In December 2011, I sat in a café in Valletta in front of the statue of Queen Victoria that stands outside Malta’s national library.
At the adjoining table, several citizens of an EU state that had ceased to be a British colony fully half a century ago were having a heated argument, in Maltese. Suddenly, four shouted words in English pierced the crisp winter air: “Your friend Margaret Thatcher…” As an insignia of honour or a universal curse, Baroness Thatcher’s name crossed every frontier. She became a climate of opinion; a sacred – or despised – idol of values and beliefs; shorthand for an entire state of mind.
Only three other British prime ministers of the 20th century came close to her enduring influence: David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee. Arguably, her image and renown – if not her specific policies – bit deeper and travelled further than any of that trio. Not only did the figurehead and avatar of “neo-liberalism” in macro-economics and anti-Communism in geopolitics come to embody those forces on the global stage even more effectively than her transatlantic partner, Ronald Reagan, but at home (and to a lesser but still large degree abroad) she altered the social and political weather by guiding and inspiring her friends and allies.
Many minor historical actors can do that. Mrs Thatcher also changed her enemies: the mark of a truly major figure. Equally, her supporters have to recognise that such a level of hegemony – a concept pioneered by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, and usefully revived by her left-wing critics in the 1980s – cannot be achieved on unilateral terms alone. If she helped to shift the direction of the social democratic (even, in some countries, the ex-Marxist) left, then the process proved very much a two-way street. As we seek a clearer view of her legacy, this reversible or – to invoke a key concept from the Marxism she so detested – dialectical pattern deserves more attention.
Thatcherism was never a fixed but always a fluid set of attitudes and inclinations. As such, it transformed the way that its liberal and leftist antagonists thought, as much as it stiffened the sinews of its partisans. But these opponents, in turn, customised the social meaning of her values across a vast swathe of institutions and ideas. Dictatorships may shove the zeitgeist into a new track by brute force alone. Even in an imperfect democracy (so flawed that it took her to break the male monopoly on the highest office), long-term and broad-spectrum change happens via contact, contamination and synthesis.
Take the idea of Thatcherism itself. True, from the cult of free-market theorists such as FA Hayek to the cultivation of Tory ideologists such as Keith Joseph, the leader herself (though no sort of abstract reasoner) liked to foster the dissemination of big libertarian ideas. But the term owed its vigour and validity by and large to left-wing historians and sociologists, such as Stuart Hall and Eric Hobsbawm. A far-reaching debate throughout the 1980s channelled abstruse wrangles from the pages of Marxism Today into the conversational small change of politics, the media and broadcasting. It was a classic instance of her weather-changing prowess, but also a signal that her opponents might sometimes turn tables on the lady. For the respectful definition – and appropriation – of Thatcherism as an election-winning project helped to fuel New Labour at every stage of its development. And so her hegemony ensured the Blair landslide of 1997, and 20 years of (relative) electoral failure for Conservatives.
On the level of social action as much as political theory, it often took her adversaries firmly to entrench her ideas. Forgive a fragment of autobiography. In 1986 I began working at a professional magazine for social workers, probation officers and other servants of the welfare state that she vehemently wished to roll back. That year in many ways represents the pinnacle of her rule. It saw the Big Bang in the City of London; the Wapping newspaper dispute that guaranteed her ideological lieutenant Rupert Murdoch’s predominance in the media; the abolition of Ken Livingstone’s “red” citadel in the Greater London Council, and the landmark privatisations of British Gas and British Airways. With the effects of her de-industrialising policies at full blast, unemployment rose to its historic post-war high of 3.4 million.
Yet our magazine boomed. Fattened by local-authority recruitment advertising, we contributed the third-highest rate of profit to a large and thriving publishing group. Going off to report on the ravaged social landscapes of ex-industrial Britain, and the rescue and repair operations pursued by the still-active local state, we travelled first-class and stayed in smart hotels paid for, in essence, by councils desperate to recruit and retain staff. It was a memorable lesson in the symbiosis of public and private sectors – and of their seemingly antagonistic cultures. The Thatcher era did much to establish that mutual dependence as the precarious, if sometimes hidden, motor of post-1979 growth in Britain.
