Thatcher a failure?

I was in Leeds today to give a paper at a conference on Leaders of the Opposition.  I covered Margaret Thatcher.

  There are two hypotheses as to the relationship between her period in Opposition (1975-79) and her time in Goverment (1979-1990).  One is that one led to the other – in essence, a Whig view of history – with Thatcherism being developed in readiness for office and a solid base of electoral support established in order to usher in a lengthy period of Government.  The other is that the two are essentially discrete periods, with Thatcherism and a solid base of support being the product of her premiership and not the other way round.

The second hypothesis the most persuasive.  We tend to view Margaret Thatcher through the prism of her time in office.  She was a formidable, certainly a distinctive, Prime Minister.  However, as a Leader of the Opposition she was anything but formidable.  She was not particularly successful.  She was poor at public communication.  She performed poorly  in the Commons and tended over time to stay away.  She was not good on television.  She was constrained in imposing her views on the party.  She inherited a non-Thatcherite Shadow Cabinet and was not able to mould it to her wishes.  Her personality was seen as combative and dogmatic.  Though Labour became massively unpopular mid-Parliament, it clawed back support and by mid-1978 some polls showed a Labour lead.  Perhaps more tellingly, at the personal level, Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan enjoyed a twenty-point lead over Thatcher.

The Conservatives won in 1979 because of the ‘Winter of Discontent’.  Labour support plummeted in the wake of union action.  Margaret Thatcher’s form of leadership appeared – for the first time – more attractive than Callaghan’s consensual approach.  As a result, Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street.  Once in office, her eponymous philosophy emerged, though being first identified as a coherent philosophy by opponents (some essays in Marxism Today).  The PM also emerged as a powerful leader and conveyed a sense of direction.  The success of the Conservative Party in the 1980s was not the result of Thatcherism – the PM was able to craft neither a Thatcherite electorate nor even a Thatcherite parliamentary party – but the result of Margaret Thatcher, able to convey to the electorate that she knew where she was going. 

The ‘Thatcher legacy’ derives from her period in office.  Had James Callaghan called an election in 1978, there is a good chance Labour would have won.  Had that happened, then Margaret Thatcher may have been ousted from the leadership and passed into history as a not particularly successful leader.  Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party because of the failings of Edward Heath.  She became Prime Minister because of the misjudgment of James Callaghan.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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11 Responses to Thatcher a failure?

  1. Carl.H says:

    I was extremely surprised by this and must admit to not knowing the half of it, possibly because of my youthful involvement with life at the time.

    I was surprised because it detracts from the image of respect she has/had, though obviously she may not be liked by all. I suppose I presumed you would be a Thatcher fan, though quite obviously you are more a fan of facts which is good.

    James Callaghan, like Gordon always struck me as an interim PM whilst they waited for a proper man for the job but as I say I was too busy living at the time to know a lot of him or the opposition.

    I alway`s admired and respected Lady Thatcher when PM, was that because of her actions on the Falklands ? Certainly that was a great part of it but looking back in hind sight I now realise it is easy for a leader to send someone else to die. I certainly never agreed with her on a lot of things or her policies but admired her strength of mind and character. She appeared mostly to stick to her guns and own principles even if they were wrong to my mind.

    Thatcherism of the 80`s was at a time when technology was expanding and most were wealthy at least here in the South East, I expect the Welsh felt differently. There was also a vast amount of corruption in the city, greed created selfishness and communities were lost to singularism ( I`m alright Jack) thinking mostly due to sale of Council homes.

    Thatcher left a legacy, I admired her, respected her but did not like and still don`t what she created. The concept of “me and profit” made good business but destroyed community and Nation. The rot of this Country started during those years.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: Many thanks for your comments. In large measure, your own experience bears out my point – you may have disagreed with her but you admired her strength of character and her willingness to stick to her guns. Also, your perceptions of her derived from her period in office.

      Of course, I was fairly young at the time also….

  2. Croft says:

    “PM was able to craft neither a Thatcherite electorate nor even a Thatcherite parliamentary party”

    I suppose it depends on a solid meaning of Thatcherism which never actually seems so solid under examination.

