Sunday, 16 September 2007

Did we need Thatcher?

Making no apologies for the dreadful spelling (no doubt they'd say this can be blamed on the Tories' education policies in the 1980's), this post and its thread on LabourHome at least dares to ask if, 25 years later, the Thatcher reforms were in fact necessary. You get an interesting mixture of daft bigots and tentative realists.

My answer has normally been: yes, they surely were. But the fruits of such reforms are now mostly enjoyed by the Labour government. If you ask why the British economy has been stronger than the Continental since the early 1990's, it is a combination of being chucked out of the ERM and the basic flexibility bequeathed by Thatcherite reforms. However, you can also trace the genesis of some of more worrying social trends to the unemployment and dislocation that occurred at the time. It's unfair, but Labour spending what the Tories fought for is probably the right way round.

The Brown-Thatcher photocall has, for me, stimulated a welcome shedload of worried debate from both wings of the political spectrum, which I love for it getting at what the parties really think. Even The Economist gets involved, and as usual hits the nail on the head in Bagehot (Note to self: get Bagehot biog to complement Lombard Street). Labour learnt and benefited from the Thatcher period, and "Brown's economic policies are essentially Thatcherite": low-ish income taxes, none of the traditional loathing for entrepreneurs, flexible labour market (hmmmm). No doubt the Tories would love to fling this in his face, but a Swing Voter likes to hear that Labour have learnt off the Right. Changing your mind is a sign of intelligence: the great Keynes, surely even more quoteable than Smith, said, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" Admitting that, be it in Westminster or the blogosphere, is a sign of greater maturity than most can muster.

Both parties need to manage the trick of conceding that the other side had a good point about a few things (I don't see the Tories or anyone advocating 1995-levels of NHS spending), without losing face. The question for me seems to be which one comes under worse pressure to 'stay true to its roots/principles'. So far, the answer seems clear. And the Tories continue to struggle partly because the alluring ghost of Thatcher is still so real to them. By the time Blair had terminate his extremists, they had no living saint (like, say, a 111-year old Atlee) to chide him and slow it down.

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