UK Conservatives prior to Thatcher

I am watching the fourth season of the Crown, where Margaret Thatcher is a major character. At one point early on it is remarked that her political ideology was a significant deviation from traditional UK Conservative Party thought. However, because I am in the U.S., her brand of free market, small government ideology seems to be exactly what I always assumed conservatism was. Maybe that’s just an American thought though. If she truly represented a change in political thought, what were the UK Conservatives like prior to Thatcher?

My impression is that the difference is much like that between Eisenhower and Reagan, where a nuanced balance between taxes and infrastructure / social services was sought, evolved into just “all taxes are bad and should mostly be used to feed the military industrial complex.”

Since this topic pretty much requires political commentary, let’s move it to Politics and Elections from GQ.

General Questions Moderator

It is now, thanks in large part to Thatcherism, as we call it in the UK. Traditionally, UK conservatives were exactly that - cautious, slow moving, reluctant to interfere. They also supported the post-war consensus in the UK around a strong welfare state and close regulation of the economy. Thatcher was the bull in the china shop, who sought do do away with anything publicly-owned that she could (except the NHS, which was too popular for even she to touch).

Her policies, for example, around private home ownership and destruction of the trade unions and old industries (such as coal), showed how far removed she was from traditional conservatives - she made sweeping changes without regard for the negative consequences (such as making no provision for how to replace jobs lost in the industries she regarded as obsolete, or how allowing people to buy their government owned houses led to huge price increases in housing and a tragic lack of public housing felt to this day). She saw these negatives as necessary evils to achieve her utopia. Traditional conservatives viewed them as reckless.

She was ideologue. Not something you’d normally associate with conservatives, who tend to just like the status quo, particularly in the UK.

Conservatives had, at different times, been low-tax small-staters, but they were also at times the party of imperial expansion and for tariffs rather than free trade. In the 1930s, “third way” thinking grew among the (then) younger generation; and although there were plenty ready to denounce the NHS and the welfare state as tantamount to National Socialism, the 1940s generation took it on board and argued “we can do it better”. What brought them back into office all through the 50s and early 60s was promising (and delivering) 300,000 new houses (much of it social housing) per year (far more than in recent years). They reversed some of the nationalisations, hastened the end of rationing and encouraged a consumer boom, and kept away from any attempts to lessen the power of the unions. They started to make a move away from that sort of consensus politics by the 1970 election, but that started to fall apart within a couple of years partly as a result of the oil shock and being unable to overcome union resistance to wage restraint. The old consensus approach was clearly running out of road. Hence (ultimately) Thatcher.

However, the historical identity of the Tories is not just hesitancy over reform, it is that they see themselves as the natural party of government, whatever it takes in terms of re-positioning themselves as public opinion changes.

There’s an argument to be said that before Thatcher UK Conservatives didn’t have ideology, beyond what they saw as pragmatism, caution and hostility to ideologues.

Yes, that’s true. Way back, up until the 1950s or so, the Conservatives didn’t contest local government elections in that name, because “politics should be kept out of local government”. You would quite often hear of their local councillors (even after they’d dropped labels like “Municipal Reform” or "Ratepayers’ Alliance’) responding to some Labour councillor’s peroration with “Let’s not drag politics into this”.

I’m confused by this statement because when was Eisenhower or Nixon about free market, small government ideology? Eisenhower was responsible for the Interstate Highway System. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (among others).

Churchill weeks after VE Day in 1945 got beaten in a landslide by a socialist Clement Attlee. I use the word socialist because that’s exactly how Churchill described his opponent and he went as far as saying Attlee’s Labour would impose a Gestapo to enforce their agenda.

Between 1945 and 1979 most of the governments, be they Conservative or Labour shared a political consensus. ‘One Nation’ Conservatism for the Conservatives and ‘Social Democrat’ for Labour. The 1970s was a decade where governments of both parties tried to deal with the persistent weakness in the UK economy. In the 1960s the UK accelerated the decolonisation of its overseas Empire and this weakened trade. It was prevented from developing closer economic links with Europe and the predecessor to the EU, the Common Market (thanks to opposition by DeGaulle.) The 1970s was a tough decade. There was an energy crisis and relentless competition on international markets from the emerging economies of Japan and South Korea.

