Despite surface similarities, the coalition’s modus operandi owes more to Tony Blair than it does to Margaret Thatcherby Anne McElvoy / November 17, 2010 / Leave a comment
Blair is surely the coalition’s spiritual godfather, but the Thatcher gene also makes up a strong part of the government’s constitution
Once a year, I gather with fellow old lags of political comment to decide on parliamentary awards. We endure unfeasibly long lunches to fight over who has shone in the House and knocked seven bells out of the other side and which of the newcomers is worth investment on the giddy stock market of opinion. Usually, we rub along pretty well. Or at least we did, until the debate moved to whether Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher had had the greater influence on political life in Britain in the last quarter century.
Oh dear. Off came the gloves. Claims and curses were traded. One judge threatened to resign if his choice didn’t get through.
The row reflected a sedimentary layer of political argument. It wasn’t as simple as just being for or against TB and Mrs T. It probed our deeper views of what has shaped our politics, what is ephemeral and what remains.
The coalition is the best barometer we have for measuring the contemporary impact of past leaders. Its intended radicalism clearly bears the stamp of Thatcher’s children. You can attack George Osborne’s rapid deficit reduction or the Lib Dems’ volte- face on tuition fees, but you can’t say that this lot aren’t bold when it comes to reshaping the country in their image—which is exactly what the Thatcher years were about.
As a contemporary of David Cameron and Nick Clegg, I recognise how fervently they seek to avoid becoming, in Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s damning phrase on the old West German politics, “the accompaniment of things that would have happened anyway.”
It explains many things about what binds, and divides, the odd couple together. Clegg told me once how much he “loathed” the Thatcher era and its values. Clearly the lifelong Tory Cameron doesn’t agree.
Now they trade their chosen enthusiasms. Clegg is as determined to get his pupil premiums, to encourage schools to take poorer children, as Cameron is to get his free schools—pushing education further away from state control.
Lib Dems get (sort of ) electoral reform, Tories get to reshape the welfare state and take on the old dragon of housing benefit. The Thatcher gene lives on in the determination to clip back the state by attacking quangos and pruning public services.
Nonetheless, this doesn’t feel like a rerun of the 1980s. Tony Blair changed the way that politics is done in Britain. He is surely the spiritual godfather of the coalition.
Long before they gained power in the Tory party, Osborne and Cameron recognised that new Labour had got what it wanted by means of an electoral citadel, pitched on the centre ground. It took a war in Iraq, three terms in office and Gordon Brown in charge to erode that.
Absorbing the Thatcherite settlement on markets and deregulation, while rejecting the divisive side of her politics, was the key to Blair’s longevity. Crucially, too, he made “blended” politics attractive—being to the right on free markets, while emphasising collective endeavour and a more socially liberal model.
“You can’t be right on the left!” one Thatcherite Tory (now pro-coalition) once said to me. But you can and many people are: that was a key recognition of the Blair years that lives on today. Blairism triumphs in telling us that you’re not just changing things to be “ideological”—a word Thatcher relished and Blair disliked.
Why is Clegg a partner for the Tories in the way that his predecessors could never have been? His modus operandi owes so much to the protean nature of Blairism and the determination to adapt it to enhance the impact of liberal politics. It is this shift in tone and expectation that helped turn a Tory-Lib coalition from an unthinkable to a perfectly reasonable idea.
Some of my colleagues argue that Blair and co changed the zeitgeist, while Thatcher changed what actually happened. Yet texture and approach is much of modern politics: it’s why Barack Obama is in power in Washington DC and not Hillary Clinton.
The look and tone of our politics is still Blairite in a way that it is no longer Thatcherite. Her tone was one in which no modern leader would dare address the electorate.
True, we’ve had a revival of dear old Tina (There is No Alternative) in George Osborne’s rhetoric on bringing Britain “back from the brink.” Still, the depth of argument about whether women and the poor will be more afflicted by the coming cuts, and the mantra “We’re all in this together” are testament to a real change in how we tackle the hard times.
It would be intriguing to hear your views on which of the two big beasts of our recent past wielded more influence on how we live now (leave your comments on Prospect’s website). For full disclosure, I think we live more in Blair’s shadow than Thatcher’s.