[T]he ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. . .sooner or later, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.

John Maynard Keynes in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

In the struggle for ideas, the battle for hearts and minds which the right has been conducting with such considerable effect, bad ideas can only be replaced by better, more appropriate ones.

Stuart Hall in The Hard Road to Renewal

Only a few years ago Mrs Thatcher dominated British politics more completely than any other recent British politician.footnote1 She seemed bent on imposing on British society and economy a thoroughgoing transformation, brooking no opposition, braving all contention and division. However, already in her last years in office the much-touted ‘economic miracle’ seemed to have evaporated as familiar problems of inflation and recession, and newer ones of social and infrastructural neglect, came into view. Despite her unequalled political success, the otherwise enigmatic John Major gave one clear signal in prudently distancing himself from her legacy from the beginning, at the risk of appearing—especially in contrast—directionless. The mainstream media, which had provided indispensable ballast to Thatcherism in its heyday, turned from narrow neo-liberal verities to the view that government had an important role to play in economic, infrastructural as well as social arenas—that not all solutions could be found in the market. If this were not enough to mark the advent of a definitively post-Thatcherite era, the aftermath of Thatcherism brought the sober realization that, despite its tumult and contention, it may have had a less profound historical impact than its stridently proclaimed ambitions had led most to believe.footnote2

However, even if many of the ghosts of Thatcherism are being serially laid to rest, it is undeniable that its very ambitions—of turning the British economy and society around from its path of decline and decay to one of dynamism, of rooting these transformations in society by displacing the governing orthodoxy and replacing it with a new vision of Britain, indeed of transforming the immediate environmentin which ordinary subjects went about their everyday business and even thought about it—these ambitions, in their sheer audacity, were its distinction. In the memorable analysis of Stuart Hall, they made Thatcherism a distinctively hegemonic project. Even if historians and policy analysts probing the Thatcher record find it falling well short ofits grandiose ambitions, its central historical interest lies in this. It was a style of politics whose cutting edge was its ideological crusade.

Indeed, Thatcherism is widely seen as having underscored the importance of ideas and proselytism in politics, especially among people ona Left not yet quite free of economism. The strength and momentumof the Thatcherite project seemed to derive from its apparently inexhaustible reserve of well worked-out ideas for the radical, energetictransformation of Britain. And the vision embedded in these ideas formed the core of the ideology with which Thatcherism sought toreplace the popular common sense of the Labourist consensus. Now-adays think-tanks seem in vogue, the Labour Party makes sure everyone knows it’s on the lookout for the ‘big idea’, and Demos—the bold new post-Thatcherite, postmodern, indeed, post-party venture—even while declaring the old political mould obsolete, underlines its acceptance of this one lesson of Thatcherism in its declared aim to ‘draw on the most advanced thinking from throughout society and across the world’ and ‘reinvigorate political thinking’.footnote3 The notion derives, of course, from the wide (and correct) acknowledgement of the role of New Right think-tanks and intellectuals in Thatcherism. However, a more nuanced picture of their role in Thatcherism contains some important (but not so simple) lessons for those on the Left trying to ‘learn from Thatcherism’ (as Stuart Hall recommended).