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Is 'Thatcherism' simply a revival of traditional Conservatism?
Jim Bulpitt (1986) is correct to point out that 'Thacherism' is a subject of interest to a wide spectrum of people, including politicians and academics, due to the permanent impact it has on not only British political discourse, but the global rise of neo-liberalism. However,
interest in 'Thatcherism' often revolves around the dichotomous discussions of whether
Thatcher can be considered a true Conservative. The question is predicated on the presumption that Conservatism has suffered an aberration in the post-war era, when there was a general shift to the left, and was brought back onto the right track by Thatcher (Not necessarily. It is possible to consider that there was no aberration but that Thatcher believed there was one). This claim has its merits in identifying the Conservative heritage in
Thatcherism. On becoming the new party leader, Thatcher is recalled to have taken Hayek's
The Constitution of Liberty from her briefcase, and held it up while she declared, 'This is what we believe' (Adonis 145). Hayek is often identified within the Conservative tradition that began with Edmund Burke, a tradition marked by a suspicion towards economic planning and any form of Utopian vision. However, this essay argues that 'Thatcherism'
amounts to more than a revival of traditional Conservatism, mainly due to her programme to 'change the soul' of British people. To reach this conclusion, two concepts must be interrogated: traditional Conservatism and Thatcherism.
Conservatism is a more nebulous political position in comparison to Liberalism or
Socialism. It is more often defined in opposition to its rival parties: The Whigs before the 19 th century and the Labour Party after that. Garnett and Lord Gilmour (1996) even suggest that there is no such thing as a Conservative doctrine. They quote Anthony Eden in arguing that
'Conservatives were determined "not to be tempted by the doctrinaire approach of [their]
Socialist opponents to fall [themselves] into the pit of doctrinaire anti-Socialism"' (Garnett &
1 Gilmour 80). Instead, Conservatives believe that the party must continually adapt to contemporary events. The view that the Conservatives have always 'prided itself on its pragmatic and non-ideological approach to politics' is echoed by Gamble (140). Moreover,
the Conservatives do not have a defined economic ideology. In the post-war period, the
Conservative Party implemented policies that were close to those of Labour Party. This period is what academics such as Paul Addison called the 'post-war consensus'. The
Conservative party espoused, just like the Labour party, a national economy managed by
Keynesian fiscal and monetary policies, a corporatist approach of governing with trade unions, public borrowing and additional expenditure in health, education and transport
(Gamble 76). However, if one defines Conservatism solely based on its economics, it would be easy to overlook the consistent political and social ideas that permeate Conservative history—authority, public order and social conservatism. These consistent principles can be extracted from how the Conservative Party defined itself in opposition to its rival party. At the founding of the party in the 1780s, Conservatism was defined by the rural landed class's interest, monarchy, the Church and imperialism. It was opposed to the Whig Party's espousal of parliamentary democracy, defence of merchants, suspicion to the Church and the crown, and the primary objective of maximising liberty. After the decline of the Whig party and the ascension of socialists, the modern Conservative Party continued to define itself by protecting the interests of the property owners, central authority and traditional social values that were often derived from Christianity. However, when compared to the
Labour Party, Conservatives becomes the party that is cautious with the expansion of the state. This understanding of Conservatism is echoed even by Garnett and Gilmour, who argue that although Conservatives believe that the state must uphold necessary authority,
they are 'too aware of human frailties to regard the state as an ideal instrument' (80).
2 Therefore, there is a consistent thread of ideas that permeate Conservatism, namely authority, property and traditional social values.
The second concept that must be tackled is 'Thatcherism'. Some common themes identified by E. H. H. Green (1999) are lowering inflation, minimising the state, curbing of the power of trade unions and promotion of property ownership (Green 19). Thatcher's first and second terms in office (1979-83; 1983-87) are the most reflective of her programme,
because her third term was overshadowed by the crash of global stock market in October 1987 (Gamble 131). Firstly, Thatcher gave priority to controlling inflation in her first term.
The March budget of 1982 was very much focussed on strict monetarist policy (Gamble 107). Interest rate was raised from 12% to 17% within six months of being in office, rate of
VAT was doubled from 8% to 15% and public expenditure was cut by £1.5 billion (Gamble 108) (Were these policies meant to curb inflation ad why did it matter so much to
Thatcher?). Secondly, she also began the restructuring of the public sector in her first term.
She hired managers from private sector to manage the public sector, most notably British
Leyland and British Steel Corporation (Gamble 113). She also sold off stakes in British
Petroleum, British Aerospace, British Sugar Corporation and Cable and Wireless (Gamble 114). This was continued in the second term with the sale of British Telecom, British Gas and
British Airways (Gamble 125). Thirdly, she began her crackdown on organised labour in her first term, but it was only prioritised in her second term (Perhaps rephrase this? We would normally talk about trade unions. It's the same idea but unions are the standard term).
Supplementary benefits for strikers' families were withdrawn in the White Paper on Public
Expenditure in November 1979, and Employment Act 1980 introduced ballot as a prerequisite for maintaining closed shops (Gamble 110-12). In her second term, union membership was banned at the government intelligence communications centre GCHQ
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