Margaret Thatcher – a working class revolutionary?

I should begin with a warning.  My friends and followers of both a left and a right wing persuasion are not going to like this post.

On Saturday night I watched Channel 4’s insightful documentary “Margaret: Death of a Revolutionary” where Martin Durkin presented his radical thesis: that Margaret Thatcher was a working class revolutionary, and that she believed capitalism was in the interests of ordinary people, not the toffs.

It reminded me more than ever why, as a politically engaged teenager in the mid 1980s, I was attracted to Margaret Thatcher’s brand of Conservatism and also why I was turned off by those that followed her in the leadership of the Party.

Anyone who has watched television, listened to the radio or been connected to the internet over the last week will be acutely aware through the multitudinous obituaries of Margaret Thatcher’s humble beginnings, of her rise to power, and of the things she did whilst in office. Less attention has been paid to her political philosophy and the fact that, right from the start, she believed that the needs and aspirations of ordinary working people should be better reflected in British politics.

Durkin reported in his programme that in her early days at Oxford, Thatcher wrote that:

“in the eyes of the public, Conservatives represent the prejudices and selfish interests of the moneyed classes”

and that she went on to speak at her first Tory conference of the need for more working class involvement in Conservative politics. This was a principle which she implemented when she first stood for Parliament in Dartford in 1950 and 1951, when she targeted less affluent parts of the constituency and reduced the Labour majority by over 7,000 votes. 

If Durkin is right, then it was Thatcher’s belief that working class people were enslaved by the post-war consensus – trapping them in state run communities working for state owned industries – that led to her conviction that only a radical shake up of the country’s economic framework could deliver real freedom to the British people.  Thatcher herself said:

“They think it is attractive to offer to the young a future wholly controlled by the operation of the socialist state. What is the message? ‘To each, his own pigeon hole; from each, total conformity.’ We utterly reject that.”

Or, as Sir Bernard Ingham put it:

“She was in the business of liberation – liberation of the proletariat.”

It was that passion that, I believe, led to her desire to give everyone the opportunity to be a home owner, everyone the opportunity to be a shareholder, everyone the opportunity to be an entrepreneur. It was that passion that led to her abolishing the two tier O level/CSE exam system which had condemned so many children to a lower class of education. It was that passion which caused her to reduce income tax rates for everyone, (which saw the top ten percent of earners increase their contribution to the Revenue from just over a third to just under half of all income tax).

Thatcher’s regulatory changes in the City – including the banning of insider trading and the proper oversight of investment and insurance products – saw the financial services sector taken out of the control of a few wealthy families and opened up to allow people from all backgrounds, including many from disadvantaged areas, to share in the success of this key industry.

So much of Thatcher’s domestic policy agenda was about taking power away from the vested interests of the State and the established wealthy elite and sharing it as widely as possible with the people. It was that drive and determination to empower people which attracted me aged 15 to join her Conservative Party in 1987, not least because I was living in Rochdale, a once great industrial town, then held down under the oppressive hand of a left-wing Labour Council more interested in promoting nuclear disarmament than in generating local prosperity.

It is at this point that I suspect many of my fellow Liberal Democrats will be incandescent with rage at my defence of Thatcherism and my more left wing friends will be rapidly removing me on Facebook. To them, let me say this: I believe that Margaret Thatcher’s vision was that she wished to see wealth and power more evenly distributed in the United Kingdom, but I acknowledge that she did not fully achieve that objective.

Having praised her aims,  it is right to critique their implementation. The sale of council houses and flats was, to my mind, the right thing to do. It massively increased the number of people who not only owned their own home but also gave their families, often for the first time ever, the ability to pass on an asset to future generations. The mistake however was failing to reinvest the income from those sales into new housing stock to ensure that the financially and socially disadvantaged could continue to have the safety net of cheap, secure, good quality homes when they needed them most.

Similarly the aim of supporting new entrepreneurs and unleashing the City should have been matched by a drive to support long-standing British industry (not necessarily using taxpayers’ money) especially in trades where we led the world in quality and innovation. This would have been particularly valuable in the North and Midlands, which had been the heart of Britain’s industrial revolution, creating the wealth which had made this nation the global powerhouse for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

And of course, on social issues, I cannot but remark on the errors made by Thatcher’s Government in supporting the passing of such pernicious pieces of legislation as Section 28, banning the ‘intentional promotion of homosexuality’. As a young closeted gay man in the mid ’80s, the language used by those promoting this clause in the Local Government Bill was deeply hurtful and made me – and I know many others – feel ashamed about who we were. But I felt certain then, as I do know, that in accepting this amendment, Margaret Thatcher was less concerned about the acceptability or otherwise of homosexuality per se, but more about the failure of some schools to adequately raise educational attainment. Indeed, it always struck me that a woman who was for so many years surrounded by gay men, couldn’t have been entirely homophobic!

But having spoken (albeit critically) in praise of Margaret Thatcher’s radical ambitions to lead a social revolution, raising the working class from the slavery of the vested interests, let me turn now to those who followed her, both in the direction of the Conservative Party and those young turks who claim they represent her enduring spirit.

Margaret Thatcher’s removal from office in 1990 was essentially a rebellion by more traditional Tories, ‘the wets’ as she might have called them, who still believed that a paternalistic state – increasingly embodied by the European Union – was the best way of running Britain, and preserving their own position in society.  They used Thatcher’s staunch resistance to granting greater powers to the EU – which they considered to be inevitable – as a way to undermine her leadership and bring about her downfall.

They didn’t get exactly what they wanted. Whilst Thatcher went, her successor was not the nakedly ambitious Europhile favourite Michael Heseltine, nor the paternalistic old Etonian Douglas Hurd, but rather John Major, a man of distinctly humble origins. On the face of it, he should have been an ideal flag carrier for the Thatcher revolution having achieved the highest office not from a privileged background, but rather the back streets of Brixton. Unfortunately though, whilst talking of a ‘classless society’ and a ‘nation at ease with itself’, Major fumbled his way through his premiership and undermined much of Thatcher’s legacy, not least by the massive hikes in interest rates which sent many of her first time home owners into the penury of negative equity.

Major also adopted an increasingly authoritarian approach to social policy, with his ‘back to basics’ ideology and resistance to supporting moves such as equalising the age of consent, which would have signalled a real step change in British society. His successors as Conservative leader in opposition were not much better, and in some ways worse. Hague, Duncan-Smith and Howard led a party which was increasingly distanced from the nation it wanted to govern. And as for David Cameron’s Conservatives, they are riven between an aristocratic paternalistic elite and those equally privileged young Britons on the right who claim to be Thatcher’s heirs, but in so many cases show disdain for the working class rather than wanting to empower them.

Maybe Margaret Thatcher was unique in her ideology, truly a woman of her time. I believe she was a revolutionary and still think that her ambition to emancipate working class people was inspirational, although not entirely successful. Perhaps now what we need now is a second wave of Thatcherism, but one tailored to our times, which matches ambition and drive with humanity and kindness. What shall we call this? How about liberalism.

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