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Origins of Thatcherism in the Conservative Party

Info: 3368 words (13 pages) Essay
Published: 18th Mar 2021 in Politics

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“The essence of Thatcherism had existed long before Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party.” Discuss.

 When Margaret Thatcher became Conservative Party Leader in 1975, it is generally acknowledged to have been a surprise and more based on luck and discontent with the current Leader, Edward Heath. Thatcher did not win, but rather Heath lost. This line of thinking requires an assumption that the ideology for which Thatcher stood, what would become known as Thatcherism, did not have support within the Party prior to her accession; the earliest logical date from which to understand the conception of Thatcherism is 1975. However, this understanding does not take into consideration the very real Conservative discontent with the party elites. People within the Conservative Party were inching more to the right as the distance from World War II grew bigger. Some historians have argued that Thatcherist principles seriously predate Thatcher’s arrival as Party Leader, maintaining that their origins can be found even in the early 1960s. Both of these arguments are too radical. Yes, ideas that would become what we understand as “Thatcherism” were present in the Conservative Party prior to 1975, but not yet at an elite or organized level. The post-war consensus continued to remain popular within Tory leadership, but the consensus was slowly breaking down. Lower-level Conservatives and regular Tory voters were edging towards the right, and Thatcher was known and acknowledged to be more right-wing than Heath at the time of her election as Party Leader. This should not be understood, however, as minimizing the truly singular impact of Thatcher the person on British political ideology of the right. While grumblings in opposition to the Conservative modus operandi of the post-war period were present in the Conservative Party prior to 1975, it really required the person of Thatcher to put these disparate ideas of opposition into a cohesive “ism”—Thatcherism.

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 To understand the origins of Thatcherism, it would first be beneficial to understand precisely what is meant by the term. This task is easier said than done and enjoys as much debate as the question of dating the ideology’s origins. It has been suggested that Thatcherism cannot be narrowed down to a simple ideology that underpinned all of Thatcher’s decisions. Nonetheless, a cohesive understanding is possible. In Thatcher’s own terms, her goal was to “roll back the frontiers of the State.”[1] Arguably the most important component of this was “replacing the mixed economy with a private-sector dominated market economy” which would be “complemented by a reform and reduction of the Welfare State, by a lowering of direct personal taxation, and the encouragement of wider property ownership.”[2]

Conceptions of Thatcherism are inevitably linked to economic policy, but the specific economic policies stem from a firm moral conviction held by Margaret Thatcher. She deeply believed in self-discipline, among other “Victorian values,” as well as “hard work, thrift, and deferred gratification.”[3] In many senses, and certainly to Margaret Thatcher herself, these Victorian ideals were in direct opposition to the “postwar culture of permissiveness, self-indulgence, and irresponsibility,” at least as it was understood by Thatcherites.[4] In terms of personal morals, Margaret Thatcher was able to position herself in opposition to the prevailing culture of the post-war era. One of the most important elements of Thatcher as both a person and as a political figure was her undying commitment to her personal morals as well as her unwavering belief that her morals were completely correct. As will become evident, this steadfast self-assurance would be important to the development of a Thatcherite ideology.

 No matter whether the official start date of Thatcherism is determined to be in the 1960s, prior to Thatcher’s election as Party Leader, or until after 1975, Thatcherism developed out of Conservative discontent with the post-war settlement and Britain’s welfare state. After the end of World War II, the Labour government led by Clement Attlee—which was elected on a “landslide majority”—established “the main framework of the welfare state.”[5] Martin O’Shaughnessy, in his essay on Thatcherism and how Thatcherites themselves understood the ideology, described the Attlee reforms as “one of the great reforming governments in modern British history” which was “delegitimized” by Thatcher, who referred to it as a “collapse of national morale.”[6] Thatcherite ideology was understood in terms that were oppositional to the post-war consensus, and the direction the country had taken since 1945.

 In more literal terms, the post-war settlement was “based on a Keynesian commitment to full employment, the welfare state, a ‘mixed economy’ of private and public sectors, and a halting drive to greater equality, which commanded the assent of both political parties…[and] seemed to have reconciled capitalism and socialism, individualism and collectivism, democracy and authoritarianism.”[7] Labour reforms towards a mixed-economy and the welfare state—which included new government agencies such as the National Health Service—as well employment guarantees were passed with support from Conservative politicians. E.H.H. Green described Conservative acquiescence—specifically amongst leaders such as Churchill, Eden, and Macmillan— to the liberal reforms of the post-war period as resulting from “the trauma of the 1945 [electoral] defeat” and that, as a consequence, “they were reluctant to take risks, particularly in the realm of unemployment.”[8] Perhaps more importantly, the country was experiencing a “post-war boom” which allowed Conservatives “to square the circle of high public expenditure and full employment with occasional tax-cuts and relatively stable prices.”[9] The economy was doing well, so there were no immediate ramifications for high spending and increased social services. The Conservative Party really was accommodating to the reforms of the immediate post-war period, but the extent of this accommodation has been increasingly scrutinized as the question of Thatcherism’s origins has been reconsidered.

