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Thatcher Anniversary Monday, 3 May, 1999, 14:23 GMT 15:23 UK
Is Thatcherism dead?
thatcher
By Gavin Kelly Research Director, Fabian Society

Martin McElwee of the right wing think tank the Centre for Policy Studies proclaims that Margaret Thatcher continues to dominate British politics today.

He should read the papers.

The Conservative Party is presently tearing itself apart because its leadership is trying to abandon two of the central principles of Thatcherism, the belief that public spending should be reduced and that privatisation and markets are intrinisically superior to public provision.

hague
William Hague: Rough reception for party reforms
Why are William Hague and Peter Lilley doing this?

Because they know that Thatcherism is dead. It is neither popular nor relevant. Unfortunately only some on the right have noticed.

The most interesting part of McElwee's article is the contention that the Labour Party has embraced Thatcherism.

This is wishful thinking (to which some on the left are not immune either). Of course it is true that new Labour represents a "post-Thatcherite" politics.

The Tories were in power for 18 years, and in that time, as McElwee argues, much of British society and economy were changed. By no means all of this was due to Margaret Thatcher - there were powerful social and economic forces at work in the 1980s and early 90s to which governments throughout the world, of right as well as left, had to respond.

But by the time Labour returned to power these changes were "facts on the ground". Labour had no choice but to accommodate to them: they were there.

'Blairism not Thatcherism'

In this sense the clam that Labour is "post-Thatcherite" is just a truism. The real question is whether Labour's response to this new world is to extend the trends initiated by the Thatcher governments or to reverse them.

There can be little doubt about the answer. The discontinuities between the Thatcher and Blair "projects" are stark. Let us take just three examples.

The first is employment policy. The New Deal is the clearest manifestation of Labour's commitment to the thoroughly non-Thatcherite notion that active government can help solve problems - and that this can be expensive. The New Deal (now offering training and jobs to older and disabled people and single parents as well as the young) is being financed by a £5bn increase in taxation (the windfall tax).

brown
Gordon Brown: Aiming to eradicate poverty
Whereas Margaret Thatcher wanted simply to deregulate the labour market, forcing wages down, the present Government has introduced a minimum wage which has already raised the incomes of around two million people.

The government's Fairness at Work legislation has granted, among other employee rights, the legal right of recognition to trade unions. Norman Tebbit would not approve.

The second area is that of redistribution. Each of Gordon Brown's three budgets have favour those on low incomes, particularly households with children.

Child benefit and the child rates of income support have been massively increased, while the Working Families Tax Credit is designed to make work pay for low-earning households. Moreover this has been coupled with the hugely ambitious objective of eradicating child poverty within 20 years.

This in effect means the abolition of almost all poverty - after all, poor children live in poor households. Does anyone think the Conservatives would have signed up to this?

Poverty

Margaret Thatcher made two significant contributions to poverty in the UK. She massively increased it, leaving at the end of the Conservative tenure one in three children living in households with less than half the average income (the official definition of poverty). Then she said it did not exist.

Perhaps the most vivid break with Thatcherite politics has been the government's programme of constitutional reform.

The Tories centralised power in Whitehall, taking powers particularly from local government (in some cases, as with the GLC, abolishing it when it dissented).

Within the first term of this government there will be devolution to Scotland and Wales, an elected mayor in London, the removal of the voting powers of hereditary peers, the implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, a promised referendum on electoral reform and a process of devolution to English regions.

This is nothing less than a recipe for a completely new mode of politics with in the UK. Pluralism will become the norm. Westminster will become but one site among many of political authority. It is an absolute reversal of the Thatcherite project.

One could go on. On Europe, on environmental policy, on international aid and debt relief, on attempts to regulate international financial markets, the Government is reversing the legacy of Thatcherism. What's more, the same thing is happening in other countries. That's why there are left-of-centre governments in nearly all the countries of the EU, and indeed across the industrialised world.

Margaret Thatcher's politics created the social and economic problems which governments today must address. She may still live in the dreams of the nostalgic right, but the rest of the world has moved on.

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