Tory nostalgia for Thatcher could propel Johnson into Downing St
Diarmaid Ferriter: Thatcher’s victories came at the cost of deep inequalities and confusion about British identity that still resonate
Margaret Thatcher: the bond she cultivated with the US was paralleled by a destructive disdain for Europe. Photograph: Getty Images
If Boris Johnson is the answer to the British Tory problem, the party is beyond repair. In 2013, Johnson, now being spoken of as the likely successor to Theresa May, delivered the annual Margaret Thatcher lecture for the Centre for Policy Studies. He was keen, in the year of her death, to invoke his version of the ghost of Thatcher by insisting inequality is essential to fostering “the spirit of envy”, while lauding greed as a “valuable spur to economic activity”.
He also mocked the 16 per cent of “our species” with an IQ below 85. His other main concerns were to ridicule the common market, and banish “the myth of British decline”.
The spectre of Thatcher might well be summoned again this weekend given the depths to which the Tory party has sunk, and its members forgiven for allowing mists of nostalgia to envelope their assessment of the Iron Lady, who came to power 40 years ago this month. Thatcher, they will understandably assert, would never have allowed the party to crumble in the way it has under May.
Thatcher’s biographers have consistently focused on the depth of her convictions and steeliness, and she was surely at her strongest and most authentic when being insolent. She overcame the misogyny, slights and prejudices of her mostly male peers, and will forever be remembered as not only the first female British prime minister but also the first since Lord Liverpool in the 1820s to win three successive general elections.
But today’s Tories should be wary of mythologising Thatcher as such pining risks distorting her impact and legacy, and encourages the embrace of a false, bright new dawn with the megalomaniacal and mercenary Johnson.
Thatcher’s reputation as formidable was justified, and in that sense the contrast with May is obvious. Yet Thatcher was also riddled with contradictions and, as underlined by her biographer Charles Moore, dangerously imperious and lacking in emotional intelligence.
A British historian of the 1980s, Graham Stewart, has challenged the portrayals of Thatcher as the prime minister who changed everything and supposedly smashed the post-war consensus that had dominated British politics. Despite her association with privatisation and the free market, the National Health Service, the education system and the railways and mines continued to be state-run.
Her contention in 1987 that “there is no such thing as society” was used as a stick to beat her, then and since; Stewart suggests her assertion was selectively quoted and taken out of context; what she had meant, as is evident in the full interview, was “the confusion of society with the state as helper of first resort”.
But, as Stewart points out, “what she could not satisfactorily answer was why the accusation that she wished to destroy society had gained such traction”. The reasons it did included the widening gap between rich and poor, urban decay, rising crime and the encouragement of individual greed.
Thatcher’s initial few years as prime minister were a struggle; the embrace of monetarism – government managing the growth of the money supply – was deemed not to be working and savaged by economists. But economic growth soon began, inflation was controlled and, in time, the expansion of credit, lowering of taxes, and the development of financial services encouraged unbridled, uneven wealth accumulation.
Allowing local authority tenants to buy their own houses was popular, and contributed to many working class voters embracing the Tories at the expense of Labour, which spent much of the decade tearing itself apart, a reminder that Thatcher was greatly helped by the divisions of her opponents.
Thatcher also reaped much benefit from the Falklands war, and asserted at its end that the war, which cost in the region of £4 billion, was designed to give two fingers to “the people who thought we could no longer do the great things which we once did”, a nauseatingly self-serving assertion after a thousand unnecessary deaths.
The bond she cultivated with the US was paralleled by a destructive disdain for Europe.
Industrial “peace” was achieved by restricting the powers of trade unions and confronting their strikes, most notoriously the miners for 51 weeks, after they reacted to a proposal to cut the workforce by 44,000.
New policies created inevitable victims, with 9.4 million Britons living on or below supplementary benefits by 1985, an increase of 54 per cent since 1979. Tensions, riots and racial strife were also a part of the fabric of 1980s Britain.
Thatcher fostered jingoism but did not bring harmony where there was discord, failing to deliver on her famous promise 40 years ago on the steps of Downing Street.
Her victories came at the cost of deep inequalities and confusion about British identity. That disorientation remains profoundly relevant today, and Johnson and his cronies can only worsen it such is the shallowness of their flogging of the dead horse of the mythical “great things which we once did”.