    Monetarism crashed and burned itself over the ERM. She managed to pursue an increasingly vocal anti-European policy while filling her cabinet with Europhiles in key posts. Indeed for all Major’s faults he inherited a pretty toxic legacy of a leadership far more pro-European than it’s MPs/membership which the former fully intent on ignoring the latter.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Croft: In so far as Thatcherism was distinctive, it was because of the blend of economic liberalism and social conservatism. This was just one of seven strands of thought within the parliamentary Conservative party. [I analysed every member of the parliamentary party at the time.] Not only was there no Thatcherite hegemony under her leadership, a disproportionate number of ‘damps’ were promoted to ministerial office.

      • Alex Bennee says:

        Lord Norton,

        Out of interest what where those 7 strands of thinking in the party and do they still exist? I get the sense that Cameron is a economic pragmatist (rather than liberal) and probably more socially liberal than most of the party (which for me is a good thing).

      • Croft says:

        If you can work out what DC is then I think there are lot of Tory MPs and Peers who might like to know!

        I’m sure you’re right he is socially liberal – but not more so than many of his new MPs

      • Lord Norton says:

        Alex Bennee: The seven categories were: neo-liberal, Thatcherite, Tory right, populist, loyalist, damp and wet. They are still applicable, though some refinement may be necessary.

        Croft: Where David Cameron falls is a good question. If anything, he probably falls in the neo-liberal category.

      • Croft says:

        I imagine I can guess the difference between damp and wet though it made me smile!

        Populist seems self explanatory though I wonder how that really stands as a strand? Is it just non ideological political expediency?

        I would have though DC can only be neo-liberally inclined as he’s both pro a public service NHS (I think genuinely not for expediency) and shows little sign of really wanting only the necessary minimum of essential regulation (I think more for expediency post recession than principle). While the recession creates an almost insoluble problem, for all the warm words the debt is going to almost double over the next parliament. All are rather problematic for a classical neo-loberal definition.

        While you could try to frame the NHS/Dr led spending proposal as NL I think that’s a push as it’s essentially a false market in a insulated bubble from real competition.

  3. Gar says:

    ” Leader of the Opposition she was anything but formidable. She was not particularly successful. She was poor at public communication.”

    I attended a Church house meeting when she was
    minster of Education and everybody thought even then that she was cut out to be PM, and some how formidable too, so memories differ.

    She was n’t in leader of the opposition for all that long was she. A very similar pattern of grabbing power as Blair had 17 years later.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Gar: She was Leader of the Opposition for four years (1975-79). She could make some good speeches – her first major speech as Leader of the Opposition (on referendums) was very good indeed – but her overall performance was not impressive. Being Leader of the Opposition can be quite daunting, not least in the context in which Margaret Thatcher became leader.

  4. Paul says:

    Sorry for the late involvement in this subject but I just have to throw in some opinion; I honestly think that you can exchange any prime minister name for that of Thatcher in this article title. Unfortunately, I’m now old enough (45), to see the constant economic pattern that we try to escape. However, as this is about the Iron Lady I will try and stay on piste. If we take a look at big Jim C; I have fond memories of him as a nice, trustworthy man. In retrospect I can now see how his tenure as PM soured but this does not tarnish his character which always seemed to my young ears to have integrity.
    The winter of discontent did break his government but was only made possible by arguably the best advertising propaganda this country has seen, a construct of genius courtesy of Saatchi & Saatchi. I really believe that this campaign was the final nail.

    Thatcher was a divisive character. I grew up in South Wales with my grandparents, my grandfather being the son of a founding member of the Labour party, could only envisage a Labour government helping the working class. A view that would colour my judgement for the next 25 years. Fortunately, he also conveyed another lesson and that was pragmatism. So, even though I can remember the Thatcher government being destroyers of the working class, the unions, society and anything else that stood in its way, I can now see that someone had to do something as we could no longer continue on the same path that Labour were on.

    I will never agree with all of the choices that were made during this time but I believe that the Thatcher legacy allowed Cameron to win through. Cameron, like Thatcher has that something extra about him if he can keep dodging the bullets he just might be able to last quite a while.

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