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.

The intellectual background to the ap approach is found in the work of Stuart Hall and his former associates at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.footnote3 Their work is directly concerned with historically specific, ‘conjunctural’ phenomena in the cultural and political fields and is strongly influenced by Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. The most significant source of the ap approach is the Centre’s work on the ‘moral panic’ over mugging which occurred in Britain in 1972–73 and its wider political and ideological context. This study of Policing the Crisis charted the rise of an exceptional form of representative state in Britain and also alluded to the development of ‘authoritarian populism’.footnote4 But it was other work by Stuart Hall himself which really sparked the debate on ‘authoritarian populism’ on the British Left. An influential article on the rightward drift of British politics and culture appeared in January 1979,footnote5 and there has since been a spate of articles by Hall and others on ap and its implications for Thatcherism. The Politics of Thatcherism presents some of these contributions but there are many others.

Hall’s use of the term ‘authoritarian populism’ is most directly concerned with the emergence and success of Thatcherism. But it also refers to a wider political transformation—aspects of which were first charted in Policing the Crisis. This described the general shift in the seventies towards the coercive, disciplinary pole of state power at the expense of the consensual, hegemonic pole. This is ascribed to the decay of the postwar settlement under Conservative hegemony in the fifties and the subsequent failure of a labourist, corporatist alternative. Thus the crisis worsened and class struggle intensified. By 1966 the social democratic alternative was so exhausted that crisis-management through whatever means became more urgent than reconstituting consensus. The shift towards open repression and the ‘law-and-order’ society gathered pace. However, faced with a massive political defeat at the hands of the miners in 1972, Heath returned to the corporatist strategy. The new Labour Government in 1974 retreated further from the ‘law-and-order’ society but retained key elements of a more repressive mode of mass integration. There was also growing ideological polarization, a coordinated swing towards tougher social discipline on the right, and, most significantly, the capture of the leadership of the Conservative Party by the radical right represented by Mrs Thatcher.footnote6