Thatcher’s Alive?!

Matthew Francis

Matthew Francis

A curious – though far from unimportant – subplot of the fallout from the EU referendum has been a debate over Thatcherism. While some writers have turned their attention to blaming Thatcherism for the Leave vote, others have, rather perversely, taken up the question of whether Thatcherism has a future.

Andy Beckett, writing in the Guardian, argues that Brexit might prompt a revival of Thatcherism, offering the space for an orgy of deregulation designed to benefit business. Beckett cites as evidence an email distributed by the Centre for Policy Studies within minutes of the Leave campaigning securing victory, which suggested that Brexit offered an opportunity to ‘to drive through a wide-ranging … revolution on a scale similar to that of the 1980s’. Brexit therefore promises to revive, or perhaps to unleash, elements of Thatcherism which have hitherto been held in check by membership of Europe.


Margaret Thatcher’s Funeral, (Soultourist [CC/Flikr])

Eliza Filby, writing in… also the Guardian, argues, by contrast, that the referendum result has ‘finally closed the chapter’ on Thatcherism. Quite why this should be the case is never entirely clear. Filby argues that the supposed ‘Thatcherite v. One Nation’ division within the Conservative Party – which, as Filby observes, has declined in relevance since the early 1990s – has been killed off by a realignment around ‘Remain v. Leave’. (Some experienced Tory-watchers might note that the few remaining One Nation Conservatives almost unanimously backed Remain, and suggest by extension that the old distinctions are by no means as irrelevant as Filby implies.) Filby predicts that this will lead to the emergence of a ‘more robust’ One Nation tradition, which will seek to address the social cleavages which fed the Leave vote. The new Toryism will turn its attention to the post-industrial ‘heartlands’ which Thatcherism created and neglected.

So, is Thatcherism dead? Or revived? Or neither?

The problem with both Beckett’s and Filby’s analysis is that it treats Thatcherism as too monolithic, one-dimensional an edifice: an enormous ideological leviathan with a single heart and a single brain. The truth is more complex. Thatcherism, in common with other ideologies, is a complex and multifaceted creed, composed not of a single unified whole but of multiple overlapping discourses. While each of these discourses was active simultaneously during the Thatcherite high-water mark of the 1980s, it is not necessary for all of these discourses to be active for some form of Thatcherism survive. It is quite possible for some Thatcherite discourses (rolling back the state, markets, welfare reform) to thrive in contemporary Conservatism, while others (anti-permissiveness) lie largely dormant. Thatcherism, in this sense, is more like hydra, the many-headed serpent of Greek mythology: slicing off one head is no guarantee of killing the beast.


‘I Still Hate Margaret Thatcher’ – black balloon, Thatcher protest, Trafalgar Square, London, 13 April 2013, (Chris Beckett [CC / Flickr)

What is true is that the referendum and its aftermath have exposed – not for the first time – some of the contradictions between these discourses. Europe has long been a vexatious issue for Thatcherites because it embodies both what they desire and what they abhor. Thatcherism has, of course, always entailed a commitment to fee markets and to competition, and it was this commitment to the promotion which led many Thatcherites and proto-Thatcherites to endorse membership of the EEC in 1975 and the Single European Act of 1986. The entry into the EEC and the creation of the Single Market promised to extend market forces and to reinvigorate first the British and then the European economy. Membership of Europe was supposed to expose British firms to ever-greater competition from their rivals on the continent by the removal of barriers to trade, and thus drive up productivity and economic growth.

A concomitant commitment to deregulation and to ‘roll[ing] back the frontiers of the state’ is, however, less obviously compatible with membership of Europe. The purpose of the Single European Act, which gave life to the Single Market, was to eliminate non-tariff barriers to trade by extending policy cooperation and ensuring legislative harmonisation across Europe. If one consequence of this was the extension of market forces, another was the growth of legislation which emanated not from national parliaments but from European institutions, much of it concerning environmental protection and the regulation of labour markets. Membership of the Single Market thus entailed acceptance of many of the forms of regulatory intervention that the Thatcher governments had rejected, and as early as 1988 Thatcher could be heard complaining that the frontiers which she had ‘rolled back’ a Westminster was being ‘re-imposed’ from Brussels.

A further contradiction (albeit not one Thatcher herself could have foreseen) emerges between the commitment to markets and the Thatcherite commitment to the restriction of immigration. The same Single Market which extended market forces by allowing for freedom of movement for capital, goods, and services also made provision for the free movement of people. In the context of the mid-1980s, when the EEC was composed of just twelve states and the majority of migration to the UK came either from the ‘Anglosphere’ or from the Indian subcontinent, free markets and free movement appeared largely compatible with control of immigration. The UK’s immigrants, after all, mostly did not come from Europe. After the Fifth Enlargement of 2004, which saw the accession of many central and eastern European states, and the growth of migration to the UK from other EU states, free movement and control of immigration were less obviously compatible.

Brexit does not resolve these dilemmas, and may, in fact, force the next Conservative leader to choose which of these discourses should take priority by demanding that the Tory position on Europe assume a concrete reality. To sustain the commitment to extending market forces will almost certainly oblige the next Conservative leader to negotiate a Brexit package which preserves British membership of the Single Market (i.e. in the form of EEA membership, or the so-called ‘Norway option’) and therefore likely preserves much, if not all, European regulation and freedom of movement. To sustain a commitment to deregulation and restrictions on immigration will therefore, in all but the most fanciful scenarios, involve withdrawal from the Single Market and the loss of the opportunities and stimulus which the latter provides.


Margaret Thatcher (RV1864 [CC/Flikr])

I have argued elsewhere that the divisions within the Conservative Party over Europe are far less absolute than is often supposed. The relationship which most Conservatives would like to have with Europe – inside or outside the European Union, inside or outside of the Single Market – would entail a continued commitment to free trade and free markets, while allowing the UK government greater control over (de)regulation and immigration. The noises emerging from the Conservative leadership contest suggest this is the deal which most of the contenders would like to reach. The reality is, inside or outside of Europe, that no such option exists. Something’s got to give.

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