One of Margaret Thatcher's young ideologues from the 1980s—and now a senior Conservative thinker—reflects on where Thatcherism came from and why he is no longer a Thatcheriteby David Willetts / May 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
View the details of the Prospect/YouGov poll on Margaret Thatcher’s legacy here
The election of the Conservative government 30 years ago on 3rd May 1979 is one of the key dates in Britain’s modern political history. That anniversary is not being marked by careful analyses of monetarism or privatisation but a focus on the character of Margaret Thatcher, with old animosities and caricatures out on display again. It is still very difficult to get a measured judgement of the 1980s without it all turning on what you think of Her.
There are many reasons for challenging this focus on her personality. For a start it fails to give adequate weight to the formidable intellects and political operators around her. Even in opposition in the late 1970s the process whereby Geoffrey Howe and Keith Joseph argued their way through key documents such as “The Right Approach to the Economy” turned out to be an effective way of preparing for government. A recent BBC play presented her as driven by the need to humiliate the men around her. But this is to misunderstand her argumentativeness—she believed in truth through conflict. She challenged and tested people and their arguments but, at least until her final period in power, there were always ways of arguing back which the key people around her mastered and which she respected. I know because I saw it. I was a middle period Thatcherite. I had been a junior treasury official during the battles of the early years when we just had to get a grip on public spending and stabilise the finances. Then for three years in the mid-1980s I was a member of her policy unit. The challenge, one of the hardest for any government, was to develop new ideas after years in office.
Questioning the Thatcher personality cult can lend weight to the determinist argument that many of the changes associated with her name were inevitable or would have happened anyway. It is even argued that many key reforms actually happened before she was elected. On this view the real change in policy was the IMF package of 1976, including tough spending cuts and monetary indicators of inflation reinforced with Jim Callaghan’s famous statement that you could not spend your way out of recession. The election of 1979 was the endorsement of a policy shift that had already occurred.