Freedom News

As night follows day, repression follows Thatcherism

British politics has a very unhealthy obsession with Margaret Thatcher. Although she is very divisive, with a significant portion of the population despising her, the political class seems unable to let her or her ideas go. In recent times, even Labour politicians such as leader Keir Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves have talked positively about her legacy. There are significant ramifications for the rest of us.

Thatcher’s obsessives in the Tory Party often shout the loudest and manage to steer politics in their direction. Other Thatcher lovers, like Nigel Farage, use populism to rival the Tories, but that only adds to the governing party’s rightward shifting. While her fanatics sometimes do this in the name of “freedom”, it often results in ever more repressive policies and legislation.

The adherents believe they are setting people free, but it only works if everyone plays the same game. The free market game is one that you might lose, so you have to be willing to be poor. You must be willing to give up the rights you used to have as trade unionists. You have to agree not to protest. You must accept authority. All of this is so that the State, in theory, can stay small. Most people do not simply accept that this is the way to live. The crushing inequality caused by free market economics does not have to be accepted. It is based on the exploitation of workers and natural resources. We can fight back in unions and protest on behalf of our planet, and so many people do. It is the fightback that sees the Thatcher worshippers resort to repression. Over the last few years, numerous Acts have been passed to curtail protest rights. We’ve seen similar measures to further restrict unions’ planning strike action. We’ve seen ever harsher immigration rules, and it looks like Thatcher loving Tories will never be satisfied on this front. This last fact is worrying, considering how migration will be even more affected by climate change in the future.

It’s worth thinking about how Britain has reached this point. When the Tories deposed Thatcher, they selected John Major as her replacement. He narrowly won the 1992 general election, partly because he was different. He wasn’t that different, but he cancelled the hated Poll Tax, which helped him gain some working class votes. He went on to lead a neoliberal government in her image, privatising the railway network, for example. But no sooner had her party rejected Thatcher than some Tory MPs began to demand it be more in her image.

John Major referred to the Eurosceptics in his cabinet (those who wanted the European Union to have less influence in British affairs) as “the bastards”. He allowed them to challenge him for leadership of the Tory Party in 1995, and he defeated John Redwood conclusively. Yet that Thatcherite rump on the party’s right shouted the loudest. When they lost in 1997, Major was replaced by a succession of Thatcherite-approved leaders. William Hague, Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Howard failed to capture the votes representing that particular shout-the-loudest section of Tories. Indeed, Michael Howard was one of John Major’s suspected “bastards”.

David Cameron became leader in 2005 and mixed his love of Thatcher with some Blair-a-like liberal social policy. He was the “hug a hoodie” Tory, talking of compassion alongside brutal attacks on benefit receivers and a decimation in public services. Whilst loving neoliberal economics, he was not keen on the Thatcherite obsession with Europe and wanted to heal the divisions in his party. As support for UKIP grew, when Cameron became Prime Minister for the second time in 2015, he offered the UK a referendum on EU membership. He thought he could put UKIP in its place and silence the shouters in one go. That strategy’s backfiring was spectacular, so we can trace the problems the UK has suffered through Brexit to the divisions in the Tory Party over Europe stretching back decades. This party has made politics and the country all about them.

Cameron immediately resigned, and Theresa May became Prime Minister during exit negotiations with the EU and votes and debates in Parliament around Brexit. She had campaigned alongside Cameron to remain in the EU. The shouty Thatcherites in her own party gave her hell in parliament. They didn’t rest until they got their preferred PM, Boris Johnson. He immediately tried to get another general election, and when he succeeded, his message of “Get Brexit Done” gained him an 80-seat majority. He had also done something to the Tory Party to make that slogan easier to activate in power. Johnson had forced his candidates to sign a pledge that they would vote through his Brexit deal. Several old hands in the Tory Party decided not to stand, and indeed, some had been pushed out of the parliamentary party in the run up to the election for their remainer views.

What this represented was a reconfiguring of Toryism. Thatcherite economics has never been in doubt these past four decades. What Johnson did, though, was elevate Brexiteers (the modern name for Eurosceptics). One of their obsessions is migration — their love of Brexit was partly a manifestation of their hatred of open borders. They also tend to be more interested in harsher penalties for criminals; they dislike ideas such as trans rights or indeed rights in general. One of the main obsessions seems to be ripping down the Human Rights Act and even withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, which the Act is based on. They are the type to use “woke” as some negative word to describe any social policy they dislike. 

The Tory Party is far from what it was in 1992 when John Major won that election. That Tory Party was still neoliberal enough, but it has now morphed into the neo-conservative variety. Just as Thatcherite in economic terms but much more repressive.

It was always headed in this direction. Thatcherism only works if you grin and bear it. The problems it causes, though, can’t simply be put up with. The pain and suffering caused have not yet been fully accounted for, and the justice needed has not been remotely gained. The thousands of people who died because of austerity while MPs were raking in expenses using our money is one example. The loss of public services has made our lives harder in ways that are hard to quantify. The changes to the benefits system have made so many of us poorer. Climate change fuels war and migration, in turn caused by neoliberal economics. All of this has to be resisted. It is our resistance that they hate. The naïve ones believe that the economic system that is causing the trouble will also miraculously save us all. The cynical ones are just looking at their balance sheets.

They are still not quiet. When Johnson was finally kicked out of Downing Street, they supported Thatcherite Liz Truss in office. Except she was so ideological she seemed to think she could do everything she desperately wanted at once. Thatcher would have been much more pragmatic because she understood politics much better. Thatcher didn’t hit her stride until her second general election win, with Labour thoroughly beaten in 1983. Labour suffered a split, and the new Social Democratic Party (SDP) formed an alliance with the Liberal Party. That alliance gained around a quarter of the votes, mainly from Labour, gifting Thatcher a landslide.

The example of 1983 could be very useful in understanding the upcoming general election. The latest Nigel Farage vehicle, Reform UK, is taking votes away from the Tories. Truss’s replacement, Rishi Sunak, is another neoliberal that the shouty end of Toryism thinks is not quite right wing enough. He is forever being urged to be tougher, particularly on immigration, to satisfy the Thatcherites. In short, he suffers loud criticism from the latest incarnation of bastards, just like Major, Cameron and May. Beyond the Tories, Reform lurks as an extreme alternative for voters unwilling to switch to Labour or the Lib Dems. The rise of Reform could hamper the chances of the Tories at the election. However, it comes with risks for the future. If the Tories lose big later this year, there are already murmurings of a merger with Reform and, therefore, a major swing further to the right. The chances of the Tories being wiped out and destroyed are slim; the chances of them seeming dead but being resurrected by arch-Thatcherites is a real possibility. A Tory Party with Nigel Farage at the centre is a possibility.

The love of Thatcher seems to be the root of many evils in Britain. The Tories are continually harking back to her to varying degrees. It doesn’t look like that will end, which will only mean further repression in the long run. With Labour’s admiration of her, too, their governments will only ever be a short respite from the harm her true devotees cause us all.

~ Jon Bigger

Image: Chris Beckett / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed

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