In the 1970s the UK was known as ‘The Sick Man of Europe’ with an economy constantly battling against inflation. Both the Conservatives and Labour tried to reform the major industries but found huge opposition in the form of the labour unions to wage control. The labour unions had serious political power, especially in industries where there was a large, concentrated workforce such a Coal Mining. A miners strike stopped coal getting to power stations and led to elecricity power cuts and three day week. The Conservatives called an election and appealed to the electorate, asking ‘Who Runs Britain’. They lost the election. Labour was elected on the basis that they were the only party that could deal with the unions because of their common socialist heritage. Labour under Callahan bribed them with a 35% pay increase and tried to introduce a ‘Social Contract’ between the government the labour unions. This also failed. In the late 1970s the UK economy was riven with industrial strife. Every labour union campaigned for pay rises for its members and inflation spiralled out of control. The country was in deep trouble and had to apply for emergency loans from the IMF. In 1979 it came to head when it became clear the Labour government could not control the economy by coming to any sort of agreement with the labour unions who seemed quite drunk on the power they could exert. Major industries, facing competition from overseas, wanted the government to bail them out. The leaders of some of the labour unions had a political agenda. The most powerful union, the National Union of Miners was led by a Communist as was the leader of the Scottish miners. This political orientation was quite acceptable in the UK. But they wanted to drive the politics of the UK to the left and force the government to take over businesses through nationalisation, creating centrally planned socialist state. Weaking the businesses through strikes such that the government was forced to take them over.

In 1979 it came to head in dramatic way. The whole political tone of the country changed quite suddenly. There was a mood of utter frustration with the labour unions and a general election brought in Thatcher as leader of the Conservatives.

Just as some of the union leaders were radicals from the left wing, driving the UK towards socialism. Thatcher was radical and wanted for reform the UK economy by releasing industry from the state and union control.

Thatcher capitalised on the frustrations felt by many in the working population of the UK that they were being controlled by over bearing union leaders with a political agendas. She set about implementing a radical agenda. Freeing up all foreign exchange controls to attract foreign investement. Reforming major industries such as Steel production (Coal mining would come later). deregulation and the privatisation of the state controlled industries: Gas, Water, Electricity untilites. Steel production, the Railway network, Telecommuications, Car manufacture. She also had a plan to deal with the Unions and in particular the powerful National Union of Miners, that had brought down a previous government. That face off happened in 1984 and was full of drama. Thatcher had planned a strategy to deal with the NUM and it worked. The strike failed after a year. Cheap coal was imported from overseas. This led to the closure of many pits and the mining communities never really recovered. From 300,000 miners in the 1970s, there are perhaps a few thousand today. It is ironic that one of the consequences of this huge political battle over coal in the 1980s puts the UK in 2020 with very little dependency on Coal for power generation compared to other countries.

Thatcher was despised for this in those working class communities, but she was never interested in winning popularity contests. She saw her job as to perform major surgery on the UK economy. She was voted into office three times and had wide public support and held office until her own party deposed her. But by then most of radical economic changes were done.

Thatcher led the political culture of the UK away from state socialism towards a neo-liberal market economy. The Labour party spent many years out of power, too radical for the tastes of the electorate, until Tony Blair turned it towards becoming a electable centrist Social Democrat party. The Conservatives since Cameron are back to ‘One Nation’ Conservatism and Boris Johnson, another Eton boy, wears that badge.

I am enjoying the parade of Prime Ministers in the Crown series. Gillian Anderson is in fine form as Thatcher.