 This inter-party cooperation would begin to break down in the 1960s as the effects of the reforms seemed to fully take hold in the realms of both the economy and civil society. The consensus was “gradually undermined” as the “so-called Middle Way started to shift to the Left” as well as the stagflation which would become ubiquitous in the 1960s and 1970s.[10] Those who date the origins of Thatcherism as well before the 1975 party leadership election see Thatcherism emerge in this initial period of break-down. Green, in his essay “Thatcherism: A Historical Perspective,” argued that in the 1950s and 1960s “there is evidence of deep-seated Conservative hostility, especially in the middle and lower ranks of the party, to the development and impact of State intervention in the economic and social spheres.”[11] Green cited Winston Churchill’s speech during the 1945 election campaign—which came to be known as the “Gestapo Speech”—as prime evidence of Conservative opposition to proposed Labour reforms. In this speech, Churchill claimed that proposed Labour reforms would inevitably necessitate “some form of Gestapo” in order to “nip opinion in the bud.”[12] Churchill was seeking to illustrate the point that increased governmental control of the economy and social affairs would necessarily result in an assault on civil liberties. By invoking the Gestapo and Nazi brutalities so immediately after Victory in Europe Day, Churchill was remarkably insensitive and out of touch. This speech garnered immediate and harsh backlash and was seriously damaging to the reputation of Churchill and the Conservative Party as a whole. More than this, “the speech and the response to it are often seen together as a foundational moment for the postwar British political settlement.”[13] Rather than understanding Churchill’s speech as reflective of general Conservative antipathy towards the Labour Party and its reform proposals, this speech should be understood as a severe political miscalculation on the part of Winston Churchill that contributed to the Conservative’s crushing defeat at the polls, which in turn almost necessitated Conservative cooperation with Labour. E.H.H. Green failed to acknowledge the larger ramifications of the speech and simply glossed over the truly divisive impact it had.

 E.H.H. Green outlined the establishment of small associations within the Conservative Party that were initiated in opposition to the welfare state. Enoch Powell, along with other Conservative MPs such as Iain Macleod, were members of the “One Nation” group which “began to produce a series of publications which sought to define a distinctive Conservative approach to the economy and social policy” and “sought to bring liberal market thinking to the centre  of Conservative debate on social and economic policy.”[14] Clearly, the presence of organizations such as the One Nation group as well as the Middle Class Alliance and the People’s League for the Defence of Freedom show that there was a very real Conservative opposition to the reforms of the post-war period. These groups emerged as early as mid- to late-1950s.[15] These groups were “highly critical of post-war economic and social reform” and “were seen as symptomatic of a wave of dissatisfaction with Conservative policy amongst, in particular, the British middle class—the social group regarded as the core Conservative constituency.”[16] The presence of these organizations clearly show that—at least among Conservative voters and the Conservative rank-and-file—there was opposition to the reforms which the Conservative elite had been supportive of after World War II.

In addition to the presence of these smaller special interest groups, Green focused intently on the role of Enoch Powell in pre-Thatcher Thatcherite ideas. Enoch Powell is most known for his “Rivers of Blood” speech, given in Birmingham in 1968. This speech was an incredibly graphic and harsh castigation of what Powell perceived as too-open British immigration policy. Powell was vehemently anti-immigration, and his main point was that “if mass immigration continued, there would be civil strife.”[17] Powell quoted Virgil in his speech, saying that “I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.”[18] This is where the speech gets its name; Powell was clearly of the view that continued immigration would cause violence within the nation. Powell is most known for this speech; indeed, he is now infamous because of it. Because of this speech, immediately regarded as divisive and insensitive, Powell was dismissed from the Shadow Cabinet and shortly after he would leave the Conservative Party and become an Ulster Unionist Party MP. On the fiftieth anniversary of the speech, The Economist published an editorial which claimed that Powell’s speech had a “lasting and malign effect… on the way in which race and migration are discussed” and on the political culture of the country in general.[19] Despite this, Green contended that Powell’s main contributions—at least to “Conservative intra-party debate”—were “focused on the economy.”[20] Much like Green’s handling of Winston Churchill’s Gestapo speech, Green missed the mark on interpretation by failing to acknowledge the truly significant nature of the speech and the effect it had on party politics. Churchill’s Gestapo speech and Powell’s own ideology clearly show that within the Conservative Party, there were more right-wing ideas present, and they were not unpopular amongst Conservative voters.[21] However, the deeply divisive nature of Powell as a politician and specifically the immediate and longer-lasting ramifications of his Rivers of Blood Speech should have been handled more deeply by Green. Powell’s popularity within the party—due mainly to his strong stance on immigration, with which many Conservative voters agreed—shows a larger popular drift to the right within the Conservative Party. Essentially, Green was correct to include Powell as a singular politician within the Conservative Party who acted as a more right-wing voice of opposition to the Conservative status quo. However, in an attempt to brush over the deeply problematic elements of Powell’s speech and overall ideology, specifically as it relates to immigration legislation, Green did not give a full understanding of the political context of the 1960s.

