On becoming Conservative leader, David Cameron deliberately sought to distance the party from its Thatcherite legacy by stressing a commitment to a more compassionate Conservatism which recognised the social costs of poverty and social breakdown.
In perhaps his most public disavowal of Thatcher’s legacy he responded to her famous epithet that ‘there is no such thing as society’ by declaring that ‘there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.’
However, Margaret Thatcher remains a talismanic influence on the current Conservative Party, and there are strong grounds for arguing that Thatcher’s ideas and policies hold more sway in the party today than in the 1980s. This is perhaps not surprising.
Few members of Thatcher’s Cabinets would have described themselves as Thatcherite. As contemporaries of Thatcher they were influenced by earlier ideas such as One Nation Conservatism and as several former Cabinet Ministers have observed this week, Thatcher was forced to accommodate a diverse range of Conservative thinking, much of which did not chime with her own, with prominent positions particularly in her early Cabinets, for so-called ‘Wets’.
In contrast, many members of the current Conservative Parliamentary Party were profoundly influenced by the Thatcher years. It is worth bearing in mind that the average age of the current Cabinet is 52, which means that most Cabinet Ministers came to political maturity during the Thatcher years.
David Cameron was thirteen when Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, and the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, famously shared a platform with Thatcher at the 1977 Conservative Party conference, aged just sixteen.
Moreover, whilst many observers have this week stressed the divisive nature of the Thatcher governments, one might argue that the policies of the current government and the attitudes within today’s Parliamentary Conservative Party go some way beyond those of the Thatcher years.
While Thatcher undoubtedly sought to roll back the state with significant cuts to public expenditure and provision, the current government is cutting far more quickly and more deeply than the first Thatcher government.
Radical and sweeping structural changes to public services in Britain, particularly the NHS, did not come about until Thatcher’s third term. Moreover, while the real term value of benefits fell under Thatcher, cornerstones of the benefits system such as universal child benefit remained intact.
The current government’s movement away from universalism is arguably a more significant break from the post-war consensus than changes introduced under Thatcher. The current government has also introduced significant changes to disability benefits which were introduced in the Thatcher years, and which the Chancellor George Osborne criticised for “parking” too many people on benefits.
Even on the issue of Europe which has been a running sore for the Conservative Party for decades, while Thatcher’s Euroscepticism undoubtedly contributed to her downfall as Party leader, she was responsible for signing the Single European Act in 1987, and provided a strong voice against federalism and for, what she perceived to be, Britain’s interests within Europe.
Motivated in part by domestic concerns, David Cameron’s promise to seek a referendum on EU membership, in which he may very well end up campaigning to leave, arguably represents a more significant change in Britain’s posture on Europe than anything witnessed under Thatcher or Major.
Researchers at the University of Lincoln have undertaken extensive research on MPs’ attitudes in the 1980s, in the Blair years, and in the current Parliament, which indicates significant similarities between the current intake of Conservative MPs and those interviewed in the 1980s, which may represent a hardening of attitudes since Cameron became leader.
While many Conservative MPs believed the Party has moved on since the 1980s, particularly in its attitudes towards poverty and social exclusion, there has been a strong resurgence in perceptions about the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ which was less evident amongst Conservative MPs interviewed when Cameron first became leader in 2004.
In addition, a number of Conservative MPs now make a distinction between the ‘deserving and undeserving disabled’ which was not the case in the 1980s. Many Conservative MPs interviewed in the 1980s were aware of the danger that the Party’s attitudes to welfare would be unpopular and tempered their criticism of those in receipt of benefits accordingly.
In contrast, Conservative MPs interviewed in the current parliament were unabashed in their criticism of some of those in receipt of benefits. Indeed, many Conservative MPs today, including those on the front bench, publicly use the kind of language to describe benefits recipients which previous cohorts of Conservative MPs were reluctant to use even in private.
Along with the genuine affection for their former leader, there is widespread belief within the current Conservative Party that in many areas the Thatcher governments got it right. This is in part based upon a rather narrow view of Conservative policies and thinking in the Thatcher years.
However, if the Conservative Party is swept along by a wave of nostalgia in the wake of Baroness Thatcher’s death, there is a real danger than Cameron will find it increasingly difficult to persuade the public that the party has moved on.