The 2017 Conservative manifesto is a remarkable document, at least rhetorically. Since the 1970s the party has essentially been dominated by Thatcherite ideas and principles, as the party transformed into essentially a classical liberal one, with a fairly well-defined ideology, even if there is nevertheless still a spectrum of views under the tent.
The reason why the Conservative Party had, arguably for the first time in its history, become an ideological one lies in the success of Thatcherism in remaking Britain. Whereas the post-war period was defined by the Attlee consensus surrounding active government, the welfare state, Keynesian economics and consultation with the unions, from 1979 a new consensus emerged with a more limited role for unions, stricter welfare policies, and greater encouragement of private enterprise – essentially a neoliberal consensus. The credit for this paradigm shift lies disproportionately with Thatcher and the party has been enamoured and dominated by her legacy ever since.
May’s Conservatism is yet another example of the party’s long history of balancing competing views, and competing interests.
The first cracks in this bond – between a historically ideology-free Conservative Party and the ideologically-dominated Margaret Thatcher – began to appear under David Cameron. Attempting to mollify the view of his party as the `nasty party` Cameron brought about a very real transformation of the Conservatives. But this transformation entailed reconciling Thatcherism and Thatcher’s success with the need for a more socially liberal, and emollient tone. Hence Cameronism entailed an embrace of women’s issues, gay rights and environmental concerns while nevertheless showing a clear aversion to statism as he maintained a commitment to fiscal conservatism and economic liberalism.
If Cameron’s Conservatism entailed a dialectical approach to Thatcherism, redefining and repositioning Conservatism so as to recognise the past and to embrace the future, the approach of Theresa May is far simpler: outright rejection. The 2017 manifesto, in one example, argues that “We must reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right and instead embrace the mainstream view that recognises the good that government can do”. Its definition of Conservative principles is both astounding, and eerily familiar. According to the manifesto Conservatives “do not believe in untrammelled free markets”; they “reject the cult of selfish individualism” and they “abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality”. In words that could have come straight from the mouth of Ian Gilmour, a vocal critique of Thatcher whose work on her was entitled Dancing with Dogma, the manifesto proclaims “we see rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous”.
Conservatism has always been about balance. While the party has often resisted change, it has typically accepted it when the time comes. Hence the party accepted the Great Reform Act of 1832 and with the need now to appeal to the middle classes it moved away from protectionist beliefs, culminating in the repeal of the Corn Laws. Under Disraeli, the party shifted away from free-market thinking, embracing social reform. Between the wars the party again flip flopped between free markets and active government. May’s Conservatism is yet another example of the party’s long history of balancing competing views, and competing interests. When, under Attlee, socialism and social democratic ideas were perceived to have gone too far, under Thatcher this was remedied by the re-exertion of free market thinking. Now that the neoliberal consensus has been unchallenged for decades, it is once again the Conservative Party’s role to correct this. In an homage to Burke, the manifesto cites his pithy observation of what has become one of the defining tenets of Conservative thought: “society is a contract between the generations: a partnership between those who are living, those who have lived before us, and those who are yet to be born”. But this is from a party which had recently been dominated by the legacy of a leader who proclaimed “there is no such thing as society”.
For Conservatives stability is paramount, and this means maintaining the social fabric, while responding to the clearly expressed desires of the electorate.
There is one critical area in which the impact of Thatcher on the modern-day Conservative Party can still be felt: that of Europe. Although Thatcher was instrumental in bringing about the single market, her tenure became increasingly dominated by Euroscepticism, as she railed against what she saw as the slow federalisation and centralisation of the European project. She remained a prominent voice within the party throughout the 1990s, speaking out at times vociferously against the evolving European project. But the party’s transformation into the party of Brexit was based not on ideological formulations inspired by Thatcherite critiques, but electoral calculations. Cameron called the referendum because of a surge in the UKIP vote; the party accepted with open arms and a steely optimism the referendum result because of the enormous electoral opportunity that Brexit provided.
The Conservative Party’s penchant for reinvention and its aversion to ideology stems from its perennial pursuit of power. For `large C Conservatives` the dominant concern is not to resist change, but to be the gatekeeper of change. To do this it must adapt, to ensure it retains and continually expands its appeal while resisting the attractiveness but ultimately divisiveness of ideology. For Conservatives stability is paramount, and this means maintaining the social fabric, while responding to the clearly expressed desires of the electorate. Theresa May’s Conservatives have captured the essence of this. A series of left-leaning policies represent an olive branch to disillusioned Labour voters; its Brexit stance an acknowledgement of the anger that was represented in the referendum result. For good or ill, Thatcherism has been discarded, and the Conservatism of old is experiencing a renaissance.