Cameron needs to show the Conservatives have moved on from Thatcher

by Mark Stockwell

The events and policies that defined Margaret Thatcher’s premiership politicized much of the current generation of politicians. The legacy of her time in office, and the manner of her departure from it, continue to cast a long shadow over British politics and in particular over the Conservative Party.

By a somewhat macabre twist of fate, I found myself marking the occasion of Thatcher’s death at a recital of Fauré’s Requiem. Predictably, the wall-to-wall retrospectives of her political career have been divided between those who would have the angels lead her into paradise, and those who would condemn her to punishment in the infernal lake. Perpetual light on one side; the darkness of the abyss on the other.

The left has for the most part observed a self-denying ordinance against open outbreaks of glee. But there’s a strong sense that this is primarily for reasons of self-preservation and concern as to how voters will react, rather than out of any genuine respect for her achievements. Once a period of grace has elapsed, I confidently expect some metaphorical dancing on the grave. (Some have already rather distastefully alluded to Elvis Costello’s ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’ – but she’s going to have the last laugh there by being cremated.)

Meanwhile, the entire Conservative Party has lined up to heap praise on “the woman who saved Britain”. This reaction is reasonably genuine – but it, too, is based on somewhat selective recall. Yes, the country had become almost ungovernable by 1979 and radical surgery was needed but if Thatcher hadn’t been removed when she was and the poll tax scrapped, there’s a fair chance we’d have gone full circle.

Thatcher’s political legacy to the Conservative party is also decidedly mixed. It’s hard to argue with three decisive general election victories, and no defeats. And the policies she pursued, the economic reforms she put in place, have continued to make the political weather. But the coalition she built with the voters in the 1980s was unsustainable once Labour got its act together and addressed its ongoing problem with the middle class. New Labour was the product of Thatcherism – but it was also its electoral nemesis.

The near total obliteration of the Conservative party in Scotland and many of our large towns was undeniably a product of her time in office, regardless of whether the policies which brought it about were desirable or necessary. And while it would be grossly unfair to pin the blame for the Conservatives’ enduring lack of popularity with ethnic minorities wholly on Thatcher, the backing she gave to the apartheid regime in South Africa won’t have helped. Likewise, section 28 has done lasting damage to the Conservatives’ standing with gay people.

It was possible to win elections in 1983, on the back of the Falklands conflict, and 1987, on the back of a divided left and an inflationary economic boom, without much support from these sources. It is not possible any more. This is the problem with which William Hague briefly and abortively grappled in the desolate wake of the 1997 election, and which Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard never really addressed. It is what David Cameron’s attempts to modernise the Conservative Party are, at their root, about. Put simply, it needs to broaden its appeal and go out of its way to show that it is trying to do so.

All this makes the aftermath of Thatcher’s death a difficult time for the Prime Minister. He will, I’m sure, be at his absolute best in the Commons tomorrow – heaping praise on the Iron Lady, the radical reformer, the saviour of her nation, while throwing in occasional quips about her legendary style of leadership and affectionate asides highlighting moments of private kindness.

But on the benches behind him, the myth of Thatcherite infallibility is strong. Most of his party will cheer him to the rafters, but more than a few will be comparing Cameron unfavourably to their fallen leader. Raking up memories of the ‘glory days’ of the 1980s will add fuel to the fire for those who crave a return to the policies and attitudes of those times. Cameron needs to tread a careful path between giving Thatcher her dues, and making it absolutely clear that the Conservative Party has moved on. The problem he has is that, in too many cases, it hasn’t.

Mark Stockwell is a former adviser to the Conservative party. He now works in public affairs

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3 Responses to “Cameron needs to show the Conservatives have moved on from Thatcher”

  1. paul barker says:

    All true but the Tories have done a better job of “moving on” than many in The Labour Movement, reading articles & comments its clear that many on The “Left” have forgotten nothing & learned nothing.

  2. Paul, I think that’s probably right. Labour seem just as intent on refighting the battles of the 1980s. Inexplicable, really, given that they lost four straight elections. It’s almost as if they enjoy the opposition posturing more than being in government. Plus a Tory government makes a safe Labour council seat, with its attendant salary and allowances, that much easier to come by…

  3. BenM says:

    “the Tories have done a better job of “moving on””


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