We British are not in the habit of elevating the actions of our national leaders to 'isms', unlike the French with their Gaullism and Pétainism. Baroness Thatcher was the first British PM to have her actions interpreted as an 'ism', which implies an ideological programme. But as is so often the case, the application of a neat label can be as confusing as it is illuminating. Throughtout the 1980s and up to today, people grappled with the question: What is 'Thatcherism'?
Not even serious political commentators seemed to be able to work out exactly what was happening. What was Thatcherism's goal? From whence did its dynamism spring? When was the Iron Lady going to stop? Who supported her and why? The inability of many to understand it led to them labelling it as a paradox - economically liberal but apparently autocratic, supposedly about cutting government growth but centralising power in the Premiership. To many it appeared to be nothing more than a lust for power by a petit bourgeois small-town woman with big ambition, or as a manifestation of naked greed (although exactly who the beneficiary of this was was never clear).
Thatcherism was never an ideology in the way that Leninism is. Leninism is a practical political programme which makes certain prescriptions for certain problems, and seeks to implement them according to a pre-conceived plan. Thatcherism was never this highly regimented or planned, but rather manifested itself as a coherent movement in a certain direction. Understood in a certain way, it can be seen that Thatcherite ministers acted consistently in a certain way for all three of Baroness Thatcher's terms. 'Thatcherism' is the set of ideas that emerged in a number of minds in late twentieth century Britain about how to stop the United Kingdom's decline into a banana republic.
The extent to which there was a post-war consensus in British politics similar to the American one has been much argued. The balance of evidence suggests broad agreement on many issues, especially ones pertaining to the economy and the welfare state. The bulk of the Conservative Party embraced the 'middle way', supposedly a centrist path betwixt socialism and capitalism. Trying to disassociate themselves from big business interests, the Conservatives declared that whatever was conducive for economic growth and prosperity for all should be pragmatically accepted, even if this meant nationalisation or varying degrees of state control.
The change came under the pressure of ideas from Enoch Powell (the much-maligned 'John the Baptist' of Thatcherism) and Sir Keith Joseph, who argued with Friedrich von Hayek that the end-point of socialism was totalitarianism. They saw socialism as cramping the genius of the British people and stopping their full development, as well as ruining the economy by making it inefficient and over-regulated. They wanted 'another break for freedom', for government to nurture the ambition and ability of each member of society and for the small entrepreneur. They wanted to abandon the obsession with government by consensus or by negotiation with large pressure groups, and instead focus on Parliament and the electorate.
On the eve of Thatcher's election, Britain was in a sorry state indeed. Inflation was rampant, economic growth poor, crime high, educational standards low, and trade unions were bringing down governments. Thatcherism explained most of these problems by arguing that the British people needed to show more of what Shirley Letwin has called the 'vigorous virtues' - self-sufficiency, robustness, independent-mindedness, prudence, adventurousness. The ideal Thatcherite individual was profit-seeking and creative in the public sphere, and an exemplary housekeeper and family-member in the private sphere. Everything Thatcher did was an attempt to try and release the energy of these virtues as best as possible, usually by removing what were seen as restrictions to their being exercised.
As Ronald Reagan did in the United States, Thatcherites declared that government was not the solution to everyone's problems. This was a radically different way of approaching problems to the methodology of post-war governments, which had seen the state as the solution to problems. The Thatcherite methodology was different - it considered the possibility that problems were caused by government action as well as government inaction, and was willing to cut back the government if this was required. It saw the solution to the economic problem as a free market and privatisation, which meant cutting back the power of the state. But this entailed attacked institutions and bureaucracies. Herein lies the charge that Thatcherism is autocratic and dictatorial - it looked to the will of the electorate rather than the consensus of institutions, and hence steamrolled these institutions out of existence and centralised power in the Premiership to achieve the transformation.
Another major Thatcherite concern was the rule of law. This had two main planks. Firstly, the rule of law is needed so that contractual relationships can be enforced and so that people can know where they stand and business can run smoothly. Here Thatcherism stressed the primacy of the Westminster Model (i.e. Parliament is utterly sovereign) and paid less attention to policy-making by discussion with interest groups such as the Confederation of British Industry or the Trade Union Congress, both of which had become enormously powerful. Secondly, Thatcherism was concerned with the moral and social degradation of the country since World War II, and it is this concern which has attracted the criticism that Thatcher focused on 'Victorian values' and was carrying out revenge for the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
In the Thatcherite conception of the individual and society, the family is paramount. The family is the institution that transmits the 'vigorous virtues' from parent to child, and hence provides continuity and ensures Britain's success in the future. The decline of the family was hence of paramount concern to Thatcherites, who saw an intimate connection between growing divorce and bastardry and crime. The welfare state bore blame for encouraging people to rely on the state rather than their families, and hence reducing the importance of the family as a network of social support.
The centrality of the family to Thatcherism is under-estimated by those who claim it was an exercise in greed-oriented market economics. Nothing could be further from the truth. Thatcherism does not see the individual as an atom, but rather sees society as a group of families who ideally should be self-sufficient and strong and together constitute the strength of the nation. The primary goal of Thatcherism was to release the creative energies of these families by removing restrictions on their action and encouraging them to prosper and be strong together without relying on a rapidly-collapsing state to manage the rapidly-collapsing economy and other details of their lives for them.
This is part of a series on social democracy
and its critics in the Anglo-Saxon world. Also of interest may be Social democracy in post-war America
, Poor Law Amendment Act 1834
and new liberalism