Thatcherism marked a decisive break with mainstream Conservative thought

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The economic recovery of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s under Harold Macmillan – where he famously told the population that they had “never had it so good” – was a brilliant time for the the political left of the Conservative Party, who initially refused to accept left-leaning principles. However, they had to change their philosophy after the voters had seen these policies work during the 1940’s and the 1950’s under Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill and (to some extent) Anthony Eden (Knight, 2006, pp 39-40). However, this economic recovery soon created its own problems for the political left. This increase in wealth for the average person created a change in the viewpoints that the population held, making them more right-wing and more interested in protecting their own interests. This, coupled with the decline in Labour’s original socialist views, Harold Wilson’s attempt at technocracy and the failure of James Callaghan to deal with stagflation and the so-called “winter of discontent”, the population had become disillusioned with this standard, consensus politics. They wanted a complete change and, in 1979, they got it when the Conservatives returned to power under Margaret Thatcher. While it is undeniable that her policies did not completely mirror traditional Conservatism, some of them are very similar to both the 1945-1979 consensus policies (otherwise known as Butskellism) and the original form of Conservatism that existed up until around the 1930’s (known as one-nation Conservatism).

First, we must decide what “traditional Conservative thought” means. If we take “traditional” to mean the same as “original”, Conservatism thought was very fluid in its early years. They did not have one unifying theme (unlike the Labour Party, whose socialist ideology was occasionally a handicap to their development). The party had its roots in the Tory Party, but true Conservatism only emerged in the 18th century, as a result of the political theorist Edmund Burke. The original Conservatives stood for traditionalism (including the class system), the monarchy, protectionism, nationalism, minimum state intervention and imperial expansion. They also used pre-classical economic theory as their primary tool to manage the economy. However, this system was later revitalised by one of the most famous Victorian Prime Ministers, Benjamin Disraeli, whose “one-nation Conservatism” took a slightly more liberal approach, where the party would recognise the requirements of the working-class (to whom the Conservative Party had never catered before, as only land-owners had votes) but combined it with their original policies (Knight, 2006, pp34-36). However, “traditional Conservative thought” could also mean the new tradition in the Conservative Party that was instigated by Richard Austen Butler: Butskellism. This stood for Keynesian economics, a welfare state, state ownership and/or management of enterprises and the recognition of the role of trade unions as a major political force (Dearlove & Saunders, 1991, p507). This was still alive and well when Thatcher was elected to the post of Conservative leader in 1975.

Thatcher was originally criticised by her own supporters (and, later, her own Cabinet) for not being a true Conservative because of her over-focus on neo-liberalism over the established consensus politics. One faction of the Conservative Party, known as the “wets”, who supported the consensus, included the well-known MP, Francis Pym, whose book, The Politics of Consent, claimed that Thatcher was nothing more than a “child of nineteenth-century Liberalism” (Pym, 1984, pp111-130). This also implies that he believed Thatcherism did not even follow from the original “one-nation” Conservatives from the 1900’s. This was echoed by other leading Conservatives, such as Ian Gilmour and Edward Heath, who told the 1975 Conservative Party Conference that Thatcher was solely a “fanatic”. Harold Macmillan, meanwhile, who had used Butskellite policies in order to bring the economy back into a strong growth period, republished his book, The Middle Way, which contained a critique of liberal economics and thus an implied concern over Thatcherism (Green, 2006, pp32). Thatcher herself claimed she was a “Conservative revolutionary” in Seoul in 1992 and that the reason that she felt that she was able to implement policies that earlier Conservative Prime Ministers shied away from in favour of social improvement was because, as a grocer’s daughter, she did not suffer from the “bourgeois guilt” that her middle-class predecessors must have felt (Kavanagh, 1997, pp 77).

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2017-05-18T19:18:27+00:00 May 24th, 2014|Tips|