Is there life left in Thatcherism a quarter of a century after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister?
Of course Margaret Thatcher is important for more than the ideas which bear her name.
She was a phenomenon. Her personality changed the way we see the role of the Prime Minister.
The force of her will demonstrated that events are not driven by irresistible forces.
When she was elected the conventional wisdom was that the advance of socialism and state power were inevitable. Even senior Conservatives believed we could only manage socialism better and slow its march. Her great contribution was to reject that defeatism. Her success in rolling back the power of the state in the UK even helped trigger the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe.
Convinced that if something is not desirable, it is not inevitable she became the first Prime Minister since Churchill to repudiate the belief that the tide of European federalism was irresistible. The fact that the British people are to have a choice on the EU constitution is a consequence of her willingness to challenge the dogma of inevitability.
But above all Thatcherism is a body of ideas. No previous Prime Minister has been more conscious of the importance of ideas. She was ridiculed for sitting at the feet of Hayek and Joseph. She often quoted Keynes’s dictum that “the ideas of economists and philosophers… are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt form any intellectual influences, are usually slaves to some defunct economist … the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”
The dominance of her ideas has proved him right. In the economic sphere they have won the day – displacing socialism as the dominant paradigm. Tony Blair is enslaved by them. Brown practices the policies he preached against.
But Thatcherism was never just an economic doctrine. If it had just been about revitalising the British economy – then once that mission was successfully accomplished it would have had no further role. Politics would move on to a new agenda on which it had nothing to say.
Sadly some on the Right assumed that was the case. They filled the gap with populist policies lacking any coherent intellectual basis.
One of the biggest handicaps the Conservatives faced at the last election was the perception that our policies were negative and punitive.
Not just on crime, but also on asylum seekers and drugs, Conservatism seemed to be about locking people up – whereas Thatcherism had always been about setting them free.
The Party seemed to believe in economic freedom and social coercion – a combination which made little sense.
Machiavelli once said that if a party is to regain its vitality it must return to the underlying principles on which it was constituted. And the fundamental idea which underlies the whole Thatcherite approach has been about freedom: freedom with responsibility, freedom within a spontaneous order under rules and institutions which have evolved by trial and experience not been imposed by an enlightened elite.
There is a whole new agenda of issues to which that paradigm can be fruitfully applied.
The outlines are already emerging of policies based on extending freedoms in five areas.
First, economic freedom will remain important – not least because the freedoms which generate our economic success are being eroded by stealth taxes and stealth regulation.
Second, freedom of choice in the public services. That does not mean privatising finance in health or education. Margaret Thatcher never even contemplated that. But users of public services – patients, pupils, parents – must have a genuine choice between a diversity of providers. To make that choice effective taxpayers’ money must follow the users’ choice. And users must have the information to make informed choices.
Third, freedom in people’s private lives. Margaret Thatcher was not the author of ‘Back to Basics’. She knew the state would be even less successful interfering in people’s personal affairs than it was in running businesses. Only if private behaviour has serious social consequences, there is widespread acceptance that the law should intervene and it can actually make things better – three pretty tough conditions – should the state intervene. People are more likely to behave responsibly the more responsibility they are allowed to exercise over their own lives. That is why I concluded we should abandon the attempt to prohibit cannabis since we merely drive soft drug users into the arms of hard drug pushers.
Fourth, freedom under the law. Our traditional liberties based on jury trial, the presumption of innocence, the double jeopardy rule and habeas corpus are under threat from an unprincipled alliance between tabloid populism and this government’s modernising zeal. We should be reinforcing, not abandoning, rules which have evolved successfully over centuries.
Finally, freedom to govern ourselves. Britain should not be planning to transfer more powers to European institutions but to negotiate the restoration of powers which are not really needed for a Single Market and Community of Nations.
There is meat there to develop the Thatcherite legacy for another decade or two.