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Margaret Thatcher and the Liberal-Conservative Coalition

| March 30, 2012 | 0 Comments

To what extent, if any, are the present Liberal-Conservative coalition finishing off the work of Margaret Thatcher?


This essay argues that whilst similarities can be detected between the work of Margaret Thatcher and that of the Liberal-Conservative coalition, these must be primarily seen as a Conservative-led response to economic difficulties. As far as the evidence we are privy to suggests, the Coalition has no desire to imitate the political mantra of Thatcher and would rather discourage any such comparisons.

The suggestion that the historical origins of the Coalition’s political ethos can be traced back to Margaret Thatcher’s occupation of Downing Street (1979-1992) arises primarily because of the economic difficulties that have shaped both of their policy strategies. The early years of Thatcher’s premiership were characterised by high unemployment and high inflation whilst the agreement which sealed the Conservative-Liberal coalition in 2010 has followed in the wake of a deep financial recession. Inevitably a parallel can be drawn between the spending cuts put into place by both governments. However, to state that the Coalition are ‘finishing off’ Thatcher’s work implies intention to realise her political vision. The extent to which this holds true depends on what exactly is being ‘finished off’. The overriding objective motivating Thatcherism was ‘rolling back the frontiers of the State’,  a core principle realised  through privatisation, a retraction of the welfare state, and maintaining low inflation (Green: 1999: 19) This emphasis on market forces led to an ‘attack’ on local government, trade unions, the concept of community and Europe (Evans: 1997: 146). Keeping these features in mind, this essay will approach their pervasiveness in contemporary politics by first comparing key policies of the two governments. It will then examine the Coalition’s attitude to the Thatcher legacy to ascertain if they see themselves as the inheritors of Thatcherism.

Guiding Thatcher’s economic policy was the premise that government interference was detrimental to growth. This is also the foundation blocks of the Coalition’s rule: ‘We share a conviction that the days of big government are over; that centralisation and top-down control have proved a failure’ (The Coalition: Our programme for government: 2010: 7). This shared outlook is evident in the strategies used to lift Britain out of recession. Upon entering government, Thatcher drastically cut direct taxation (income tax) whilst indirect taxation (VAT ) went up (Evans: 1997: 20). In January 2011 the Coalition also chose to raise VAT. To inspire growth Thatcher’s oversaw the creation of Enterprise Zones. These were low-taxed areas made free from time-consuming planning rules – the exact tactic that Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced in March 2011 (Hawkins: 2011). Thatcher passionately believed that it was the entrepreneurial class that would instigate an economic renaissance. Accordingly the City was deregulated to maximise market freedom (Fry: 2008: 229). Likewise Cameron’s 2011 party conference speech during which he bestowed praise onto entrepreneurs has been called ‘pure Margaret Thatcher’ (Wheeler: 2011).

The Thatcher policy which has come to define her premiership is privatisation. Despite it being highly controversial, the 1980s witnessed the denationalisation of, to name just a few, British Telecom, British Gas, and British Airways, the argument for such action being that it boosted market-place competition (Fry: 2008: 98). The Coalition has not embarked on any similar policy (this is one aspect of her political vision Thatcher did ‘finish off’) but in the public sector it is trying hard to hand influence over to the private market.

In 2010 the Academies Bill passed. It allows academy-status schools greater autonomy to set admissions policies and devise their own curricular, a move reminiscent of Thatcher’s grant-maintained schools (Baker: 2010). Both policies imbue singled-out schools with the entrepreneurial freedom found in the private sector. Similarly, under the government’s plans for the NHS more competition with the private sector will be fostered (BBC News: 08.02.12).

A final important area of policy is international relations. In December 2011 Cameron utilised the UK’s veto to prevent proposed changes to the EU Lisbon Treaty as it challenged British financial interests (BBC News: 02.02.12). Thatcher herself was no Europhile, conducting all her dealings with the EC with suspicion and determination to secure the national interest, but she would have shied away from a move which palpably undermined the power of the UK to influence future EU policy (Mandelson: 2011).