For despite the rhetoric of cuts – avidly promoted by left and right – her second government had by no means turned off the taps that irrigated the growing welfare state. Financed to a large degree by central government, anti-Conservative local authorities –and even, more modestly, paternalist Tory ones as well – busily built up their social dikes against the Thatcherite flood. For her part, sure-footed political instincts had warned her of the danger of deprivation-driven public disorder. That sensitivity emerged when the Brixton-to-Toxteth riots in 1981 swiftly, and symptomatically, led Thatcher to grant a powerful proconsular role to the arch-interventionist Michael Heseltine. When that compass, which moderated free-market rigidities with a nagging anxiety about social cohesion, deserted her – as it did over the Poll Tax in 1989-1990 – she duly fell within months.
In 1986, state expenditure still stood at 44.1 per cent of GDP; in 1979, supposedly the last bankrupt gasp of profligate British socialism, it had been almost identical: 44.8 per cent. The costs of social security had risen since 1979 from £21 to £49 billion; and of the NHS, from £9 to £18 billion. To assuage the massive dislocation occasioned by her economic strategy, tax revenues from North Sea oil and gas had in 1984 and 1985 peaked at an annual level of over £11bn. Trade union membership still stood at 10.5 million, though down from 13.3 million in Labour’s last days, but corporation tax had dropped from 50 to 35 per cent. (Remember, though, that the top rate of income tax a quarter-century ago still reached 60 per cent.) Incidentally, 1986 also saw the peak recorded levels of dissatisfaction with both the government (-41 net points) and with the PM herself (-32).
So, on closer inspection, this high tide of Thatcherism discreetly merged red and blue currents into her empurpled pomp. Look around the institutional scene in Britain, and the same pattern of hegemony via negotiation looks clear.
From the famously mischievous Channel Four (created as a kind of public-private partnership in 1982) to the new universities and polytechnics that expanded in the teeth of budget cuts, and helped to incubate a caste of left-leaning social and cultural entrepreneurs, Thatcher’s Britain implanted many of its core assumptions into rebels as well as loyalists. In fashion, publishing, software, film, music and a dozen other creative industries (the jargon, and the frameworks of semi-official patronage), date from exactly this time), traffic flowed heavily down that two-way street.
Many robust, even iconic, British cultural and commercial brands date from this period. Waterstones booksellers (1982); Working Title films, and the hype-magnet Amis-to-Rushdie catalogue of “Best of Young British novelists” in Granta (1983); the BBC’s EastEnders (1985); Bloomsbury Publishing (1986), eventually to nurture Harry Potter and his planetary fame.
These various mid-Eighties start-ups and new associations may indeed have absorbed habits of enterprise, autonomy and self-promotion from the decade’s prevailing atmosphere. In turn, their attitudes and output sent the age down a more consciously plural, diverse, tolerant and socially liberal path. Such was the contradictory supremacy of Thatcherism.
In 1985 Channel Four and Working Title co-produced the film My Beautiful Laundrette. It gave, via Hanif Kureishi’s pin-sharp and zeitgeist-catching screenplay, a chance for a mesmeric young actor to star in a fable of multi-cultural urban Britain. Kureishi had framed his script both as a critique of the Thatcherism-scoured wastelands and as an enthralled homage to the unruly energies being unleashed all over it. In that distinctive mid-Eighties borderland between private enterprise and public patronage, it took root, found its audience and, in the manner of the time, launched a global celebrity. In 2013, that same actor – Daniel Day-Lewis – strolled up the red carpet in Los Angeles to receive a third Oscar.
One more example: Anita Roddick – the daughter of Italian immigrants – had founded her ethical beauty store The Body Shop in Brighton in 1976. However, it really began its global ascent after a share offer in 1984 (also, of course, the year of the coal strike). The stock price rapidly quintupled. Roddick used the proceeds to fund a long-lasting partnership in environmental campaigning with Greenpeace (and, in that year, became the Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year).
By 2004, still assertively “green” –though with credentials that came under sceptical scrutiny – The Body Shop controlled or franchised almost 2000 global outlets. Roddick, as much as Arthur Scargill or Norman Tebbit, surely embodies the spirit of her age. “Your friend Margaret Thatcher” is at some level a label – a charge, a badge, a brand – that applies to millions who never voted for her, and who cordially loathed her views. She made them nonetheless. By the same token, they made Thatcherism too.