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.