By Ian Taylor
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The return of the nasty party: Cameron, Thatcher and the Tories

This article is over 12 years, 5 months old
The prospect of a Tory government will chill all who remember the 1980s. Yet bad as David Cameron promises to be, a victory for him need not herald a rerun of the Thatcher years. Ian Taylor begins our pre-election coverage by analysing the prospect of a Cameron government and what it would mean
Issue 345

Barring an astonishing turnaround, 13 years of betrayal by New Labour appear about to end. We can hope for a strong showing by left candidates and a campaign on their behalf that draws activists together for the fights ahead. But the likelihood is of a Tory return and a government committed to savage cuts.

The prospect of a victory for David Cameron can lead to one of at least two unhelpful conclusions: either that the result does not matter, since New Labour has become indistinguishable from the Tories, or that Cameron is a new Margaret Thatcher.

The former is based on harsh reality, but risks divorcing socialists from millions in the working class who remember the Tory years and believe it matters who is in government. A Cameron victory threatens demoralisation on our side.

The latter is based on fear. Yet Cameron is a long way from being a Thatcher in the making. This is less down to personality traits or differences in background – Cameron born into privilege, Thatcher born to a grocer – than to the different circumstances Cameron faces. However, it is important to remember Thatcher only acquired the ruling class status she now enjoys in the course of events in the 1980s – the outcomes of which could have been different.

She appeared far from an unbreakable figure at the outset. Dubbed “the most unpopular woman in Britain” by the Sun after axing free school milk in 1971, Thatcher was not even first choice for Conservative leader among the Tory right after Edward Heath’s Conservative government fell in 1974.

Elected prime minister in 1979, Thatcher did not command majority support in her own cabinet until 1983. Her first years saw Britain’s deepest recession since the 1930s, 3.6 million unemployed, inflation at 18 percent and riots in 30 towns and cities. By October 1981 she was rated the most unpopular prime minister on record and offered to resign.

Far from being the “Iron Lady” Thatcher backed away from confrontation with the miners in this period, retreating from a National Coal Board plan to close pits in January 1981 because she feared defeat.

In fact, Thatcher’s premiership might be viewed in three parts. This first period was one of such unpopularity that she only survived due to a right wing split from the Labour Party to ally with the Liberals. This delivered a landslide election win to Thatcher in 1983 despite her share of the vote falling.

She enjoyed a largely triumphant second period from the Falklands War to the 1987 election – during which she took a year to defeat the miners and on at least three occasions was reduced to tears by the prospect of defeat – and a third period of decline from 1988 that saw renewed opposition culminating in the poll tax riot and her removal in 1990.

Cameron would certainly not want to be compared to Thatcher in 1981 or her final year. Still it is hard to downplay Thatcher’s impact on our side. Unemployment soared and remained high throughout her period in office. She cut welfare, increased poverty and boosted homelessness, while slashing taxes for the rich. She savaged workers’ rights – police battered strikers and harassed black youth. Newspapers lauded scabs. She butchered local democracy, launched wholesale privatisation, and deregulated the City and industry. We can lay much – from mad cow disease to casino capitalism – at her door.

Thatcher got away with it by defeating one group of organised workers after another in a series of set-piece confrontations that destroyed communities along the way. This did not happen by chance. Those around her had a plan to break trade union power in the nationalised industries – a vast area of the economy at the time – so as to avoid the kind of defeat suffered by the previous Tory government.

The Ridley Plan, named after MP Nicholas Ridley, would see the Thatcher government avoid a general assault on the unions and duck out of any battle for which it was not prepared. Instead it sliced at the unions salami-fashion – in Ridley’s words, proceeding “more or less by stealth”.

It opened the public sector to private competitors in order to fragment industries and “break up the power of [the] unions”. It ditched national wage agreements and squeezed workers by demanding pay rises be financed by increased productivity, resulting in “sackings, redundancies and closures”. At the same time it bought industrial peace in key sectors by allowing wage rises above inflation.

