Influencers: Margaret Thatcher
If the New Conservatives were to choose just one hero figure, one who had inspired them above all others, it would have to be Margaret Thatcher, leader of the Tory Party from 1975 to 1990, and Prime Minister from 1979, through three election victories, before a leadership challenge from Michael Heseltine, and a poorly run campaign on her behalf, led to her downfall.
Yet here again, the New Conservatives are selective as to what they take from Mrs T’s career. The economics of her time at 10 Downing Street were not only about following the prescription of Milton Friedman: there was also a significant increase in debt, partly fuelled by more individuals borrowing. Shares, mortgages, home improvements, new cars, family events, holidays: all became targets for newly emboldened lenders.
And then there was the “Lawson boom” of the late 1980s, that saw the dreaded inflation return to double figures. The Thatcher years were not a time of black and white, and this is why the New Conservatives feel the need to be selective. But the cornerstone of her reputation among the right can be described simply and directly.
Margaret Thatcher, along with her mentor and colleague Keith Joseph, and Alfred Sherman, the last-named best known for his insistence that the railways could be more usefully converted to roads, founded the Centre for Policy Studies in 1974. This body was to be dedicated to free-market economics, pursuit of a smaller state, promotion of individual responsibility, and of course the freedom of choice.
On a more practical note, she challenged the power of Trades Unions, and not just in the confrontation with the mineworkers, in which the Government prevailed, and in the wake of which the coal industry in the UK began its final decline.
There was a series of measures enacted to restrict picketing and outlaw what was known as “secondary picketing” - picketing of related industries, suppliers and the like. Unions became liable for civil damages, and the “closed shop”, whereby all workers in a company had to join a Union, was weakened. All of this endears Mrs T to the New Conservatives.
But then comes the issue of the European Union, as difficult a subject for her admirers as it was for her. Margaret Thatcher, unlike for instance David Cameron, never walked out on other EU heads of Government. She always stayed in the room, however difficult the negotiations. The suggestion that she later expressed a preference to leave the EU has only come in the retelling of others - it never came from her.
Moreover, the “Bruges Speech”, long held to show a Eurosceptic tone, has had to be analysed in a highly selective manner in order to meet the New Conservative agenda.
Mrs T’s followers are always keen to cite this passage: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”.
They are less happy with this: “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community”.
Nor are they at ease with her suggestion that an EU that included former Warsaw Pact members was a good thing: “We must never forget that east of the Iron Curtain, people who once enjoyed a full share of European culture, freedom and identity have been cut off from their roots. We shall always look on Warsaw, Prague and Budapest as great European cities”. Her speech was delivered before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
And, even after her three election victories and all the claims of rolling back the state, the UK still retained, as it does today, a mixed economy with a significantly-sized public sector. That, of course, is why the New Conservatism has assembled its resources, to do a little more of the rolling back which, its adherents claim, she would have wanted.
As with many of its influencers, the New Conservatism makes generous use of projection in its championing of Margaret Thatcher. The reality her fans do not face is that she was, after all, a practical politician, and not a predictable one.