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Thatcherism spread far and wide but with a hollowed middle class, for how long?

Friday, April 12th 2013 - 23:12 UTC
Full article 13 comments
The first politician to grasp the decline of the old working class as an electoral asset The first politician to grasp the decline of the old working class as an electoral asset

By Gwynne Dyer - Margaret Thatcher was the woman who began the shift to the right that has affected almost all the countries of the West in the past three decades. But it is an open question whether even the crash of 2008 and the ensuing prolonged recession have finally ended the long reign of her ideas in Western politics.

“This woman is headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated,” wrote some minion in the personnel department of British chemical giant ICI, rejecting young Margaret Roberts' application for a job as research chemist in 1948. She was fresh out of Oxford University, 23 years old, self-confident and absolutely full of opinions. She probably frightened the job interviewer half to death.

But she landed a job with a plastics company in Colchester in 1949. She joined the Conservative Party and stood for Parliament in the 1950 election (she was the youngest candidate ever), and married businessman Denis Thatcher in 1951. Margaret Thatcher, as she then became, finally made it into Parliament in the 1959 election.

She entered the Cabinet of Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1970 as the “statutory female” (as he gallantly put it).

But she had the last laugh in 1975, replacing Heath as party leader after the Conservatives lost the 1974 election. She took a very hard line from the start, both in domestic and in foreign politics. Her open hostility to the Soviet Union led a Soviet newspaper in 1976 to dub her the “Iron Lady”, a title in which she revelled.

Her real impact, however, was in British domestic politics, where she broke the welfare-state consensus that had dominated all the major parties for the previous 30 years. “It is our duty to look after ourselves,” she said, and the political orthodoxy trembled before her onslaught.

That was what carried her into office in the 1979 election, and as Prime Minister she acted on her convictions. After she had won the Falklands War against long odds in 1982 her popularity was unassailable, and she used it to break the power of the trade unions and privatise state-owned industries. More than that, she made free-market ideology for all intents and purposes the state religion.

So it remained for 30 years, long after her harsh and confrontational style had lost her the support even of her own party.

She was ousted as Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister by her own colleagues in 1990, but the Labour governments of 1997-2010 were also in thrall to her ideas. Their influence abroad, particularly in the US, was equally great.

Yet her greatest contribution to politics was not ideological but tactical. She was the first politician to grasp the fact that with the decline of the old working class, it had become possible to win elections on a platform that simply ignored the wishes and needs of the poor. There weren't as many of them as there used to be, and the poorest among them usually failed to vote at all.

This insight was key to the success of President Ronald Reagan in the US in the 1980s, and to the triumph of conservative parties in many European countries. It continues to be a major factor in the calculations of parties on the right and left down to the present day.

Thatcher's influence lives on, at least for the moment, but it may not last much longer. The powerful middle class on which she founded her political strategy has been hollowed out by the very success of the free-market policies she promoted. Once you allow for the effects of inflation, average middle-class income in the US, for example, has not grown at all in the past three decades. The time may be coming when gaining the votes of the poor will once again be essential to win elections.

(*) Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Categories: Politics, International.

Top Comments

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  • Brasileiro

    People makes peace. Thatcher makes war. Britain is weak today because the “iron lady” existed! In the past, british is a great empire, and the your culture is the culture of peace. The iron lady is a terror for the British Cultural Empire. Like Robes Pierre to France!

    Apr 13th, 2013 - 01:04 am 0
  • Anglotino

    It is quite irritating when someone talks of the “west” as some homogenous entity that moves in unison or has the same politics or culture running through it.

    “The powerful middle class on which she founded her political strategy has been hollowed out by the very success of the free-market policies she promoted. ”

    Really? Where has it been hollowed out? Gwynne only gives an example of income stagnation in the US. Hardly a case of hollowing out. To hollow out the middle calss would be to either make them to rich to no longer be middle class, or make them too poor.

    “The time may be coming when gaining the votes of the poor will once again be essential to win elections.”

    Why of course, let's keep them poor so they remain a voting block. Perhaps making them aspirational voters and help them become part of the middle class. Even 30 years of stagnating income in the middle class is better than being poor. Perhaps this is where the hollowed out middle class has gone; to being poor?

    Perhaps there are less poor because they were given control and the ability to be middle class.

    “began the shift to the right that has affected almost all the countries of the West in the past three decades”

    Really? I would have to say that the prolific spending that has blighted so many countries in Europe is not exactly a shining example of a shift to the right. The amount of welfare spending and inability to manage a balanced budget is not exactly Thatcherism now is it?

    The author contradicts herself and really seems to want to lay any and every aspect of issues in the “west” at the foot of Thatcher. Funily enough control is what Thatcherism preached most. Take control of your own lives and own future and stop playing the victim.

    Seems for some people, playing the victim is supposedly a consequence of Thatcherism.

    So glad I don't seem to live in the “west” that Gwynne sees.

    Apr 13th, 2013 - 01:13 am 0
  • reality check

    Brasileiro

    Question, just exactly who started the Falklands war?

    Can not wait to read your answer!

    Apr 13th, 2013 - 08:25 am 0
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