The plan was to provoke battles “where we can win” while making preparations for a miners’ strike – involving “maximum [coal] stocks at power stations…imported coal, non-union [haulage] drivers” and so on. The government would “cut the supply of money to strikers” and ensure “a large mobile squad of police” to smash picketing.

All this was allied to a series of anti trade union laws that progressively turned the screw on workers’ ability to take action – enforcing strike ballots, restricting pickets, outlawing solidarity and seizing union funds over failures to comply. Union leaders generally responded by blocking any action that might bring a legal challenge and the overriding conclusion among a generation of workers was that strikes could not win.

Of course, we cannot know what secret plans the Cameron leadership may have. But we do know he faces problems emulating Thatcher – of which her very legacy is one.

Cameron is repeatedly forced to distance himself from Thatcher – from the shift in wealth to the rich she gloried in and the rubbishing of social care implicit in her claim that “there is no such thing as society”. The Tory leader has attempted to signal a break by stating precisely the opposite (see recent Tory posters, pictured left).

However, he must also claim her legacy – because while he must convince millions that the Tories have changed, he must reassure most Tories that nothing has. So referring to his aim to cut state support for social services and use the voluntary sector instead, Cameron has pledged, “I’m going to be as radical a social reformer as Mrs Thatcher was an economic reformer.”

Sympathetic biographers Elliott and Hanning point out, “Cameron’s relations with Thatcher go to the heart of [his] dilemma. For many [she] represents all they grew to dislike about the Conservatives. Yet he…dare not disown her completely for fear of enraging her admirers.”

Cameron chose the environment as the ground on which to demonstrate the Tories had changed and has signalled that he would veto a third Heathrow runway – though it remains to be seen whether he will withstand the furious lobbying by business for a reversal. It was an opportunist move – Cameron largely cut references to the environment from the Tories’ 2005 election manifesto, for which he was responsible – but it illustrates the tensions he faces. Elliott and Hanning note a sharp decline in Cameron’s mentions of the environment since 2008, attributing this to “a desire not to alienate the party’s traditional larger donors”.

Similar tensions surfaced in February when Cameron’s ally and shadow education secretary Michael Gove referred to “backwoodsmen grumbling in the [Tory] undergrowth” following a row over candidate selection, and Cameron launched a pre-election poster campaign stressing the need to convince voters the Tories were “not the same old Conservative party”.

Cameron now privately describes himself as the “heir to Blair”. But he also has difficulties with Blair’s legacy – most especially the economic crisis and the “war on terror”. The latter remains a running sore for whoever forms the next government, but it is a particular problem for Cameron since it was Tory votes that delivered parliamentary support for invading Iraq in 2003.

Regardless of any scene-shifting in the run-up to the election, we can expect a Cameron government to be thoroughly nasty. There is certainly plenty of evidence. The nastiness came to the fore when Gordon Brown briefly boasted a 10-point lead in the polls in autumn 2007. Cameron delighted the Sun and Daily Mail with a series of speeches on crime while announcing he would cap immigration and cut inheritance tax. He has plans to privatise young offender institutions and much else of the penal system, and has talked of prison ships to house a rising prison population already double its high point in the Thatcher years.

More recently Cameron has spoken of cutting immigration by 75 percent, complaining, “The pressures…on our public services have been very great” – thereby blaming migrants for the cuts to come. He has also pushed traditional Tory values, proposing tax breaks to encourage marriage, and a fresh drive to restrict abortion by cutting the time limit is on the cards, with a shadow cabinet member telling the Financial Times, “We will have the votes to do it.”

In the meantime the Tories have made clear what we can expect as a result of the crisis, consistently attacking Brown for not cutting quicker and deeper, and pledging to slash spending at a faster rate, beginning with an emergency budget inside 50 days of taking office.

Cameron has recently rowed back a little on this, realising it is not a great pre-election pledge and suggesting the cuts this year will “not be swingeing”. But the class he represents, and the party he leads, will demand nothing less. Britain’s fall in GDP last year was its biggest since 1931 and in January Bank of England governor Mervyn King dismissed the extraordinary sums handed to banks and business in the past two years as no more than “a massive sticking plaster”.

