Tales from an author

The Nightmare of Thatcherism – Why NOT trust the CONservatives?

A quarter of a century after the end of the Thatcher government, her legacy continues with David Cameron following Thatcherite policies. Here is another extract from my new book about the Conservative Party.

                          Thatcherism 1975-1990

The Conservative Party agreed new rules for its Leadership elections in January 1975, after Sir Alec Douglas-Home presided over a committee to consider the process. Elections would now be annual, and the party’s MPs remained as the electorate. The required margin for victory on the first ballot was increased to 15 per cent of those entitled to vote. If this was not met, there would be a second ballot, and victory would require a candidate to have a majority over the combined votes of the other candidates. New candidates could enter the contest on the second ballot, the aim being to allow a supporter of Heath to enter if he was defeated on the first ballot. If the second ballot did not produce a result, then a third ballot would be held between the three candi­dates who had secured the most votes on the second ballot. The third ballot would feature voting by the Single Transferable Vote, ensuring an absolute majority for the winner. The main threats to Heath seemed to be Edward du Cann and Keith Joseph, but they both withdrew. Margaret Thatcher entered the contest, which was a surprise, given the male dominance of the Conservative Party. Besides Heath and Thatcher, there was a third candidate, Hugh Fraser. On the first ballot, on February 4, Thatcher won 130 votes, Heath 119, and Fraser 16. Heath withdrew, and a second ballot was held on February 11, when Thatcher took 146 votes, William Whitelaw 79, Geoffrey Howe 19, James Prior 19, and John Peyton 11. Thatcher thus became the first woman to lead a British political party.

Thatcher left the Shadow Cabinet largely unchanged, but Heath declined an offer to remain a member. Thatcher was appointed an honorary member of the Carlton Club, as membership was restricted to male Con­servatives, but the Club did not wish to exclude the party Leader. The Carlton avoided the obvious step of opening membership to women. Thatcher immediately appointed Lord Thorneycroft as Party Chairman. Thorneycroft’s resignation in 1958 gave him a reputation for support of monetarism, which was the economic policy that Thatcher favoured. Thatcher now set out a new course for the party, which reflected the ideas of the right, and appeared in the policy document The Right Approach in 1976. Thatcher was deter­mined to break with consensus politics, which she saw as a betrayal of the principles of Conservatism.

Despite a small majority, the Labour government sur­vived, helped by a pact with the Liberals, which lasted from March 1977 to August 1978. It looked likely that an Election would be held in the Autumn of 1978, but in September James Callaghan, who had replaced Wilson as Prime Minister in 1976, announced that there would not be an Election that year. The delay pleased the Conservatives, who believed that they would be more likely to win an Election the following year. There followed “The Winter of Discontent”, during which union opposition to the government’s pay policy brought major disruption, which was aggravated by severe weather. The government was weakened by its failure to carry devolution for Scotland and Wales, and the Scottish Nationalists now wanted a General Election. Taking advantage of this, Thatcher moved a motion of no confi­dence on March 28 1979, and the government lost by one vote.

During the 1979 General Election campaign, the Conservative Party concentrated on Labour’s troubled time in office. The Conservative manifesto had an unlikely title, Time For a Change. Polling took place on May 3, and the Conservatives won 339 seats to Labour’s 269, while the Liberals took 11 seats, and the other parties 16. The Conservatives had a majority of 43, and Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. Thatcher’s government initially represented a balance between adherents of her approach and sceptics. She excluded Edward Heath, who was to be a constant critic in the following years. A month after the Westminster election, the Conservatives won the first British election to the European Parliament, taking 60 seats to Labour’s 17, while the other parties won 4 seats.

Thatcher proclaimed herself a “convic­tion politician”, opposed to consensus. Her major pre­occupation was an attempt to reverse Britain’s long-term economic decline through monetarism. This was developed by Milton Friedman, an economist from the USA. Monetarism was a theory that had only been properly tested by one of the world’s most barbaric regimes, the Fascist military dictatorship in Chile, and the result had been a spectacular failure. General Pinochet, the President of Chile, took power in a military coup in 1973, with backing from the USA, removing a democratically elected Socialist government, led by Salvador Allende. Pinochet promptly directed his army to carry out a massacre, in which it murdered countless thousands of people, just because they were Socialists, or trade unionists, or lived in working class districts. In 1973 the government of Edward Heath – in which Thatcher was a Cabinet Minister – had been one of the first in the world to recognise the Pinochet regime as supposedly legitimate. Thatcher’s government soon proved a calamity for Britain, with an economic strategy of reduced public expenditure, reduced taxation – especially for the ruling class – an attack on the trade unions, and the sale of public assets. When Thatcher took power, more than a million people were unemployed. The number of unemployed people increased to two million in August 1980, and three million in January 1982.

