This week marks the 40th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher first coming to power as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Between 1979 and 1997, the Conservative Party enjoyed their longest period of electoral success, holding government for almost 18 years and winning four consecutive elections in the process.
A significant amount of this success is rightly attributed to the right-wing, free-market policies of Thatcherism. During her years in office, Thatcher championed the Conservatives as the party of freedom - socially, economically and individually. Breaking the post-war Keynesian consensus of economic policy, Thatcher embarked on a crusade of privatisation, small government and economic liberalisation. However, since they were defeated in 1997, the Tories have slowly parted ways with the Thatcherite policies of the late 20th century, to the extent that there is now a contradictory wish-wash, of pro-market but big-state politics in the Conservative Party.
Indeed, Theresa May all but confirmed the break completely during the 2017 General Election campaign, launching a manifesto of what she called “true Conservatism”. Boldly claiming her Conservative Party “does not believe in untrammelled free markets” Mrs May also rejected “the cult of selfish individualism”, upon which the large success of the Thatcher governments was built. However, this is unlikely to be the party of Theresa May for much longer.
The impending Tory leadership contest will undoubtedly be dominated by Brexit. Mrs May has pledged to stand down as leader once the UK has left the European Union, allowing an alternative figure to lead the subsequent trade negotiations. Despite the contest likely to feature heavily around the Brexit debate, it must also be a clear contest between the market and the state; and the Conservative Party must choose the market.
The 2017 election saw a resurrection of socialism under Jeremy Corbyn, with the Labour Party returning to their core values of the early 1900s. While the Tories saw disappointing results despite managing to retain their position in government, Labour, on the other hand, gained popularity, especially amongst younger voters with the promise of a more inclusive and fairer society. Looking beyond Brexit, the Conservatives must also adopt a return to Thatcherism if they are to be able to combat Mr Corbyn.
Since entering Downing Street, Mrs May has rolled out a number of traditionally left leaning, pro-interventionist policies, some of which were highlighted in the 2017 manifesto. These included pledges, such as a cap on energy prices and cutting benefits for wealthy pensioners, also refusing to rule out tax increases for high earners and vastly increasing spending in the public sector. Far from the small government policies of Thatcher, the Prime Minister seems to be instead promoting the case for government involvement in society and the economy.
Indeed, at the 2016 party conference, she stated that “where markets are dysfunctional, we should be prepared to intervene” promoting “the good that government can do”. However, this approach has been criticised by numerous factions from within the Conservatives. Instead of seeking to appeal to moderate voters in the centre ground, the Conservatives should be championing a real alternative to the socialist programmes advocated by Labour under Corbyn.
In order to increase support amongst young voters, the Conservatives must appeal to their aspirations, as Thatcher did. During her years in office, Thatcher promoted a programme of individual opportunity, with policies such the right-to-buy scheme accompanied by lower taxation, which gave young people the tools to grasp the opportunities of life. A number of prominent Conservative figures have emphasised the need for economic reform and a return to the belief in strong free markets. Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss is one of the principle advocates of the free market in the Conservative Party, recently claiming the UK has a “big opportunity to unleash economic growth, as well as the potential of everyone in the country – giving them the chance to take control of their own lives.”
Furthermore, recent research by the Economic and Social Research Council even suggests that young people support many of Thatcher’s values and policies. “Findings reveal that younger adults appear to have embraced neo-liberal attitudes and beliefs in line with key Thatcherite values. Those aged 25-34 are not only the age group most supportive of such policies, but also show most support (60%) for her economic tenets of low regulation, less tax and reduced trade union power.”
Once Brexit is dealt with, the Tories will need to develop a strong domestic agenda, advocating for real change and once again emphasise the benefits of the free market. Instead of trying to combat Jeremy Corbyn through a mix of big-government and watered down left-wing policies, the Conservatives must present a genuine argument for the free-market and the genuine opportunities it presents.