Faced with the devastating electoral and political successes of Thatcherism in the past five years, the British Left responded in various ways.footnote Some activists anticipated the imminent collapse of Thatcherism due to a sudden upsurge of union militancy, popular disturbances, or urban riots; or due to a Conservative U-turn prompted by rising unemployment and political unrest. Others called for the Labour Party to adopt more radical economic and political policies and to restructure itself as a vehicle for the eventual implementation of a socialist alternative economic strategy. They hoped that this would undermine Thatcherism by refuting its claim that there is no alternative; or that it would at least give the left the initiative when Thatcherism collapsed for other reasons. Yet others concentrated on the ideology of Thatcherism and called for a similarly ideological strategy from the Left. They attributed Thatcherism’s success to the initiatives of the new Right in constructing a new hegemonic project and mobilizing popular support for a right-wing solution to the economic and political crisis.

Complementing this apparent celebration of Thatcherism is the charge that the Left has failed to adopt a ‘national-popular’ approach of its own to ideological and political struggle and has fallen back on economistic or voluntaristic analysis of the growing crisis of social democracy and the Left in Britain.

This last approach is represented above all in the work of Stuart Hall, but it has since been adopted quite widely on the left. The guiding thread of Hall’s work is the argument that Thatcherism rests on ‘authoritarian populism’. He argues that ‘authoritarian populism’ (hereafter ‘ap’) successfully condenses a wide range of popular discontents with the post-war economic and political order and mobilizes them around an authoritarian, right-wing solution to the current economic and political crisis in Britain. This success is regarded with begrudging admiration because Thatcherism took the ideological struggle more seriously than the Left and has reaped the reward of popular support. Some conclude that the Left must articulate Thatcherite themes into its own discourse, but others, such as Hall, insist that Thatcherism can best be defeated by developing an alternative vision of the future, a socialist morality, and a socialist common-sense. Thus the apparent ideological celebration of Thatcherism is complemented by an emphasis on ideological struggle in the socialist response. This approach has been much acclaimed on the left even if it has not yet become the dominant approach to Thatcherism.

We criticize some implications of this approach in the present section and will consider alternatives below. Firstly, we argue that the precise meaning of ‘authoritarian populism’ is unclear and that this can lead to incoherent or inconsistent explanations. This derives in turn from an uncritical use of Gramsci’s rather descriptive accounts of hegemony and/or from an over-extension of ‘authoritarian populism’ (ap) to very different fields and levels of social, political, and ideological analysis. In particular these studies generalize too readily from changes in the ideological field to other areas of British society. This tends to mystify the real sources of support for Thatcherism because they are subsumed indiscriminately under the rubric of ap. This problem is compounded since the politics of electoral support is often conflated with the politics of governmental power. Thus the ap approach ignores some potential sources of contradiction and tension within Thatcherism and overstates its general strength and resilience.

In later sections we consider the economic and political background of Thatcherism and the specific characteristics of its economic and political strategy. Our account is not totally at odds with Hall’s approach and it often accepts or expands themes found in Policing the Crisis footnote1 and The Politics of Thatcherism.footnote2 But we do wish to reject the ‘ideologism’ of the ap approach. Thus we also consider the political and institutional context in which Thatcherism developed, as well as the crisis of hegemony to which it represents one response. In particular we focus on the ‘dual crisis of the state’ as a neglected aspect of the crisis of the British state and on the ‘two nations’ character and effects of Thatcherism as a neglected aspect of its politics of power. We also argue that a one-sided emphasis on ap can produce mistaken conclusions about the most appropriate left-wing strategy to counter Thatcherism.