The Thatcher government was authoritarian, inflexible, and uncaring. It attacked the democratic rights of the British people, notably with restrictions on local authorities. Thatcher followed an aggressive foreign policy, involving hostility to the Soviet Union, and was involved in constant disputes with the European Economic Community. Thatcher’s rigid defence of what she perceived to be British interests within the European Community, an organisation founded by the Treaty of Rome, resulted in her frequently being referred to as a modern-day equivalent of Boadicea. Thatcher notably failed to improve the position of women, and her role as the first woman to lead the Conservatives was anomalous, as the party has perpetuated male dominance of British society. Strong belief in ideology placed Thatcher outside the mainstream of Conservatism. Thatcherism was proclaimed by supporters as radical, but it was a reactionary attack on progressive institutions. Thatcher’s policies provoked opposition within the Conservative Party, but she called her opponents “wets”, gradually removing sceptics from the government. Thatcher’s annual speeches at the rally following the Party Conference prompted the pathetic spectacle of marathon standing ovations.

The government became increasingly unpopular, until its fortunes were revived by victory in the Falklands War. The Argentinian invasion of the Falklands, in April 1982, represented a crisis. Thereafter the military operation to recover the islands reflected well on Thatcher. She dishonestly presented the war as a fight against Fascism, having previously allowed the sale of armaments to the military dictatorship of Argentina. It was only when these armaments were being used against Britain that Thatcher saw a problem. Nevertheless this surprise did not provoke Thatcher into opposition to Fas­cism, as during the war against Argentina she worked in alliance with the regime in Chile, led by General Pinochet.

The Conservatives were helped by changes in the Labour Party, which moved to the left, with Michael Foot replacing James Callaghan as Leader in 1980, while Tony Benn became a major influence. A group of MPs on the right of the Labour Party formed the Social Democratic Party, at the start of 1981. The SDP subsequently worked with the Liberal Party, in the Alliance, and this took a huge number of votes off Labour at the next Election, held on June 9 1983. The Conservatives won 397 seats, Labour 209, the Alliance 23, and the others 21. The Conservative majority of 144 was deceptive, with the party’s 42 per cent share of the vote being little higher than the 40 per cent obtained in their massive defeat, by Labour, in 1945.

Thatcher’s second term was as unsuccessful as the first. Cecil Parkin­son, who had recently relinquished the post of Party Chairman, resigned from the government in October 1983, with the revelation that his former secretary, Sara Keays, was expecting his child. The Conservative government limited local authorities’ powers to set their own rates, and abolished the Greater London Coun­cil plus the Metropolitan County Councils – each of which were Labour-controlled. The miners went on strike during March 1984, in opposition to the government’s programme of running down the coal industry. For a whole year the government was to preside over this damaging dispute, without attempting to settle it. British Telecom was privatised, the Tory word for the sale of public assets, in 1984. It was subsequently revealed that Keith Best, a Conservative MP, made multiple applications to buy shares in British Telecom, using minor variations on his name, and he was imprisoned for fraud in September 1987. Best was soon released from prison, having argued that this sentence was too harsh, but a disproportionately low fine was increased. In June 1984 the Conservatives lost ground in the European Parliament election, but still emerged as the largest party, with 45 seats, while Labour won 32 seats, and the other parties 4. The Irish Republican Army bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton, at the time of the 1984 Conservative Party Conference, and several members of the party were killed or injured.

The government discarded mone­tarism during the Autumn of 1985, realising it had failed, but maintained its general plan. Although there had been some economic improvement, mass unemployment was only gradually reduced. At the beginning of 1986, two Cabinet Ministers, Michael Heseltine and Leon Brittan, resigned amidst a dispute over the ownership of the Westland helicop­ter company. Thatcher’s position appeared threatened by revelations about her disregard for Cabinet government, but she survived the crisis. Later in the year the Conservatives were damaged by another scandal. This featured Jeffrey Archer, who had previously been a Conservative MP and successful businessman, only to lose a fortune, and abandon his political career. Archer had retrieved his fortune with large sales of a series of mediocre novels, and been appointed Deputy Chairman of the Party. Having rehabilitated himself, Archer’s dealings with Monica Coghlan, a prostitute, were publicised, and the outcome was Archer’s resignation. The following year, Archer dishonestly won £500,000 damages from the Daily Star, in a libel case about the scandal.

