Barry Turner

Columnist

Barry Turner is a Senior Lecturer in War Reporting and Human Rights and a member of the Royal United Services Institute.


On the 13th Oct 1989 Margaret Thatcher spoke to the Conservative Party Conference on the topic of climate change.  She was one of the first world political leaders to warn of the dangers of climate change and her speech is quite clear, climate change is a real threat.  On the 11th August that year she had made a similar, indeed much more detailed speech to the United Nations referring to Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle.

In that speech she talked of an “insidious danger” of the irretrievable damage to the atmosphere, the oceans and “the addition of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate”.  Mrs Thatcher spoke out strongly about greenhouse gasses and of greater dangers that lay ahead of human-induced climate change. It was unequivocal in its determination that the climate change was caused by human activity. Mrs Thatcher, a trained scientist, quoted lots of science in her speech.

If Mrs Thatcher made either of those speeches today, the right would be screaming blue murder at her about wokeism and lefty mentality. Today anyone talking of climate change is to some on the right, ironically those who normally regard Thatcher as a Totem, a sign of a lefty plot to take over the world.

In 1886 the Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain said: “In politics, there is no use in looking beyond the next fortnight,” a quote often misattributed to 1960s Prime Minister Harold Wilson, so we cannot be surprised that the majority of Mrs Thatcher’s adoring fans have forgotten that she was a believer in anthropomorphic climate change and spoke passionately and eruditely about the topic to the world and to her own party — to rapturous applause.

Just as Chamberlain and Wilson pointed out, it is remarkable how quickly we forget. Or perhaps more accurately, airbrush out of our memories those parts of a politician’s message that no longer fit the frame. The modern conservative right claim Margaret Thatcher as one of their own, an inspiration in fact. If she was around to speak on these topics today, they would be in a flat-spin.

The two aspirant prime ministers have both snatched the mantel of Thatcherism to corner the conservative right, both rather foolishly believe that they offer the political model that she did to the UK in 1979. After that election, Mrs Thatcher entered 10 Downing Street with nothing short of a revolutionary manifesto, and whether you loved it or hated it, she not only believed in it — but set about carrying it out. Since the resignation of Boris Johnson, our two contenders have done nothing but tear up a manifesto upon which they won an eighty-seat majority in an internal party populist grab for the leadership.

The current favourite for the job of redecorating the Downing Street flat has already done a dramatic U-Turn, even before Boris hands the keys over. Her interesting idea about a pay scale for the civil service based on the regional costs of living did not even last the length of the day it was announced on. She will not be making any speeches about “the lady is not for turning,” as Mrs Thatcher did at the 1980 Conservative Party Conference. Just as her immediate predecessor, she will be constantly rotating, never mind turning.

Her opponent also grabs for the Thatcherite legacy, although he does not seem yet prepared to don the bright blue suit, big-bowed blouse and bouffant hair-do adopted by his sparring partner. He was of course not even born when Mrs Thatcher coined the Thatcherite motto on political consistency and adhering to the pledges in the manifesto, on which he and his current opponent were elected. Both so far have done just about everything to demonstrate they are no more Thatcherite than Jeremy Corbyn was. Indeed Mr Corbyn, another Marmite politician, really had more in common with Mrs Thatcher they they do. He actually believed in his proposed manifesto pledges and in the extremely unlikely event that he had been elected, he would not have been for turning either.

The ridiculous US style TV hustings to which we are all subjected has served only to demonstrate a lack of commitment to anything except their own ambition.  They are both defined by the government they happily served in, off the cuff sound bites and throw away policies that vanish as soon as a light is shone on them. Both need reminding that they were elected on the party manifesto of 2019, a manifesto that is 90% undelivered. Both need telling that if the Johnson government got it wrong, as opposed to he personally getting it wrong, then it is a general election we need, not a new PM.

Neither Rishi Sunak nor Liz Truss will ever be a Margaret Thatcher, some might be glad of that, but it is commitment to ideology that differentiates them — not the ideology itself. Mrs Thatcher set out her plan in 1979, the British people gave her an overwhelming majority and she set about carrying out her revolutionary plan to change Britain. Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak were elected with an overwhelming majority too, but they like their former boss and certainly unlike Mrs Thatcher, had no real intention of ever carrying out the pledges they made to get it.

