The old battle lines are being redrawn as if it were 1979 all over again. Let me surprise you with my answer to the question. Some daring commentators suggest we need a new dose of Thatcherism. Labour are out to portray their old caricatures and lies about the Thatcher era. My answer to the question is “No, we don’t”. But then, I never saw myself as a “Thatcherite”.
Don’t misunderstand me. This is not some latter day conversion on the road to Damascus, not some repentance for past sins which I only committed in the fertile imagination of my opponents. I admired Margaret Thatcher then, and defend her still, for two great qualities she brought to the job of Prime Minister – honesty and courage. She was the best boss I ever worked for. If only her successors as PM had half her honesty in tackling problems and half her courage we would be in a much better position today. She was not driven by focus groups and by the best spin. She wanted honest anslysis of problems from her advisers, and serious debate of options for tackling them. She would back a course of action if she believed it was right, even if it were unpopular. I hope our next Prime Minister will share those caracteristics, as they will be much needed.
The reasons I do not think we need another dose of Thatcherism are two fold. There are presentational reasons, ever popular in today’s debased politics, and reasons of policy.
Thatcherism was a creed defined as much by its opponents stressing what they did not like as by its supporters turning it into a cannon of truth and light. I have never written essays defining or defending Thatcherism, as in a way to do so is to accept the opposition baggage that was deliberately heaped on the idea. Labour were always good at spin, even when they were losing by a mile. They endowed Thatcherism with the negatives – cuts, get on your bike, there is no such thing as society. Some of their imputations were lies, others selective half truths that misrepresented by failing to point out the purpose or the greater good being served. The current crisis facing our country is different from that in 1979. We do not have time to waste fighting the presentational battles of the past.
Today we do not face a problem of excess Trade Union power making it impossible for any government to govern. In 1979 we were very conscious that Trade Union power had gravely damaged the first Wilson government, defeating their Trade Union policy “In place of Strife”, had brought down the Heath government, and had brought down the Callaghan gvernment through the winter of discontent. The next government has no such bitter legacy, and would be wise to see modern Trade Unions as a force for the good whilst not being a push over when it comes to public service management.
Today we do not face an immediate inflationary surge as we did in 1979. The money taps were only turned on in late 2008, so it takes time. With broken banks it takes longer.
We do, on the other hand, face a spending and borrowing crisis on an altogether bigger scale than that of 1979. In 1979 we were a couple of years beyond the IMF visit and their enforced cuts, which started the process of sobering up after the big spend. In 2010 we will be at the peak of unprecedented waste and over spending. We need to tackle the immediate problem of malfunctioning, highly expensive and loss making nationalised banks, which were absent in 1979. Unless we get the banks to work better and return them to the private sector promptly, not much else will work. We need more banks, and more competitive banks. We need to split up the naitonalised monoliths as quickly as possible.
There is one important similarity. Just as in 1979, we face long months of rising unemployment, as the full impact of the disastrous economic policy is felt. To sort this out requires the maximum degree of common purpose throughout society. That is why another dose of Thatcherism would set the wrong tone. We need a new dose of a new medicine for the dreadfully damaged economy. Welfare reform and banking reform are essential ingredients. The agenda of popular capitalism, empowering more people in the economic life of the nation, will also be part of the answer. Everyman and woman an owner is a slogan for a future that could work.