I think it’s worth pointing out that the Labour government of 1945 was much more “socialist” than “social democratic” in its retention of direct controls on many aspects of economic life. This wasn’t, for some years, particularly unpopular, since the wartime coalition had more directly controlled the economy in some respects (e.g., the conscription of women) than Nazi Germany, and that had won the war. The Tories in their turn maintained the broad consensus on the Keynesian priority on aiming for full employment, and retained direct ministerial control of interest rates through a nationalised Bank of England (that lasted till 1997), but there was a clear divide between the parties on state ownership of what socialists like Nye Bevan called “the commanding heights of the economy” and on deliberate redistributive taxation, pretty well all the way through until the Blair/Brown fudges.

Yes, that is good point. The immediate post war government under Atlee that replaced the Churchill wartime government was indeed radical. It was a full bodied restructing of the economy under big state Socialist principles. After six years of war during which the working population endured great hardships to defend the nation from the Nazis, there was a growing appetite among the electorate for fundamental change. The credibility of the political class represented by the Conservatives was very low. Despite Churchills admirable leadership during the war, the politics he represented had made huge mistakes and there was a resolve to make a some significant changes that benefitted the working classes. They did not have much to work with: a war ravaged nation and an economy in tatters and overseas empire that was restive and anxious for change. The UK was bankrupt, but intact.

The Atlee government achieved some remarkable successes by implementing many of the elements of the Beveridge report on Social Welfare compiled in the inter- war years. This led to the foundation of the principle of Healthcare, Welfare and Education becoming a fundamental responsibility of government to provide the people. This was widely accepted by One Nation conservatives as well. During wartime just about everything was controlled by the state, directed at the war effort. So these collective ideals were not such a big leap.

The UK does not get radical goverments often, but they leave big mark. The Atlee government of 1945-51 and the Thatcher government of 1979-1990 were two examples. They would not have suceeded unless they had popular support. Thatcher was very shrewd, her radical economic reforms were very careful not to touch the National Health Service, which has a status akin to the US right to bear arms. She also kept her enemies in the party close to her. But, by her third adminstation, Thatcherism had run its course.

Other governments tend to go with the flow and mind the shop rather try to introduce any fundamental changes. Consumed by internal party wrangling and dealing with economic and international crises. Blair and Brown did well in promoting their political program of reforming public services, but it was not radical and they did not dismantle a lot of the economic reforms Thatcher left. Social programs need a healthy economy to pay for it all.

The UK has wrestled with the question of what should be a public responsibility and what should be left to private enterprise in the decades since the war. It has sometimes lurched from one extreme to another, seldom finding the appropriate balance. Idealogues on both sides favouring either Keynes or Haytek and usually making a mess of things.

The Crown uses crises and the shifting poltical landscape as a background to punctuate the interpersonal dramas of taking place in the aristocratic bubble. The scenes between the Queen and Thatcher are very well done. Thatcher had bigger fish to fry than dealing with archaic constitutional institutions such as the monarchy so obsessed by protocol. And they clearly did not care much for her petit boureogoise ways. Pretty much as you would expect. They have absolutely nothing in common except their leadership responsibilities and both their roles are quite separate and well understood.

I do hope Netflix or some other company eventually does a series about the goings on in the Trump White House.

So much material there.

After WW2 everyone (well 82% of the population) loved Churchill, but few people loved the Conservative Party. In fact, the party itself had little idea of what it was about. Remember that we vote for parties and not for a PM in the way the US votes for President.

The hero of the day to the millions of troops returning to a devastated and broke country after four years of war and the millions of civilians who came to from their VE day hangovers and looked around at what was left of this country saw Labour and the Beveridge Report as the most promising way forward.

Before and after Thatcher, many of us could barely distinguish between the policies of the two major parties (in part this led to the rise of the Liberal Party). there is an old saying - cometh the hour, cometh the man - Wellington, Churchill and Thatcher all qualify and who knows, maybe Boris will too.

Boris? Surely you jest!

So far his only skill seems to be to appease the Brexit faction in the Conservative Party and drive the country off an economic cliff in the process. His handling of the Covid pandemic has also been full of mistakes and has run up a enormous debt that we will be paying off for a generation to come. Wellington fought Napoleon, Churchill fought the Nazis, Thatcher fought the Cold War. Boris fought off his Old Etonian chums in the Conservative Party for the top job and caught Covid because he was sloppy.