So now they continue on the media pantomime, making ever more absurd promises to an electorate of 160,000. Our new PM will be appointed not elected, by a non-representative and tiny section of the population. He or she do not even consider themselves bound by the promises they made when canvassing in 2019. All either of them really had to do in this contrived competition is re-commit to the manifesto that put them in government. That they will not do that tells us all we need to know about their Thatcherite credentials.

Barry Turner is a Senior Lecturer in War Reporting and Human Rights and a member of the Royal United Services Institute.

Those of us watching the absurd ‘presidential’ squabble between the two contenders for Boris Johnson’s title will of course have noticed that they have now picked up the long dormant banner of Thatcherism in a bid to be the ‘real conservative’.

Mrs Thatcher would of course have considered the silly US presidential style debates they are having on TV to be an absurdity, as most of the population of the UK presumably do. With only 160,000 members who have a vote, around 0.03% of the population, it is something of a nonsense.

Now two people who remember nothing of the Thatcher premiership claim to be its new standard bearers. The two candidates extract the bits of the Thatcher history that suit the next TV debate with little regard for the reality of the real legacy of Mrs Thatcher’s term in office.

Of course selective history is always part of politics and always has been. There are many memories of the Thatcher years on which to draw, and most are based on the experience of those who lived through them rather than the biographies and historiography of the period.

It is notable that neither candidate waxes quite so lyrical about Mrs Thatcher when addressing those in the ridiculously described ‘red wall’ seats. Many voters remember in a collective memory a quite different legacy of Thatcherism to the one espoused by Ms Truss and Mr Sunak. Even one and a half generations since, Thatcherism means something quite different in a former mining, shipbuilding or steelworks town to what it might do in Westminster.

But let’s get back to the legacy of the real Mrs Thatcher. When she won a landslide election victory in 1979, Ms Truss was five years old and Mr Sunak was not even born. Large numbers of former socialist voters shifted to the Tory party because the UK was in a mess and the ‘revolutionary’ ideas of Margaret Thatcher chimed with them. It is inescapable that Thatcherism was born out of Labour voters’ frustration with the failings of their government, every bit as much as it was by the patriotism of the traditional shire Tories. Mrs Thatcher was a populist Prime Minister before that much abused term had been picked up and inverted by the press and media.

So, now our two potential successors, not to Boris Johnson, but to a party leader ousted by her own party over thirty years ago claim the Thatcherite credentials. Poor old Rishi Sunak is at a disadvantage from the start, Liz Truss has actually started wearing the Thatcher trademark outfits and riding in tank turrets. Liz the ‘tax cutter’ and Rishi the ‘fiscally prudent’ are vying for the title, but have they really read the legacy? Do they know the full story of the legendary Margaret Thatcher?

Mrs Thatcher is remembered by many as the fearless fighter for Britain’s corner against the European Community as it then was. The woman who ‘hand-bagged’ the commission into submission and won a startling victory for Britain in obtaining that famous rebate. It’s is astonishing what our media today call the ‘optics’ — what we remember while the facts fade into the shadows. Mrs Thatcher was in fact a dedicated European and perhaps the principal architect of the Single Market on which today’s EU is founded.

From the promulgation of the Single Market at Fontainbleau in 1984, to its ultimate consolidation under the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, after she had been ousted by her own party, Mrs Thatcher was the architect of the modern European Union. Mrs Thatcher and her successor John Major signed every one of the most important treaties since the founding of the EEC under the Treaty of Rome. The Single European Act of 1986 was the biggest upheaval of the European Community in a generation and is still its framework today.

Mrs Thatcher was the most enthusiastic of Europeans for all the hand-bagging of ‘Brussels’. It is quite true that she did not embrace the rather foolish ambition of ever closer political union, but the Single Market was the epitome of the Thatcherite economic philosophy of free trade and liberalisation. Our two aspiring Prime Ministers want to remember what Mrs Thatcher did rather than what she might have said. Our armchair political historians might want to spend less time looking at the hand bag and more at the signatures on the European Treaties.

One final point for Rishi, Liz and the British public to take on board. Mrs Thatcher made many concessions to the European Union including incorporating monetary union in the Single European Act. For all her squabbling with the commission and its President Jacques Delors, she agreed with them far more often than she argued. Maybe that’s what Rishi and Liz are telling us in their bid for the Thatcher mantel. Their governments might be built on concession and collaboration with Europe after all. We have certainly had quite enough of the post-Brexit, Brexit campaign.

Barry Turner is a Senior Lecturer in War Reporting and Human Rights and a member of the Royal United Services Institute.

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