Monday, 10 June 2013

The Legacy of Margaret Thatcher and the Future of British Conservatism: A Debate

Acknowledging supporters, 1983
(source: BBC)
Yesterday (June 9th) was the 30th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher's landslide re-election in 1983, which inaugurated the most radical stage of her premiership. PGS MUN marked this event with a debate: "This House believes that Margaret Thatcher has proven a millstone for the current Conservative Party", expertly chaired by Mr Lemieux, with Will Wallace supporting the motion and Mr Doyle opposing it. The debate prompted a sizeable audience, showing just how much interest and controversy Margaret Thatcher still attracts nearly a third of a century after her most significant electoral victory.

Will Wallace began by pointing out that he is a Conservative Party member and activist, that he agrees with much of her ideology, but that her legacy causes much of the current strife within the party and is a political hindrance. He argued that in 1975, just before she became Conservative leader, there were still many Conservative seats in the north of England (much reduced in number by the 1990s) and that the gap between rich and poor was narrower than it was when she left office in 1990. He noted that unemployment was 5.3% in 1979, but 11.9% by 1984. He agreed with her free market ideology but felt that it was taken too far and became too divisive, that, although her council home sale policy helped attract working class voters in the short term, in the long term the working class (particularly in the North) abandoned the Tory party. While many of her privatisation policies made sense, they went too far when she threatened popular and essential public services. In summation, Will argued that to attract the centre ground and to reflect the early twenty-first century, the Conservative Party needed to abandon Thatcher's 1980s approach, however valuable it may have been then.

 Mr Doyle replied that her legacy was the economic progress that the country had made during the 34 years since she was first elected Prime Minister. Only a handful of world leaders, and no British leaders, have had an "-ism" added to their name, Thatcherism denoting a belief in the free market and a small state, with government getting out of the way. Major and Cameron had both failed, which was not Thatcher's fault. He argued that her re-election in 1983 heralded her period of greatest reform between 1984 and 1987, finally ridding Britain of its image as the "sick man of Europe"; he contrasted her effective use of large majorities with the Blair government's failure to use even larger majorities in the 1990s to achieve lasting change. By the end of her time in office, he said, unemployment was down to 2 million and has not been reduced any further since then (due to the mistakes of her successors). She had no choice but to take the measures she did, in the face of the stranglehold of the trade unions that broke the Heath and Callaghan governments in the 1970s. However, she was not only significant in terms of her economic policies (resulting in lower taxes, higher productivity and a reduction of strike action) but was also a transcendent cultural figure, a self-described "conviction politician" with the aim of making Britain a better place, not worried by pollsters or image. She led her Cabinet from the front.

From the audience, Henry Cunnison argued that a major cause of the current economic crisis was the reduction of regulation in the City, a process begun under the Thatcher government. Mr Doyle responded that this was the result of Labour's policy of making the Bank of England independent. Mr Lemieux asked whether, if Mrs Thatcher had been in power in 2008, she would have taken different action to that of the Brown Government. Mr Doyle's view was that it was difficult to answer "what-if" questions, but that, had Thatcher not left office in 1990, the Bank would not have been given independence and supervision of the City would have been tighter, reducing the impact of the Crash in 2007. He also argued that, unlike contemporary politicians, Mrs Thatcher had principles. Later in the debate, Neil Chhabda asked whether deregulation had gone too far, Mr Lemieux supplementing his question by asking whether it had left the economy slightly unbalanced with too great an emphasis on the financial sector.

Will Wallace suggested that Mrs Thatcher would have been too ideologically dogmatic to respond effectively to the crisis, that this same rigidity was manifest in her decision to impose the Poll Tax in the late 1980s, punishing the poorest the most, which showed she did not understand working people. He countered arguments that contemporary politicians had no principles by arguing that David Cameron supported gay marriage in the teeth of opposition from his own party. Mr Lemieux wondered whether both Thatcher and Cameron, with poll tax and gay marriage respectively, had miscalculated: Thatcher with the wider electorate, Cameron with his own party members. Will argued that it was a mistake to go to the right and to abandon mainstream voters, which would lead to defeat in 2015.

Douglas Mileham said that leaders needed a goal or risk getting bogged down. Will said that Thatcherite goals would be actively harmful for the current Conservative Party. Mr Doyle said the difference was that Thatcher alienated her Cabinet but kept the loyalty of party members, whereas, with Cameron, it was the other way around, that there was no hope of winning North or South if the activists were demoralised.

Ross Watkins argued that Mr Thatcher's industrial policies in the North were still a political millstone in that region thirty years later. Mr Doyle replied that the coal mines were economically unviable, but agreed with Ross that Thatcher could, in some industrial areas, have taken a slower approach that softened the social impact on local communities. However, he noted that the NUM leaders had been spoiling for a fight and that they had brought down one government already in the 1970s.

Charlie Scutts questioned whether Thatcher had really had a negative effect on working people. Will said that her legacy had been a widened gap between rich and poor, while Mr Doyle said that she understood working class aspiration as she had herself risen from the lower middle class. He felt that, whereas in the 1980s, there had been clear political differences between the political parties, now they were all focused on the centre ground, treating voters as if they did not have minds of their own. Mr Lemieux asked whether you could not be moderate and have a political backbone at the same time. Mr Doyle said that moderation was one thing, but being poll-obsessed was another.

Rob Bendell asked Will how he could call Cameron a principled politician when Cameron had referred to himself as "heir to Blair". Will said Blair had been in the wrong party and was actually a Tory; furthermore, Cameron was showing his principles by facing down those members of the party allegedly referred to in certain quarters as "swivel-eyed loonies". He said that there were reactionaries among both Conservatives and Labour who threatened to hold their parties back. Mr Doyle counted 19 U turns by the Cameron government within the first few months in office; furthermore, he argued that Cameron's position on gay marriage was opportunism rather than principle, an attempt to "detoxify" the Tory image. Mr Lemieux said that Thatcher had been a more consultative Prime Minister during her first government, but less so after the Falklands War. Mr Doyle felt that this was because, from 1983, the Cabinet reflected her own choice rather than that of her predecessor.

Tom Harper felt that the future of the Conservative Party was Thatcherite and that Will was swimming against the tide. Will felt that, although her policies had been necessary in the 1980s to create a strong, prosperous economy, society had been left less united because of her tearing up the social fabric. Mr Doyle countered that the nation had been disunited in the 1960s and 1970s, so this was nothing new. Ross Watkins suggested that the poll tax had helped fuel Scottish nationalism and Mr Doyle responded that this was only one issue influencing the rise of nationalism in the 1990s and early 21st century.

In conclusion, Mr Doyle argued that (pointing to the audience) "You are her legacy, which is all for the good." He noted that Margaret Thatcher called herself a conservative, yet led the most radical government in living memory. Summing up, Will responded that the country needed a change of direction in 1979 and that Thatcher was the much-needed agent of that change. However, her legacy included a severe increase in the gap between rich and poor which remains with us today and, moving forward, we need a change from thos policies in 2013.

The final vote was 8 in support of the motion, 20 against and the remainded abstaining, suggesting that, 30 years after her most significant victory, Thatcher is still seen as an asset for the contemporary Conservative Party.

Left to Right: Mr Doyle, Mr Lemieux and William Wallace

All pictures copyright Daniel Rollins 2013 used with permission.

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