November 19, 2010


Maggie Thatcher’s long goodbye: Just two nights before Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister, 20 years ago this month, she had vowed to fight on. She needn’t have worried – Tony Blair soon picked up where she left off. (Roy Hattersley, 18 November 2010, New Statesman)

The shadow employment secretary, Tony Blair, had courageously and correctly endorsed the Brussels directive that simultaneously outlawed the closed shop and made trade union membership a statutory right. The party had confirmed its moderation by inflicting a crushing defeat on Tony Benn and Eric Heffer when they challenged Neil and me.

Thatcher inhibited rather than stimulated those necessary changes. The old left denounced every reform as "pandering to Thatcherism" - as well as presaging mass defections to the SDP. And the mistakes that we made in confronting the hard-edged Conservatism that Thatcher represented were the result not just of our horror at the suffering her policies caused, but of the fear that we would be accused of pandering to the prejudices that they exploited. Our responses were often too angry and frequently insufficiently clinical. We regularly misunderstood the attitude of the British people to Thatcherism's unquestioning enthusiasm for ruthless individualism.

During the 1983 general election campaign Thatcher was asked why, when she needed an operation on her hand, she had chosen private treatment over the National Health Service. She replied, without doubt or hesitation, that she wanted treatment at the time of her choice and in the place of her choice. That answer seemed to me both morally objectionable and certain to offend the thousands of people who were languishing on treatment waiting lists. My assumption about the public's attitude was wrong. Opinion polls confirmed that the general feeling was that anyone who could afford superior treatment was entitled to buy it. We found it hard to accept that.

In a credible sense, Margaret Thatcher rep­resented the spirit of the age. She stood for more than the belief that the collective solutions - the state initiating improvements in welfare and economic performance - had failed. She seemed to be a cleansing wind that would blow away the prejudices and vested interests of all the old establishments, hereditary grandees no less than trade union barons. Perversely, she represented change in a society that longed for something new. Labour was the ancien régime.

Rightly or wrongly, before Tony Blair we responded to all that Thatcher stood for by rejecting it outright. That is why the founding fathers of New Labour were unenthusiastic about John Smith's leadership. Blair would not have gone against the grain of public opinion. His detachment from social-democratic values became an electoral asset when he became the leader of a social-democratic party. He was able to judge each policy against the criterion of its public appeal. His standard reply to criticism was not that he had made the right choice, but that to choose the alternative was to risk defeat.

Blair himself was undoubtedly sympathetic to the precepts of Thatcherism - the view that allowing individuals to "get on", without much concern for the effect on other people, was the obligation of the free society. But hundreds of Labour Party members who supported his leadership rejected that view. To them, he was the only knight who could slay the once-indomitable dragon. It was the fear of continual failure, not conversion to crypto-Thatcherism, that encouraged Labour to follow Blair from a position on the moderate left on to the centre ground. The idea that Labour wins only when it is not Labour still haunts the party.

Joseph Chamberlain said that great politicians "changed the weather". I doubt that it was either Margaret Thatcher's dominant personality or distinctive philosophy that converted Britain to the belief that the old consensus - welfare and government intervention - had failed. Britain believed that before she won the 1979 election. Indeed, it was the reason for her victory. But she articulated the zeitgeist with such vigour that the idea survives her premiership by two decades. Thanks to her, ideas that most of the population instinctively believed, but feared to admit, became respectable. They still are and will remain so until their popularity is first accepted and then challenged.

The defining principle of Thatcher's economic philosophy - the efficacy of the market, as a guarantee of competitive efficiency and as a method of determining the allocation of resources and patterns of remuneration - was adopted by the Blair government, not as a philosophical truth, but as the common sense that any plain man would recognise. When Blair worked for me in Labour's front-bench Treasury team, his outstanding characteristics were all-round ability, undisguised contempt for a political vocation that was not focused on winning power and impatience with what he called ideology. At best, he believed in something called the common good, with which men and women of public spirit and integrity could identify without recourse to philosophy. The idea that he was attracted by Thatcherite theories is absurd. He prided himself on having put theory aside. He instinctively and independently came to a Thatcherite conclusion.

The conclusion is the theory and the theory is the Third Way

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 19, 2010 6:12 AM
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