There can be no doubt that the Thatcher government over the last year or so has encountered a crisis of public confidence: some even believe the end of Thatcherism is nigh.footnote1 Signs of impending doom were already discerned in June 1989 when the Conservative party suffered its first ever defeat in elections to the European Parliament, in what was widely seen as a national referendum on ten years of Thatcherism. The ensuing Cabinet reshuffle in July 1989, the most extensive under any Thatcher government, brought more ‘wets’ into the front line and was so badly managed that it is said to have further undermined party morale. This was followed in November by the dramatic resignation of Nigel Lawson, the architect of the 1987 election boom and the 1988 tax-cutting budget which had promised so much for the party. Moreover, although Mrs Thatcher easily survived the first challenge to her party leadership last December, some commentators believe she may not be able to do the same this year if her problems continue to accumulate. Others suggest that, even if she does, she is already a lame-duck premier; and
Although Mrs Thatcher and Thatcherism have been constant features of the political scene in the last fifteen years, they have been far from unchanging. In earlier work we proposed a fourfold periodization: (a) the rise of Thatcherism as a social movement; (b) the period of consolidation, 1979–82; (c) consolidated Thatcherism, 1982–86; and (d) radical Thatcherism, from the 1986 party conference onwards.footnote2 One might have been tempted to say farewell to Thatcherism at the conclusion of each period—but each time it proved to be the end only of a specific version or stage, to be succeeded by a newer, recharged form. Thus we should ask whether it is only radical, neo-liberal Thatcherism which is currently in crisis; or whether the Thatcherite project is now completely exhausted and has no prospects of renewal. Moreover, although Mrs Thatcher is so closely identified with her eponymous strategy, it does not follow that Thatcherism without Thatcher is unthinkable. Nor should we exclude the possibility that Britain might be ruled by the umpteenth Mrs Thatcher, as it was once governed by the fourteenth Lord Home or the ‘fourteenth Mr Wilson’.footnote3 Indeed, since the House of Commons’s proceedings have been televised, a new Mrs Thatcher is already being presented for ‘popular acclaim’—less strident, ‘greener’, and more caring.
The main journal to have attempted a theorization of ‘Thatcherism’ has been Marxism Today, although its focus has shifted over the years from ideology to economics. At first its contributors attempted to
If the ‘end of Thatcherism’ has been put on the agenda, this is not because it has lost some supposed hegemony or because the Left has defined an alternative, radical-democratic project and made it hegemonic. There is little evidence that Thatcherism was ever hegemonic and all the surveys point towards steadily declining levels of popular support rather than a sudden collapse.footnote4 Over a longer time-period it is just as doubtful whether Britain ever became truly Fordist.footnote5 The crisis of the postwar Keynesian welfare state and the British mode of growth certainly helped Thatcherism into power. But, as we argue below, there are very few indicators that consolidated Thatcherism is presiding over a fundamental transition to a post-Fordist society. Indeed there is a great deal to suggest that it is obstructing this shift.
Marxism Today’s political message rejected predictions that Thatcherism would collapse under the weight of its economic contradictions and resulting class struggles. Thus it is ironic that economic explanations fare somewhat better than more ideological interpretations—indeed, it is difficulties and contradictions in the economic strategy of the Thatcher government which seem to have precipitated the current crisis. However, the economic crisis has not produced a radical left-wing mobilization in trade union or labour politics. It is reflected at best in intensified wage claims (to offset inflation and rising housing costs) and broad popular dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the economy. An upsurge of support for the Labour Party in its current guise hardly provides much support for orthodox expectations that economic crisis would generate political radicalism. But the role of this crisis in the decomposition of Thatcherism will require more detailed treatment below.
Another aspect of the crisis which is often highlighted is the fact that the political preconditions for the rise of Thatcherism are now on the wane. The crisis within the Labour Party has been resolved by a desperate rassemblement around Kinnock’s ‘red rose’ labourism; Labour has also benefited as the renegade Social Democratic Party and the later Alliance between sdp and Liberals have given way to a new
Thatcherism has not yet come to an end: at most we are witnessing the beginning of the end as it starts decomposing. Some of its core elements will disappear along with Mrs Thatcher, but others will survive intact, find new forms, or be included in new economic and political strategies. This is the message of the more statist, Europeanist and socially conscious version of Thatcherism offered by ‘Heseltinism’, for example; it can also be seen in the appeal of the sort of revanchist Thatcherism voiced most recently by Norman Tebbit. Such divisions in the Conservative Party can be expected to grow. The current crisis in Thatcherism has four main aspects: a steady erosion of Mrs Thatcher’s personal authority as unease spreads at her style of leadership; a crisis of economic policy—especially over inflation and Europe; a broader collapse of Thatcher’s neo-liberal economic strategy; and, related to this, a failure of the ‘two nations’ strategy to consolidate a stable social base for Thatcherism.