Despite these overt similarities association with Thatcher is bad for party image and the Conservatives have been keen to distance themselves. Climate Change Secretary Greg Barker had to back-track rapidly after saying the government was ‘making cuts that Margaret Thatcher could only dream of’ (BBC News: 03.04.11). After plans to scrap free milk for children under five entered the public sphere Cameron intervened to quash the policy less it encourage a comparison between him and Thatcher’s highly unpopular analogous act of 1971 (BBC News, 08.08.10). The Conservative’s preferred public image is endorsed by historian Charmely who calls Cameron the first truly post-Thatcher Conservative leader because his seeming care for the poor distinguishes him from the real Thatcherites (Charmley: 2011: 183).

As for the Liberal Democrats, leader Nick Clegg has been known to accuse Thatcher of instigating ‘cut-throat, sink-or-swim materialism’ and has linked the current Tory party with the ‘false idol of trickle down economics’ (Savage: 2009). Conversely he has also praised Thatcher for dealing with national deficit through 100 per cent spending cuts (Stratton: 2010). This diversity of feeling implies that in politics dismissing her policies is not a black and white endeavour.

It is evident that there are significant policy similarities between Thatcher and the Coalition which could be used to argue that they are indeed ‘finishing off’ her work. However, there is, as far as we can tell without access to the personal thoughts of our politicians, little deliberate intention to do so. Granted it is in their interest to keep such motivations hidden because it would be a publicity disaster to be compared with the negatively remembered Thatcher era. It has to be taken into account that both governments have devised policies to in part to rectify economic difficulties and that resultant parallels may be explained by the fact they have been framed by a Conservative ideology. It will only be as the social and economic situation evolves and the Coalition’s policies mature that we will truly be able to trace any pattern of influences. Governmental styles though, are first and foremost conditioned by their specific context and a twenty year old political philosophy is always going to have limited applicability. An insight into this is the stark difference between attitudes to societal responsibilities. Thatcher famously declared ‘there is no such thing as society’ whereas Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ concept looks set to encourage the market and communal value of social engagement (Fry: 2008: 107).



BBC News <>

The Guardian <>

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All articles accessed on 23.02.10

Anon., ’Q&A: The NHS shake-up’, BBC News, 08.02.12

Anon., ‘Q&A: David Cameron and the EU summit on the Eurozone’, BBC News, 02.02.12

Anon., ‘Minister Greg Barker defends Thatcher cut comments’, BBC News, 04.04.11

Anon., ‘Downing Street rejects child milk scheme suggestion’, BBC News, 08.08.10

Baker, M., ‘Gove’s academies: 1980s ideas rebranded’, BBC News, 01.08.10

Cabinet Office, ‘The Coalition: Our programme for government’, H. M. Government, Whitehall, 2010

Charmely, J., ‘1922-2010’ in T. G. Otte and J. Black (eds.), Coalition government in British politics: From Glorious Revolution to Cameron-Clegg, Social Affairs Unit, London, 2011

Evans, E. J., Thatcher and Thatcherism, 2nd edition, Routledge, London, 1997

Fry, G., The politics of the Thatcher revolution, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2008

Green, E. H. H, ‘Thatcherism: An historical perspective’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, vol. 9, 1999, pp. 17-42

Hawkins, R., ‘Enterprise zones: Will an 80s revival really work’, BBC News, 05.03.11

Mandelson, P., ‘David Cameron is no bulldog’, The Guardian, 11.12.11

Savage, M., ‘Thatcher put money ahead of morality, says Clegg’, Independent, 07.03.09

Stratton, A., ‘Nick Clegg Margaret Thatcher’s legacy’, The Guardian, 11.03.10

Wheeler, B., ‘Analysis: David Cameron’s spring conference speech’, BBC News, 06.03.11

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Category: Essay & Dissertation Samples, Politics Essay Examples

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