Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Why Maggie met Gordo

Beneath all the in-fighting, mud-slinging, and speculation concerning Baroness Thatcher's visit to No. 10 last week, there lies an important milestone in British political and economic history that is far more symbolic and simple than any of the dailies seemed to have noticed. Amid questions raised over the perceived party 'morality' of the visit, the Rt. Hon. Lady's mental faculties and Rob Wilson, MP's incomprehensible accusation of 'exploitation' on the part of the prime minister, there lies three simple facts.

1. Gordon Brown invited Lady Thatcher after a series of letters between them
2. It would have been unthinkable for her to decline
3. She has visited each one of her successors at Downing Street since leaving in 1990

Though these facts have been very confused, they nonetheless do not make the event unremarkable. The prime minister and Baroness Thatcher emerged from No. 10 in noticeably higher spirits than they entered, and one may speculate they had a lot to talk about, standing on some firm common ground. The peppering of mutual compliments and the prime minister's 'conviction politicians' praise appears to confirm this. Minor details have, however, been characteristically blown out of proportion - one column even going so far as to highlight Lady Thatcher's choice of 'Labour' red frock (it was in fact bright fuchsia). Such speculations are of course pure nonsense, and completely beside the point. This is not a party issue. This is a former prime minister, and the founder of today's established order, visiting the incumbent. There should in fact be much less controversy surrounding this aspect owing to the fact that Lady Thatcher and her premiership has been all but disowned by the current leader of her party, David Cameron at a time when Labour has found itself confident enough to praise it. What is significant about this whole event is that in a purely symbolic way it concretely closes a circle in British politics that began its circumference on 3 May 1979 when the nation went to the polls to decide Britain's future. It is significant because the Labour Party, who passionately fought the Conservatives' policies nail and tooth throughout Lady Thatcher's premiership, is now led by a man who openly praises the reforms of the 1980s, and indeed the much-hated woman who enacted them, as the foundation of the current political order and the basis of Britain's subsequent prosperity.

This should not be as shocking as some make it out to be. Parties change with the times in order to survive, primarily because they are not entities unto themselves but are composed of people. People who are diverse, pragmatic, and open to a change of opinion. Few would now believe that in the nineteenth century, the Lib Dems in their previous incarnation as the Liberals were a hard-line free market capitalism party. Similarly, few in the nineteenth century could have imagined the Conservatives so enthusiastically embracing the post-war socialism that dominated British politics up until the late seventies (and for them, until 11 February 1975, when Margaret Thatcher was grudgingly elected leader). It should not really be all that strange that Labour have employed Lady Thatcher's preferred advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi either. They are after all a competitive company who can work for whoever they like, and their credentials certainly make them desirable for any party. It does however, given the timing, have a startling symbolic effect.

It is nonetheless entirely symbolic and in no way surprising. Most people have been well aware for some time that Tony Blair deliberately forged Labour to be the natural successor of the Thatcherite Conservative Party - it was just too early to say it out loud. Ten years is a long time - what was taboo in 1997 has evolved into a gradual acceptance to the point that what was unspeakable then can today be blatantly proclaimed on the steps of 10 Downing Street itself. And it need not be seen as an abandonment of principle either. Being called Labour does not explicitly require you to be a socialist party - Labour have arguably served workers in this country since 1997 far better than any socialists could. Indeed, in The Constitution of Liberty - a Thatcherite Bible of sorts - F. A. Hayek makes the point that protectionism, wage controls, and strong unions – vanquished by Lady Thatcher in the 1980s - actually reduce real wages over time and cause widespread unemployment (incidentally, Labour's record since 1997 in this respect seems to have been lost on most socialists).

