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For the modern Conservatives, Thatcherism is not enough

For the modern Conservatives, Thatcherism is not enough
5 min read

The first woman PM will always be a heroine to me, but I’ve come to see that Thatcherism had significant flaws, writes Robert Halfon

High up on the wall of my House of Commons office is a picture of Margaret Thatcher and me holding a newspaper article about Harlow (now, next to one of Ruth Davidson MSP). The photo was taken in 2006. To this day, so long after she had left office, Thatcher has had an immeasurable impact on my political life.

I first met Thatcher was when I was about 16, at a St John Ambulance charity event. My family, although not political, embodied the Thatcherite dream. As the son of an immigrant, it was instilled in me that if you study hard, work hard, save hard and do the right thing, Thatcher’s ladder of opportunity was there for all to climb.

I remember reading about Thatcher in 1979 on the front page of the Daily Express, when she won the election. As I recall, there was a cartoon of her as “Super Maggie” – a fitting portrayal. At that time, I didn’t yet realise the effect this woman would have on my political life.

Growing up and getting more involved in politics at school and university, my fellow Thatcherite friends and I thought she could do little wrong. We could be found on the front row at Tory conferences, cheering when she spoke and advocates for all that she stood for.

In 1990, I was sitting in my political theory class at university when a student came in to say that Thatcher had resigned. While most of the class whooped, I was in shock.

Then, in 2013, when she passed away, I arrived at St Paul’s Cathedral at 5 o’clock in the morning. I wanted to be there early, among the crowd, to share in their sorrow and be present for the service. In a strange way, it was as if I’d lost part of my political family.

But, just as in the extraordinary Arthur Miller play Death of a Salesman when the two sons realise the person they’d worshipped much of their lives wasn’t quite as perfect as they had imagined, in some ways I came to the same realisation about Margaret Thatcher.

As time has gone on I’ve come to see that Thatcherism, for all the excitement around opportunity and aspiration, for all the strong stance against communism and fascist dictatorships, had significant flaws.

At the time, many of us believed that as long as we create economic capital, everything else would come right; that if the government created enough wealth in the economy, we could fix society’s problems; that if people wanted to climb the ladder of opportunity, then anything and everything was possible.

The mistake made was this: creating economic capital alone does not necessarily mean more social capital. The two should have been as important as each other, developed together, hand-in-hand; and, social and public sector entrepreneurs should have been regarded as equals to economic and business entrepreneurs, like those in my own family.

In a lot of ways, there was successful revolutionary change, but Thatcherism also left many people and their communities behind. So while fundamental reform was necessary, Thatcher did not do enough to look after or acknowledge those individuals and communities whose lives were changed for the worse. At the time, she showed huge support for the can-doers, whatever their background and disadvantage, but little compassion for the cannots.

It was not enough to say, if you climb the ladder of opportunity, we’ll do this for you. Instead, we should have said: “We will bring you to the ladder, help you climb every rung, and we will be there for you with a social ambulance, ready to protect you should you fall. We will also always look after those who have no chance of climbing the ladder at all.”

In the last years of her government, there was some recognition of this. In 1988, in her famous Church of Scotland speech, Margaret Thatcher said: “In our generation, the only way we can ensure that no one is left without sustenance, help or opportunity is to have laws to provide for health and education, pensions for the elderly, succour for the sick and disabled.”

Alongside that came a pamphlet written by one of her chief policy advisers, (now) Lord Brian Griffiths, called The Moral Basis of the Market Economy.

But by that time it was too late. While maintaining incredible election victories, we began to sow the seeds for our decline. For many years, Conservatives have only been on the side of the haves or the aspirational haves. As a party, we have not achieved a healthy parliamentary majority since 1987.

David Cameron acknowledged this when he tried to set out his philosophy of the “big society”. Theresa May, also, when she talked about tackling the “burning social injustices”. Yet we, the Conservatives, still have not done enough to address social injustice.

So, while the first female prime minister will always be a heroine to me, Thatcherism is not enough. A new leader will not succeed simply by offering reheated policies from the Thatcher days. I worry when I hear some of the speeches of the current leadership contenders that they just sing the same old tunes with a little bit of modernism thrown in.

If Conservatism is to truly succeed and win decent parliamentary majorities, we have to make sure that Conservatives are reflective of the times we live in; that it is our number one mission not merely to build a strong economy, but to address social injustice; to offer solutions to look after those most in need, whether it is those struggling at the very bottom, or just about managing.

Although some of the principles of Thatcherism about a free economy and low taxation may still be relevant, we need fresh thinking; a new workers’ Conservatism ensuring that social justice is front and foremost of everything that we say and do.

Robert Halfon is Conservative MP for Harlow

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