So there is every reason to think the likely cuts in the public sector will be worse than anything attempted by Thatcher. However, Cameron faces a series of difficulties. Unlike Thatcher, who could wait years before taking on the miners and plan carefully to break resistance, Cameron will have little room for manoeuvre. He will also lack the luxury of picking on one group of workers at a time when the demand of the elites is for generalised austerity.

He must operate against a backdrop of both a crisis of legitimacy for the established political parties, expressed most recently in the scandal over MPs’ expenses, and an ideological crisis following the failure of neoliberalism – the free market philosophy Thatcher did so much to champion. The market has been seen to fail spectacularly and the ruling class as a whole remains uncertain of the way forward.

Of course, our side starts from a weaker position than in 1979. There is little to compare to the rank and file organisation that existed across key sectors then. Decades of low-level class struggle, a smaller organised left and a moribund Labour Party make the starting point for resistance different from the Thatcher years.

However, the trajectory of the class struggle is also different. Thatcher entered office after several years of attacks and setbacks to working class combativity that were already leading to a downturn in confidence. Cameron may confront no group of workers as tough as the miners, but he will face a return of working class militancy exhibited in a series of strikes and workplace occupations last year. More important, the political terrain is markedly different. The last decade has seen a level of political struggle way in advance of the industrial – from the anti-capitalist movement to the massive opposition to the war.

The level of politicisation is higher still as the fat bonuses and pensions of bosses, bailouts for bankers and MPs cheating expenses contrasts with the austerity preached by all three. The pressures of a system in crisis, a war without end, antagonism from below and a growing fight over climate change mean almost any struggle raises questions way beyond the individual workplace to the way forward for society itself. There is everything to play for.

Cameron’s brief honeymoon

Cameron may not enjoy much of a honeymoon with the press or his own party, despite courting Rupert Murdoch who has declared for the Tories.

Cameron is viewed unsympathetically by some in the Tory press, dating from his time as head of media relations for TV mogul Michael Green.

The Mail on Sunday has described him as “a poisonous, slippery individual…a smarmy bully”, saying, “He hated the financial press and we hated him.”

The Daily Telegraph suggested of the same period, “Cameron never gave a straight answer.” And the London Evening Standard hailed him as “aggressive, sharp-tongued, often condescending and patronising”.

Cameron has also risked alienating Tory grandees such as former Thatcher advertising guru Maurice Saatchi, who has bemoaned the “say anything to get elected Tories”, and his former boss at the Conservative Research Department, Robin Harris, who says, “[Cameron] has no principled sense of direction. [He] would conduct himself on the basis of day-to-day opinion polls.”

The Tory leader is also at risk of embarrassing disclosures – be it about fundraising, his choice of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as press secretary or his tax-exile deputy party chairman Lord Ashcroft among others.

World of privilege

Cameron comes from an establishment family, brought up with hunting and shooting, nannies and maids. He attended the same prep school as members of the royal family, where signs to the toilets addressed “Ladies”, “Gentlemen” and “Chauffeurs”.

He went to Eton the year Thatcher was elected and was at Oxford during the years of Thatcher’s pomp, joining the Conservative Research Department in 1988 and making an expenses-paid trip to apartheid South Africa.

By 1992 he was advising John Major ahead of prime minister’s questions.

He was special adviser to chancellor Norman Lamont in September 1992 when speculators forced sterling out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, and to home secretary Michael Howard in 1993-1994 as Howard expanded private prisons, cracked down on dancing and restricted the right to silence.

Cameron headed corporate affairs for TV boss Michael Green at ITV’s Carlton Communications from 1994 while he sought a safe Tory seat.

Elected in 2001, he told the Daily Telegraph, “There are no obvious areas of policy that need to be dropped.”

In 2003 he voted to retain a version of Section 28 – the discriminatory legislation introduced by Thatcher that prevented any positive reference to homosexuality in schools.

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