Much has been written about the economic and political implications of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as British Prime Minister (1979-1990). Virtually every definition of Thatcherism revolves around the Iron Lady’s economic policies and the impact they had on Britain. Less attention has been given to Thatcherism as a cultural and sociological template and its effect on British democracy. Since the ‘ism’ is anchored in a particular cultural space, extrapolations to other geographical locales lack any practical utility. As Grantham’s finest daughter is being laid to rest, I want to identify three areas that make Thatcherism a particular type of democratic template.
The second social elevation of the baby boomer generation. The generation born in the mid-1940s became economically enfranchised by the Welfare State, set up by the Labour government which took the reins of power in 1945. A mass of dispossessed people suddenly discovered the niceties of healthcare free at the point of delivery, well-paid jobs in government or government-subsidized industry and affordable social housing.
By the 1970s, they demanded an upward revision of the postwar social contract. Thatcher gave it to them. The baby-boomer generation found itself in the strange position of enjoying the social protection afforded by state intervention plus the market incentivizations provided by wider access to credit and financial instruments such as private pensions. This state of affairs would continue unabated during the Major and Blair premierships.
The creation of an ‘aspirational democracy’. The myriad of Tory tenants wanting to come up in the world (socio-economically, but not socio-culturally) operated with a particular value system which informed their participation as political actors. They wanted to forget as quickly as possible that their parents’ social elevation was the result of the palliative forces of state institutions.
Ultimately, the Tory Tenant’ phenomenon was exposed as the hypocrisy of voting in favour of sustaining the socio-economic system that deprives individuals of the right to climbed the same social ladder that their parents came up through. The Great Recession of 2008 would dent the practical possibilities of an aspirational democracy, as it pulverized the value of assets acquired through abundant credit. However, politicians, whilst implementing austerity measures, still link their destitutionist policies to the idea of ‘aspiration’, which are part and parcel of the faux-arriviste Thatcherite credo.
The deconservatization of the Right. Thatcher’s democratic template created a break with the post-war consensus based on the paternalistic conservatism of the Tory Party and the meliorist Fabianism blueprint of Labour. In this way, to utilize the definitional schema outlined by Philip Bobbitt, Thatcher facilitated the passage from the ‘nation-state’ to the ‘market-state’. However, patriotism is centred around the protection of the citizen’s welfare rather than the maximization of opportunities for a reduced segment of the population.
Releasing British industries from the need to redistribute to the middle and lower elements of society dynamised the economic process. It also created an ever increasing gap between the haves and have-nots. In the long run, the deconservatization of the Right resulted in the inability of the Tory Party to win an overall parliamentary majority since 1992.
These innovations in the British democratic template can be traced back to Thatcher’s upbringing in the abject poverty of Grantham during the 1930s. Thatcher herself was a product of the economic enfranchisement provided to her by the Welfare State (she went to Oxford University on a scholarship and became the recipient of a state salary since 1959). The most eloquent way in which cultural values became enmeshed with political elements is in the way she refused to acknowledge that enfranchisement and the less than effective manner in which she sought to transcend it. In doing so, she fleshed out the aspirations of a significant number of people with a similar socio-cultural background. It is through that particular cultural paradigm that her legacy lives on.