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Ayushman Jamwal
Tuesday , May 07, 2013 at 00 : 59

Re-engineering the Conservatives: Thatcher's legacy and Cameron's challenge


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In their book Flight of the Buffalo, corporate gurus James Belasco and Ralph Stayer beautifully state the politics of change when they say, "change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have, and underestimate the value of what they might gain by giving that up." Margaret Thatcher, the first female Conservative Party leader and first female Prime Minister of the UK was the harbinger of such change. She clashed with the centuries old economic and class system in her country to keep her nation at the fore front of the free market and globalisation wave. Thatcher had the misfortune of attaining UK's premiership at the height of the recession. The government was compelled to induce a hike in taxes and cuts to the public sector. Under her leadership, the state sold off major state industries including British Telecommunications, British Airways, British Steel, British Gas, the British Airports Authority, and allowed the market economy to decide their life expectancy. These moves at the height of the recession earned Thatcher a notorious image especially among the working class who faced mass unemployment and blocked public services. One of her most famous cuts were removing free milk for school students over the 7th grade which earned her the name Thatcher the Milk Snatcher. But the most dramatic opposition to her economic reform was ignited when her government cut subsidies to loss making coal mines. Thousands of miners were out of work which sparked the 5 year long Miners strike in the early 1980s. Thatcher was loathed by the working class of the UK in those years which fuelled the Opposition and pro-trade union Labour Party campaign titled 'Ditch the Bitch'. Yet, after the military victory in the Falklands where Thatcher was celebrated for protecting British sovereignty against the Argentine junta, she gained the political space to stay the course with her economic reforms. After five years, the unions conceded defeat without a deal in 1985. The victory forged Thatcher's image as the Iron Lady, but widened the ridge between her and the working class of Britain. Yet it was prudence that guided her actions and prudence which laid the foundation of Britain's market boom between 1992 and 2008. Thatcher broadened the appeal for capitalism at a time where the state held too large a position in the national economy and established current economic mantras of de-centralisation, privatisation, home ownership and low inflation, which impacted people across the class lines. Thatcher did not pay the political price for the social fall out of the economic reforms. Her vote bank ballooned with a newly formed middle class and they kept her in power for three consecutive terms. She was in fact ousted by her own party through a leadership challenge in 1990. In the case of the Opposition Labour party, Thatcher's economic overhaul compelled the once pro-trade union party to redefine itself. The 'New Labour' emerged under the leadership of Tony Blair which no longer banked on pandering to the unions and the working class and successfully nestled itself in the then vacant Centre of British politics.

Fast forward to 2010, David Cameron of the Conservative Party became the youngest British Prime Minister in over 200 years, elected to the leadership of the party on the mandate of modernizing it. He ushered the party to power in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrat party throwing the rival Labour Party into Opposition after 13 years in power.

Similar to Thatcher, David Cameron had the bad luck to becoming Prime Minister at the height of credit crisis. Unlike Thatcher, the crisis brought forward the need for implementing financial discipline in the economy, not revolutionary change. Nonetheless, the fallout of every recession is voter fury and David Cameron is facing it every day as implements cuts to public sector services and triples tuition fee for domestic students. The New Labour party under Ed Miliband has soared ahead of the Conservatives in most voter polls as the Tories continue to struggle with losses in almost all by-elections since coming to power.

Given this situation, David Cameron is trying to boost his party's position by trying to supplant the Labour party from the Centre of British politics. In the present scenario, the economy debate has become exhausting and unending with excessive figures and badgering by the Opposition, the political effect of which will naturally go against the government as economic progress continues to fluctuate. Cameron has brought social issues to the centre stage namely gay marriage legislation, immigration reform, and membership to the European Union making them major election issues. However, the super right wing spectre of Margaret Thatcher and the dissatisfaction of the Conservative's coalition partners have made Cameron's effort to modernise his party very challenging.

Margaret Thatcher championed the Christian family values model and amended the Local Government Act in 1988 to include Section 28 which barred local authorities from promoting homosexuality or the publish material with the intention of doing so. Thatcher acolytes reared their heads when the British Parliament passed the Bill legalizing gay marriage in February, where 136 of the 175 MPs who opposed the Bill were Conservative. On membership to the European Union, David Cameron and Thatcherism have almost the same views, where both oppose a transnational federal structure and an imposition of legislation from Brussels. Yet, party members see Cameron's stance towards the EU as weak as compared to Thatcher who used to make sharp remarks against European Federalism. In 1988, she remarked that, "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level". Anti-EU sentiment is high in Britain and 81 MPs of the Conservative Party have called for an immediate in and out referendum. As Cameron tries to get a Britain friendly EU membership treaty, he is taking a beating in the polls and facing increased infighting in his own party. Sensing the political climate, he has promised an in and out referendum on Europe if the Conservatives win the elections in 2015. However, the issue has caused fissures in the coalition as the Liberal Democrats have opposed a referendum with Party Leader and Deputy PM Nick Clegg saying it is against national interests.

On immigration, there is peace in the Conservative Party with a consensus on their election pledge to cut net migration to less than 100,000 a year by 2015. But it's not so rosy with the coalition partners. The UK Business Secretary and Lib Dem Chief Vince Cable has opposed the Conservative pledge, saying current immigration rules were deterring entrepreneurs and students from entering the UK, a dispute the Conservative have not yet resolved. A bigger problem for the Conservatives is how the European Union has led to mass immigration from poorer members of the EU through the free Labour movement clause of the EU treaty. This has lead to the UK Independence Party to emerge as a dark horse in the British political scene, taking up the extreme right of politics on immigration currently abdicated by the Conservative Party. UKIP has been able to capitalise on the hardening of the public mood against the EU and mass immigration, coming a close second to both the Labour and Conservative party in major by-elections, defeating the Coalition's Liberal Democrats by a large margin. Interestingly, they seem to have adopted Thatcher's views on immigration who adopted a similar hard line. While Thatcher's government did not oppose mass immigration, naturally to fuel the privitisation wave she had started, according to files released by the National Archives in 2009, she expressed personal fears that Britain was being "swamped" by immigrant cultures. She also added that there was no "humanitarian case for accepting immigrants from south Asia and elsewhere. It was essential to draw a line somewhere". This is very similar to narratives of UKIP chief, Nigel Farage as his party becomes a force to reckon with in British politics.

It is a challenging situation for David Cameron to be surrounded by such political and economic upheaval. A nationwide UK poll in February placed him fifth in the ranking of eight British premiers of the last 50 years, but his situation seems worse as compared to Margaret Thatcher, who interestingly was placed at the top of that poll. Thatcher took necessary steps to re-invent the British economy. But while the overhaul was loathed by millions, the Opposition Labour Party did not garner the political mileage to overthrow her and in fact was forced to re-invent itself. As Cameron tries to take equally important steps to boost the British economy, he is faced with greater political odds trying to keep the Conservative ship afloat through voter fury, party infighting, coalition dissatisfaction and the emergence new political players. Yet, the ghost of Thatcher is the biggest challenge he faces as he tries to achieve the Centre of British politics and redefine the Conservatives for the 21st century. He may pay the political price, but like Thatcher maybe history will see him more favourably.


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More about Ayushman Jamwal

Ayushman Jamwal works on the foreign desk at CNN-IBN.

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