Thatcherites and Blairites – peas in a pod?

Thatcherites and Blairites – peas in a pod?

Photo: Kieran Doherty/Reuters

A newly published study of Britons has concluded that people who grew up under the government of Tony Blair have similar political attitudes to those who grew up under Margaret Thatcher. Before we get into the study itself, try reading the article from the University of Sheffield that accompanied it, and see if you can understand what they’re trying to say.

How did you go?

If you understood precisely what they said, then you are either a liar or have a better command of political language than I do, for I could not make heads nor tails of what they were claiming.

The article begins by saying “Young people in Britain are more right-wing and authoritarian in their political views than previous generations”, which seems simple enough. This is followed by Thatcher being a “moral crusader” who “embedded conservative authoritarian values” which went unchallenged by the Blair government, resulting in “younger generations becoming increasingly economically and social liberal.”

Que?

Unless the authors are setting up liberalism as being right-wing, authoritarian and conservative, which they don’t appear to be, the Blair generation cannot be simultaneously more conservative and more liberal.

The article then states that the paper challenges the notion that the younger generation is more liberal, which is the opposite of what they had just said, and cites the large proportion of young people who voted for remain in EU referendum as evidence of this, even though liberals were more likely to vote remain.

No wonder people are confused by political terminology.

Anyway, there is a great deal that we could unpack from the study, but I want to focus on one idea that the authors put forward: that those who grew up under Tony Blair were more Thatcherite than those who grew up under Margaret Thatcher. What does that mean?

The authors put forward Thatcherism as being a combination of the free market and a strong state, the latter of which they confusingly call ‘social conservatism’. This is ahistorical, as conservatism has traditionally been opposed to a strong state, and those who self describe as ‘social conservatives’ are unlikely to put forward a strong state as one of their priorities. Furthermore, what they mean by a ‘strong state’ is the increasing emphasis on law and order, and the degree to which that is an emphasis of conservatism is also debatable, and will be addressed in my upcoming book.

Thatcherism was certainly about the free market, and the Thatcher government did, at least, make strong noises about law and order in their quest to free the market. Noticeably, there is little-to-no emphasis on issues that generally occupy conservatives, which are generally (for want of a better term) matters of morality. Instead, the freedom of the market and the threat that socialism is to it (real or perceived) becomes the issue of the day.

Were the two-party system representative of a real left-right political divide, we should expect that those who grew up in ‘Blair’s Britain’ would hold, to some degree, different political beliefs to those who grew up under Thatcher. After all, Thatcher was a member of the Conservative Party, and Blair of Labour.

Instead, the study suggests the opposite is true. Blair’s generation is, the authors believe, found to be even further along the free-market economic path than Thatcher’s generation, and care even less about social conservatism. This will be fuel for the fire of socialists across Britain who have complained about Blair since he entered, claiming that the New Labour that he headed was not a real labour party at all. Generally, this is described as a move to the ‘right’.

The idea that it’s a move to the ‘right’ is assisted by the fact that many – though, notably, not all – who call themselves conservatives have had no qualms with Margaret Thatcher and the free market obsession that marked her premiership. But was she really any more conservative than Blair was socialist? As noted earlier, the focus of her government was not really conservative at all, and had far more in common with liberalism – indeed, many liberals were attracted to the Conservatives during her time, having in earlier generations lost their traditional home as the Liberal Party collapsed.

I would go so far as to say that the Conservative Party paved the way for New Labour by taking on the values of liberalism in a pre-existing party. By doing it first, they embedded the idea that such things were ‘conservative’ and ‘right-wing’, which has coloured political discourse ever since. Crucially for the thesis of this study, it means that the idea of a new generation being more Thatcherite than the one previous to it makes sense. New Labour dominated British politics for many years and, arguably, still does today, in the form of the modern Conservative Party, which took on a great number of the attributes of New Labour which they, in turn, took from Thatcher’s Conservatives. That is nearly four decades of liberal hegemony among the major parties of a country.

Only now are we starting to see that conservatives and socialists alike may not actually be that enamoured with liberalism. The Labour Party membership has returned a socialist to the leadership of the party, albeit one from inner-city London rather than their old stomping ground in the industrial north. The Conservatives are trying desperately to prevent conservatives from leaving for UKIP, which has positioned itself as the party of choice for those who feel ignored by the two-party system, something the Liberal Democrats have struggled to do, being, as the name suggests, another liberal party.

The end of liberal hegemony, as represented in Britain by the reign of Thatcherism and Blairism, may be at hand.

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