Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour ended Thatcherism

‘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.


Stephen Bush writes a weekly column for Progress, the Tuesday review, and tweets @stephenkb


Photo: Robert Huffstutter

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Stephen Bush

is a contributing editor to Progress, formerly wrote a weekly column for Progress, the Tuesday review, and tweets @stephenkb


  • and when some members of the Party ignored the issues of our time call me Dave got in so yes lets hope ‘Labour’ does learn a lesson

  • So far the Prime Minister Thatcher evaluation and apologia have assumed the ‘hard things’ she did were somehow inevitable – whether it was the type of supply side reforms, the union attacks, de-industrialisation, deregulation of banking, large scale unemployment, abandoned and alienated communities, the emergent forgotten underclass, sado-monetarism, privatisations which disproportionately transferred assets from the state to the share buying wealthy, the decrease in school spending , the Murdoch media enlargement – but they were not the only options. There were alternatives to many of the divisive social, political and economic solutions she inflicted on the UK. Solutions which Germany, France, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland and other social democratic countries pursued. It was not for nothing that Oxford fought shy of giving her an honorary doctorate.

  • No matter what your opinion of Lady Thatcher is-one thing stands to her credit-she lived for and loved her country

  • I think part of the problem was that Thatcher’s control was so long-lived and so absolute that the different political and economic solutions to the problems of modernisation ceased to appear as viable alternatives. Re-nationalising privatised institutions e.g. the railways was something Labour promised pre-election, but subsequently found to be politically impossible. That makes it very difficult to decide whether New Labour perpetuated Thatcherism deliberately, or whether they found themselves powerless in the face of it, adrift in a country that little resembled the one they had left behind when last in power. If, once Thatcher had set the wheels in motion they could not be stopped, it seems unfair to criticise Labour for not stopping them.

    Leslie48, I think you make some pretty poor points towards the end of your post, particularly when comparing Britain to countries such as France (whose situation economically and politically is far more dire than our own) and Norway (whose situation is helped hugely by oil reserves in the North sea per capita far greater than ours). Germany may have a strong economy with a vibrant manufacturing core, but they have overextended and are now at the mercy of potential defaults in Southern Europe.

    This goes to show that no large country in Europe tackled modernisation well. Neither did the US. Nor Japan. The hubristic tendencies of a terribly regulated and hugely inflated financial sector are problems the world has to face, not just GB. Thatcher made what turned out to be appalling choices, but to imply that everyone in the rest of the world got it right is downright dishonest.

  • “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.”

    All this building was done with money borrowed on dreadful PFI contracts. So, you know, thaaaanks sooo muuuch.

  • she lived for and loved her country for her Rich Banker friends only she destroyed the working class areas,put millions on the dole destroyed the NHS, schools & had very little Thought for the devastation she caused.

    not every one prospered under her leadership, take of the Rose Tinted Glasses, and why should Tax payers Pay for a her Funeral, for one of the most Divisive PMs in living History.
    this is just the Rich Looking after one of there own,

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