 The generally accepted understanding of the origins of Thatcherism is that it was not until Thatcher at least became Conservative Party Leader, but more realistically when she became Prime Minister, that an ideology took shape. Her assent to power has been described as a “hi-jacking,” with few people actually realizing “what they were letting themselves in for.”[22] “This was a classic case of a government losing an election,” rather than Margaret Thatcher winning it based on her own merits and personality.[23] This “conventional account”—by which Margaret Thatcher’s election was “largely the consequence of luck and a series of accidents”—has been “widely accepted.”[24] This historiography emphasizes the surprising nature of Thatcher’s initial electoral victories, with the most commonly held view being that it was not due to the popularity of her own ideas—which were not yet fully developed into a cohesive ideology—but instead the unpopularity of her opponent, Heath. Even Enoch Powell stated that “she didn’t rise to power. She was opposite the spot on the roulette wheel at the right time and didn’t funk it.”[25] Because Thatcher’s rise to power has been popularly perceived as almost accidental, the classical line of thinking then concludes that “if Mrs Thatcher’s election as leader was on the basis of anti-Heath votes then it would be a mistake to conclude that her victory marked a shift to the right by Tory MPs. Only later, perhaps once in power, did the party adopt a Thatcherite identity.”[26] The general consensus, as it had been understood, is that Margaret Thatcher’s rise to Party Leader was accidental and based on disapproval with Heath. Because of this, her personal ideology had no impact on election and therefore cannot be taken as a sign that the Party was moving towards Thatcherite ideas prior to Thatcher becoming leader.

 This classical understanding, however, does not fully explain the entire situation; it is oversimplified and reductionist. Thatcher did not simply accidentally become leader and then accidentally change the course of the Conservative Party and British politics in general. Historical contingency should never be underestimated, but it cannot explain everything. At the very least, it was known amongst the Party that Thatcher was more right-wing than Heath and other Conservative elites: “Mrs Thatcher was prepared to distance herself from the policies of the Heath government… Her speeches from this period, while few in number, place her unequivocally on the right of the party as a critic of Heath’s policy programme.”[27] Thus, it can reasonably be suggested that “Tory MPs elected Mrs Thatcher as leader in full knowledge of her values and beliefs,” and therefore, those Tory MPs “were also prepared to accept the right-wing policies of the new leader.”[28] Mark Wickham-Jones argued, in his self-described “revisionist” understanding of the 1975 election, that the “battle lines between centre-left and right” within the Conservative party were clearly delineated by 1975, and policies that we would understand today as Thatcherism—“monetarism and the development of a social market economy”—were already understood within the Party.[29] Wickham-Jones concluded that, “while she benefited from luck, Margaret Thatcher won because Tory MPs wanted a shift. They wanted new policies and they wanted a turn to the right.”[30]

 The origins of Thatcherite ideology within the Conservative Party has been debated, and no real consensus has been reached. The traditionally accepted understanding is that Thatcherism was not present within the Conservative Party until at earliest 1975, due to the surprising nature of Margaret Thatcher’s victory and the fact that it was based more on discontent with Heath. Conservative cooperation with Labour reforms and the relative stability, at least in the early years, of the post-war consensus was not a myth, and the welfare state enjoyed cross-party support. This notion has been challenged, especially by historian E.H.H. Green, who contended that Thatcherism has long-standing roots in the Conservative Party, dating it as far back as the late 1950s. The Conservative cooperation with Labour reforms was shallow and held only by the party elites, while the “attitude of the party’s rank and file through the 1950s and 1960s” instead shows “a very shallow level of ‘commitment’ to” the welfare state.[31] Thatcher was a leader who represented the liberal market views held by the grassroots party members. Rather than stumbling into electoral victory in 1975, the party had been actively searching for “a leader in tune with their long-held aspirations.”[32]


[1] EHH Green 3

[2] EHH Green 3

[3] Ideological Change in the British Conservative Party, 363.

[4] Ideological Change in the British Conservative Party, 363.

[5] The Lady Turns Back, 297.

[6] The Lady Turns Back, 297.

[7] Skidelsky, introduction 3.

[8] Green 18-19.

[9] Green 19.

[10] Skidelsky 3-4.

[11] Green 5.

[12] Churchill Gestapo Speech, June 4th 1945

[13] Richard Toye, “Winston Churchill’s ‘Crazy Broadcast’: Party, Nation, and the 1945 Gestapo Speech.” Journal of British Studies Vol. 49, No 3 (July 2010), pp. 655-680. (656)

[14] Green 8.

[15] Green 8.

[16] Green 8.

[17] The Economist article

[18] The Economist

[19] The Economist

[20] 12.

[21] In fact, Powell’s popularity amongst voters even after this speech should be pointed out.

[22] Peter Clarke 10

[23] Clarke 10.

[24] Right Turn A Revisionist Account, 75.

[25] Right Turn 75

[26] Right Turn, 76.

[27] Right Turn 85.

[28] Right Turn 86.

[29] Right Turn 88.

[30] Right Turn 89.

[31] Gree 21.

[32] Green 20.

 

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