Jeremy Corbyn is Margaret Thatcher’s successor. In a way
The Iron Lady was the closest the UK will ever get to its own Lenin or Atatürk. The new Labour leader is similarly at home to ideology
Mrs T: every Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher’s fall has had to be tested for purity on the Thatchometer. David Cameron’s compromises with the EU would barely cause its needle to twitch. Photograph: ITV/Rex
When Margaret Thatcher died, in 2013, one or two left-wing commentators brought shame to their parishes by suggesting that, just to be sure, somebody ought to drive a stake into her heart. Maybe we should have paid more attention. Last week the Iron Lady made a contribution to the Brexit debate from beyond the grave. Charles Powell, her former policy adviser, took on the role of Madame Sosostris. Wrapping starry robes about his frame, he spread the Tarot across the baize and pronounced that the late baroness would have approved of David Cameron’s European negotiations and voted to remain in the EU.
All hell didn’t exactly break loose, but one small corner of Hades was evacuated. “She would fight with all her reserves for Britain to leave the European Union,” Robin Harris, Thatcher’s biographer, wrote in the Spectator. Norman Tebbit dismissed the statement as the ravings of “an apparatchik, not a politician”. Nigel Lawson’s head exploded (probably).
The question worth asking is: why do Mrs Thatcher’s post-mortem musings still matter so much? Nobody seems to be paying much heed to John Major or Tony Blair. Even Gordon Brown doesn’t care what Gordon Brown thinks. No spirit guides are speculating about Harold Wilson or Edward Heath’s opinions.
In the quarter of a century since Thatcher left office her enemies have said any number of wretched things about her, but few have suggested that her reign was of no significance. Thatcher is the closest that the United Kingdom, a country terminally uninterested in revolution, will ever get to its own Lenin or Atatürk. Like those men, she never quite leaves the conversation.
Why? One superficial reason is that she proved awfully hard to get rid of. In 1979 the UK finally emerged from two decades of prime ministerial pass the parcel. Alec Douglas-Home warmed the throne for a few months before making way for the gruesome tango of managed decline that manacled together Wilson and Heath. When Wilson won the title back from Heath, in 1974, he almost immediately handed it over to James Callaghan.
Thatcher arrived and Thatcher stayed.
She did SomethingSomething
By 1979 that mechanism was spluttering. Rather than twiddle the dials, Thatcher and her associates set to the apparatus with pickaxes, pneumatic drills and blasting equipment. Okay, they may have broken Liverpool and Manchester in the process. But they definitely achieved the great Something they sought.
More than anything else, however, Thatcher stands out from other modern UK prime ministers (with the possible, milder exception of Clement Attlee) by exhibiting that most un-English of traits: firm ideology. Her ministers argue that she was more pragmatic and cautious than such descriptions suggest. After all, it took the guts of a parliament before she assembled a cabinet of like-minded ministers. Nonetheless, processing the ideas of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, Thatcher formulated something that looked very like a radical philosophy. You didn’t get that from Major or Blair; nor do you from Cameron. The middle managers have been back in power.
Never mind Lenin or Atatürk: Thatcher remains the Mao of her party, a person who administered the organisation and formed its core philosophies. Every Conservative leader since her fall has had to be tested for purity on the Thatchometer. The weary compromises that Cameron arranged with the EU would barely cause that device’s needle to twitch. The flimsy document exists to paper over the Eurosceptic cracks eating into the party’s superstructure.
There is no doctrine there. Only one leader of a major UK party since 1983 has been properly at home to political ideology. That man is Jeremy Corbyn. He doesn’t much like the EU, either. Nor is he interested in being a day-to-day manager. In one or two senses Corbyn looks like Thatcher’s only successor. And he’s still alive.