Thatcher visited the Soviet Union, early in 1987, with relations having thawed. A trip to the Soviet Union was an unlikely way for a Leader of the Conservative Party to improve their electoral prospects, but that was one of its aims. Thatcher called a General Election for June 11, and issued a Conservative manifesto entitled The Next Moves Forward. In the Foreword, Thatcher made the curious claim that her government was fulfilling the “One Nation” ideal. Thatcher led a poor campaign but, with the opposition weak, the Conservatives won 375 seats, Labour 229, the Alliance 22, and the others 24. The Conservatives retained power with a majority of 100 seats. Reconstruction of the government included the sacking of John Biffen, who had been Leader of the House of Commons. Biffen responded by saying that Thatcher’s government was Stalinist. As Thatcher entered her third term in office, the thinking of the Conservative Party was characteristically incoherent.

After re-election in 1987, Thatcher’s government continued the ideological sale of state assets to the private sector, including British Steel, British Leyland, and the water supply. This remained part of the wider, free market, economic policy, led by Nigel Lawson, Chancellor of the Exchequer since 1983. Lawson oversaw some reduction of unemployment, but inflation and interest rates both increased. Thatcher became increasingly agitated about developments in the European Community, and was opposed to Britain joining the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Thatcher made a high-profile speech in Bruges, during September 1988, setting out her Eurosceptic approach. In June 1989 the Conservatives were defeated in the European election, being reduced to 32 seats while Labour won 45 – the other parties returned 4 MEPs between them. This was the Conservatives’ first defeat in a General Election or European Election since 1974. Lawson, who favoured membership of the ERM, resigned as Chancellor in October 1989, feeling that Thatcher was undermining him. In November, Sir Anthony Meyer, a veteran backbench MP, challenged Thatcher for the Conservative Leadership. Meyer, who was pro-European, saw himself as a “stalking horse”, hoping that his action would prompt a more high-profile MP to stand against Thatcher, but nobody else had the courage to do so. Thatcher won the contest by 314 votes to 33, but one sixth of the Conservative MPs either voted against her or abstained.

In the Spring of 1990 the Community Charge, trialed in Scotland a year earlier, was extended to England and Wales. This flat-rate charge on local government electors immediately became known as the Poll Tax. There was widespread public protest, and an anti-Poll Tax riot in London. Thatcher had undermined the NHS during her premiership, making clear her preference for private health. The National Health Service and Community Care Act of 1990 introduced an internal market to the NHS, this being a clear attack on the public service principles of the organisation. In June 1990 the Carlton Club was bombed by the IRA, and Lord Kaberry, a former Conservative MP, suffered severe injuries, which led to his death in March of the following year.

Britain joined the ERM in October 1990, on the initiative of John Major, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, although Thatcher remained a sceptic. The following month, Geoffrey Howe, the Deputy Prime Minister, resigned from the government, and made a speech in the House of Commons attacking Thatcher’s style of leadership. This prompted Michael Heseltine to challenge Thatcher for the Party Leadership. In the first ballot, on November 20, Thatcher beat Heseltine by 204 votes to 152, but fell four votes short of the 15 per cent majority needed for outright victory. Thatcher initially announced her intention of proceeding to the second ballot, but was persuaded by Cabinet colleagues that she had lost the confidence of the Parliamentary party.

Thatcher withdrew from the contest on November 22. John Major and Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, entered for the second ballot, held on November 27. Major took 185 votes, Heseltine 131, and Hurd 56, a result that left Major two votes short of a 15 per cent majority, but the other two contestants quickly withdrew. Major was therefore declared Leader of the Conservative Party and, on the following day, appointed as Prime Minister by the queen. Major included Heseltine in his government, as Secretary of State for the Environment, tasked with finding a replacement for the Poll Tax, while Hurd remained as Foreign Secretary. Thatcher returned to the backbenches, with her 11 years in power having ended in humiliation, but the awful policies of Thatcherism and Conservatism would continue to damage Britain for a lot longer.


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