This is not the stuff from which statesmen are made.

Unfortunately we are stuck with him until May 2024. He has until then to pull a rabbit from the hat that lives up to his extravagant metaphors proclaiming the wonderful economic future the UK will have outside the EU. I just don’t see it happening, but I guess we should live in hope.

Unfortunately we are stuck with him until May 2024.

With them, probably, but not necessarily with him. One other consistent feature of the Tory party is the way they can quite brutally defenestrate their leaders if they look like losing their seats. Traditionally, Labour prefers to leave their leaders in post but make life difficult for them.

Johnson is a bit like Trump in enjoying the sloganeering, but not the practical, detailed business of actually governing. Come next May, the elections to the Scottish Parliament and English local government may well be a sharp reality check.

I just want to say Thank You for the UK history lesson! Watching The Crown left me, an American, with so many question as to what problems existed that resulted in the rise of Thatcher, and why her solutions were called for.

Seconded - hell, I’m a Brit and found @filmstar-en’s post extremely helpful. I was born in 1985 so wasn’t politically aware of Thatcher at the time of her power, but I still have a latent distrust of some trade union activities (and by extension, the Labour party) even now. While I can certainly empathise with the miners and anyone whose industry/job is eliminated, as a general principle I don’t think the state should support industries that are not economic just for the sake of them. Though I suppose you could argue - certainly at the time - that the coal industry was a key plank in keeping the lights on. Fortunately (for the environment) not so much now. On the other hand, despite generally having free market capitalist views, I don’t think privatisation of other industries (such as utilities and transport) has worked out so well, since these are essential services for all - and in many cases have become less, rather than more, efficient in terms of cost to the taxpayer.

That would be one difference where I’d be less free market if I were in the UK instead of America, but with regards to food subsidies. Since food can be a medium-term weapon against a country and the UK is a net importer, I would not necessarily support ag subsidies, but they would make more sense than in the US where we do have enough to feed ourselves. (In general, I think the level of pre-Thatcher state control of industries was pretty crazy but now that you mentioned it, it wouldn’t be complete nonsense with regards to coal.)

I think it is worth pointing out that Thatcher was also very lucky as a politician. The country was desperate for an economy that worked and faith in the old consensus was very devalued. She was underestimated by the party hacks in the Conservative party who were looking for a care taker after Heath. Early on she had the Falklands War and that really had the whole country behind her and sealed her status as a leader. The economy also got a boost from North Sea Oil revenues and this allowed some scope to manipulate the economy and there is nothing like a little boom to put the voters in a good mood. There was the business of her spolit son, Mark Thatcher, and a scandal over millions in commissions he recieved on the back of a jet fighter export deal to Saudi Arabia. If that had got out at the time, Thatcher’s political career would have been toast. He was her achilles heel and far more protected and indulged than the Royals. He got away with a LOT of spoilt rich kid stuff. The sort of thing you see in The Crown about men in grey heading off scandals and cover-ups. That habit is every bit as persistent in the political world of Westminster and its House of Cards as it does in the Palace and the House of Windsor.

Very lucky to get the opposition she did - look at the Falklands for one example. A territory which Britain had every legitimate claim to, whose population clearly wanted to remain British, which was attacked without provocation by a literal fascist military dictatorship. The only reason that Labour opposed an obvious war of self-defense against such an obviously morally inferior enemy was because they were so reflexively anti-NATO that they automatically sided with the country’s enemies on every issue. The willingness to let the country fall into near-anarchy in 1979 rather than deal confidently with over-entitled public sector unions seemed like more of the same disinterest in whether Britain had a future at all.

I’ve always gotten the sense from UK leftists that they felt Thatcher’s rise to office was some sort of shock or illegitimate - “no one I know voted for McGovern” taken to an even further extreme. Introspection over exactly how badly the average person who was not part of a coal or garbage strike perceived the party leadership opposing her in 1979 seems few and far between from anyone not named Tony Blair.