The trouble with the Conservative Party over the next decade was that they hadn't realised this. Their ten-year identity crisis occurred because - as one of Lady Thatcher's advisers put it to John Ranelagh in 1990 - 'the Tory Party is not a Thatcherite Party, that's the tragedy'. And it never was - the hierarchy tolerated her because she won elections but never much cared for her policies, many openly despising her. They wasted no time in 'stabbing her in the back' once she began to be perceived as an electoral liability and was henceforth removed in the most back-handed way. The classical liberalism espoused by her (small) wing of the party since 1975 has always been much closer to the that of the nineteenth century Liberal Party or Whigs than the Tories. The lady herself actually confirmed this at Conference in 1983 by stating 'I would not mind betting that if Mr. Gladstone [four-time Liberal prime minister 1868-94] were alive today he would apply to join the Conservative Party'. Lord Harris, too, has described Thatcherism as 'more or less common ground between Conservatives and Liberals in the nineteenth century'.

Hence, if the Conservatives appear to have found their feet since their election of David Cameron in 2005, it is precisely because said leader has been busy scrubbing Lady Thatcher from his party's history - explicitly refusing even to appear in the same photograph as her. The image then, of Gordon Brown at the door of No. 10 with Lady Thatcher on the very same day John Gummer announced the Blueprint for a Green Economy with the words 'I am a Tory' has an irony that hardly needs pointing out. Further, it is now obvious that, despite her deeply-held loyalty in the past, Lady Thatcher's very membership of the Conservative Party was one of political necessity rather than any real fealty. Throughout her political career before being elected leader in 1975 she was a member, and later, minister of a party whose policies she abhorred. Indeed, The Constitution of Liberty, a book Lady Thatcher once slammed on a table with the words 'This is what we believe' holds such a vindication of her actions in this respect. Hayek wrote that

At a time when most movements that are thought to be progressive advocate further encroachments on individual liberty, those who cherish freedom...generally have little choice but to support the conservative parties

Hayek wrote those words in 1959. The situation has changed considerably since then, though arguably only within the last few years. With Labour embracing monetarism and the free market, Independence on the rise, and even - saints alive - the Lib Dems embracing personal responsibility and market mechanisms, Cameron's Conservatives have been released of the burden of being the sole 'neoliberal' party in Britain. This has allowed them to return to being just that - conservative. Thatcherism was less a philosophy than a mission, and once that mission had been completed, namely (in the words of John Ranelagh) to establish 'a series of hard, practical achievements that would stand the test of time and...become common ground for political debate' it was defunct. This is why, after twenty years of preaching to the opposition, William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith, and Michael Howard found it so difficult to present a coherent set of policies for their party. It was, put simply, because everything the party had campaigned for since 1975 became common ground by 1997 and thus, taken for granted.

Keith Joseph once remarked in 1975 that it was only in April of the previous year that he was converted to 'real' Conservatism, professing that 'I had thought I was a Conservative but now I see I was not really one at all'. In fact, he was still wasn't. David Cameron, in steering his party back to old traditions such as suspicion of material progress (We're too rich to be happy - The Times, 14 September 2007) and censorship in areas of entertainment like video games is in fact returning his party to true Conservatism. Joseph's words in 1975 were necessary for their time because he could hardly have called himself a liberal at a time when the Lib Dems were still called the Liberal Party, and he was, at any rate a member of the Conservatives when there was not a chance in hell that either the Liberals nor Labour would ever come close to accepting the Thatcherite policies he devised.

With this in mind it can certainly be no coincidence that Cameron is the first Tory leader since the 14th Earl of Home in 1963 to have not risen from lowly beginnings. Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith, and Michael Howard all worked their way up through the grammar school system - 'self-made men' so to speak - whereas Cameron, son of a stock-broker and 5th cousin of Queen Elizabeth II twice removed, attended Eton College. Incidentally it was Heath, elected in 1965, who first attempted to introduce market reforms during his premiership in 1970-74. There is then, no mystery as to why Lady Thatcher appeared so publicly outside No. 10 with Gordon Brown. The plain truth is that Labour now happens to stand more for what she believes in than the Conservatives, and she is no doubt hurt by the latter's recent treatment of her. It also conveniently symbolises the setting in stone of everything she went out to achieve and reveals her premiership in the 1980s for what it was - nothing less than a revolution in its truest sense. A revolution, a turn, a circle right round to the political and economic climate that once made Britain - and then arguably the whole western world - so great. Indeed, it could scarcely be more complete if Labour changed their name to the Liberal Party.