‘Death is not the end,’ a poet writes, ‘Death is the credits rolling. The movie was over a while ago.’ The Thatcher era wasn’t brought to a close with the death of Margaret Thatcher. The end came with the election of Tony Blair.
Yes, there were hangovers. The social scars of Thatcherism were so deep that it took a government more redistributive and more enduring than that of Clement Attlee just to hold inequality in place. But the plain truth remains: a decade after Thatcher’s last victory, a government came to power that immediately introduced a series of far-reaching regulations to pay, conditions and family leave. If Thatcher convinced us all, even the Labour party, that the state was the problem, not the solution, why are we still signed up to the social chapter three years into a Tory government? Why is the prospect of cuts to the minimum wage met with howls of anguish across the political spectrum?
The people who denigrate New Labour and Blair as the mere inheritors of Thatcherism have one aim and one aim only: to eliminate Labour as an electoral concern. It’s a tactic to demoralise and either take over the centre-ground or the party’s structures. Either way, the end result is the same: Tory government. But it isn’t true, it isn’t even close to true.
For 18 years, the Thatcherites tried to tell us that public services were at their best as a safety net. In the next 13, New Labour built more schools than a government had ever built before. It established academies that can go toe-to-toe with the private sector in terms of facilities and results. It built and rebuilt hospitals and clinics that rivalled any in Europe. Thatcherism thought the state couldn’t end poverty in Britain, Blairism helped to reduce it overseas. Thatcher thought that children shouldn’t be told they had ‘an inalienable right to be gay’. Blair led the greatest expansion of civil rights since the 1960s. Thatcher’s successors oversaw appeasement in the Balkans, New Labour stepped into the killing fields in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Kurdistan. For Thatcherites, the private sector was an end. For Blairites, it was one of a number of means. Thatcher let the police grow into a underregulated and shadowy arm of the state; New Labour introduced the Hillsborough Inquiry and tackled institutional racism in the Met.
Not everything New Labour did worked, lots of it didn’t go far enough, but there was one thing it definitely wasn’t: Thatcherism.
For all that she was not the midwife of New Labour or even an essential part of its creation, Thatcher was a great, necessary and terrible prime minister for the country. She was great because she resolved the urgent questions of her time; she was terrible because she did so in a way that left unnecessary tears in the social fabric and palpably enjoyed doing so. But the lessons for Labour lie not in why she was great and when she was terrible, but what made her necessary in the first place. Having fought five elections on the question of how to tame inflation and reform the trade unions, Labour won four of them: so Thatcherism should never have been necessary in the first place.
Thatcherism happened because Labour ignored the urgent questions of the time; because they were too difficult, because the consequences were too painful. Her brutality was so great that she created a generation of politicians who understood that government has consequences, and that to win power, you have to plan for those consequences, not pretend that they don’t exist. She forced a generation of Labour politicians to live permanently in the reality-based community. Let’s hope her lesson is still enough.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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