlarged prostates. Doctors are encouraged to prescribe generically in almost all circumstances – if I put “tamsulosin” on a prescription, the pharmacist can supply the best value generic available at that time, but if I specify a brand name they’re obliged to dispense that particular one irrespective of cost.

Generic prescribing is good for the NHS drug budget, but it can be horribly confusing for patients. Long-term medication keeps changing its appearance – round white tablets one month, red ovals the next, with different packaging to boot. And while the box always has the generic name on it somewhere, it’s much less prominent than the brand name. With so many patients on multiple medications, all of which are subject to chopping and changing between generics, it’s no wonder mix-ups occur. Couple that with doctors forever stopping and starting drugs and adjusting doses, and you start to get some inkling of quite how much potential there is for error.

I said to David that, at some point the previous week, two different brands of tamsulosin must have found their way into his bag. They looked for all the world like different medications to him, with the result that he was inadvertently taking a double dose every morning. The postural drops in his blood pressure were making him distinctly unwell, but were wearing off after a few hours.

Even though I tried to explain things clearly, David looked baffled that I, an apparently sane and rational being, seemed to be suggesting that two self-evidently different tablets were somehow the same. The arcane world of drug pricing and generic substitution was clearly not something he had much interest in exploring. So, I pocketed one of the aberrant packets of pills, returned the rest, and told him he would feel much better the next day. I’m glad to say he did. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game