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Comparable revolutions? Thatcherism 79 and Labour 97

David Halpern, Stewart Wood

First published in Renewal volume 4, number 4 (1996), pp. 10-18


The comparison between the Thatcher revolution and the transformation which Tony Blair hopes to bring about is more natural than might appear at first sight.


The comparison is frequently made between the Thatcher revolution and the transformation which the Labour Party under Tony Blair hopes to bring about after the next election. It is a comparison that is more natural than might appear at first sight. Blair argues, as did Thatcher in 1979, that we are at a crucial turning point. An ideology that has been ascendant for a number of years, and which has sustained one-party government for over a decade and a half, has reached the end of the road, proving both to be intellectually bankrupt and electorally unpopular. In response, Blair claims to be offering, as Thatcher did 17 years ago, an alternative vision of government, society and citizenship, one which marks a significant break with the status quo. The ability of Tony Blair to emulate Thatcher's electoral success hangs largely on whether the Labour Party is able successfully to convey a coherent sense of what it is that they are rejecting, and what is being offered in its place.

One way of measuring Labour's progress on this front is to compare the 1979 Conservative Party manifesto with the claims most recently expressed by Tony Blair in The Road to the Manifesto. The two positions and documents can be compared on four levels: historical context, political ideology, policy content and group interests. The 1979 Conservative manifesto succeeded because it worked on all four of these levels. While the historical context suggested the need for urgent political action, the manifesto presented a plausible and coherent political philosophy, a clutch of dramatic illustrative policies, and suggested a political direction that appeared to represent the interests of a very broad base of the electorate. The question is, does Blairism and The Road to the Manifesto offer the same type of 'winning combination'? Will political commentators in 2014 look back to the 1997 Labour Party manifesto as some now look back to 1979?


Historical context

By the standards of today, the '79 Tory manifesto is a dull looking document. There is not a photograph or illustration in it, not even on the cover. It consists simply of text, and is rather short at that. However, despite the lack of photographs, the whole document is dominated by one image - the 'winter of discontent' that preceded the election:

During the industrial strife of last winter, confidence, self-respect, common sense, & even our sense of common humanity were shaken. At times this society seemed on the brink of disintegration. [p. 6]

More than anything else, it is this image that is used as the hook on which all the other strands of the manifesto are hung. Stripped of this image, the other elements of the manifesto would have lost much of their edge. The issue of industrial unrest was also one which had plagued the Conservatives' time in office just five years before, and therefore required a strong response. Is there a comparable problem or issue of our age to which the politicians of 1997 will have to respond?

The candidates form a depressing list: insecurity, 'sleaze' in public office, homelessness, long-term unemployment, high and rising inequality, crime rates, BSE, relations with Europe, the decline of public services, lack of democratic accountability, and so on. The list is long, but although many of these problems are serious, widespread and deep, they also tend to be complex and nebulous – their impact is not quite as immediate or startling as piles of uncollected rubbish. This is especially true of some of the most discussed of these problems, such as insecurity, inequality and sleaze. Perhaps more importantly, the (now) chronic nature of these problems, and the repeated claim of the Conservatives that nothing is the fault of, or can be prevented by, government, have left the electorate sceptical, negative and pessimistic that anything can ever be done about these problems.

Why should people believe Tony Blair et al. any more than the 'current lot'? An electorate educated to be cynical about the transformative capacity of government, combined with the absence of a single dominating and graphic image of their opponents' failure, is perhaps Blair's greatest problem. Yet as we shall see, in other respects, comparisons of Thatcher '79 with Blair '96 are generally favourable to Blair and New Labour.


Political philosophy

Thatcher opened the '79 manifesto with the comment, 'For me, the heart of politics is not political theory, it is people and how they want to live their lives'. This said, the second strand of the manifesto is very much what most people would call political philosophy. The manifesto argued that 'the balance of our society has been increasingly tilted in favour of the state at the expense of individual freedom'. In essence, the philosophy was simply that as the state was enlarged individual liberty was diminished, and that this 'crippled the enterprise and effort' on which a prosperous country depended. Added to this, of course, there was the beautifully simple confidence in the invisible hand of the market, individual enterprise and the now infamous trickle-down theory, captured in the statement: 'we want to work with the grain of human nature, helping people to help themselves – and others' [p. 7]. Unsurprisingly, the irony that it was to require an even stronger state to carry out other Thatcherite policies was not considered. But in the historical context, it was a philosophy that seemed plausible, attractive, and easy to understand, and it appeared to provide a coherent basis for some popular, 'common-sense' policies.

Does The Road to the Manifesto offer a similar easy-to-understand philosophy on which its policies and solutions can be seen to stand? The answer to this question appears to be 'yes' and 'no'. The Road to the Manifesto appears to be based on a considerably more sophisticated philosophy than the populist libertarianism of the '79 Tory manifesto, but this sophistication may also be its weakness in that it may be more difficult to communicate in a snappy, accessible form. In part, its philosophy can be seen as a correction comparable to that offered by Thatcher, though in the opposite ideological direction, of our understanding of the relative importance of the community or collective compared to the individual. The new path is to be based on the principle that:

...the individual does best within a strong and unified society, where we acknowledge that success depends not just on the striving of the individual but on working together. [p. 5]

Yet it is clear that the political philosophy on which the Road is written is more than just a move in the opposite direction to Thatcher, as in many respects it has taken on board the concerns and desires expressed in the '79 manifesto. Individual liberties are clearly respected, there is a sharp awareness of the need to have effective individual-level incentives to work and there is a commitment to avoid and reduce the types of high marginal tax rates that undermine incentives.

However, these issues are incorporated in a much wider and deeper causal understanding of the way in which societies, and the individuals within them, interact. Most notably, there is a more sophisticated understanding of the issues of risk, uncertainty and moral responsibility. For example, a theme that is addressed across all four sections of the Road is insecurity and how the state can fulfill a positive role in attenuating this. In essence, what is being suggested is to conceive of the state as an intelligent 'insurer-investor' that seeks to protect and encourage individual incentives to work (and to impose sanctions to discourage the dumping of costs or harm on others) for things that are under the control of the individual, while simultaneously seeking to spread the risks and opportunities that are beyond the individual's control. Such an approach makes sense because it serves both the goals of increasing efficiency (through incentives, meaningful 'price signals' etc.) and social justice (by eliminating externalities, applying 'premiums' according to moral responsibility etc.). It is an approach intended to encourage personal responsibility and reward, while simultaneously reinforcing the fabric of our relationships to, and understanding of, one another. Finally, we might note that this approach is founded on a much richer understanding of causal processes than is found in the '79 manifesto.

If there is a down-side to the Road, it is that its philosophy and organising principles are largely implicit. It is probably this, more than anything else, that leads some commentators to complain that there is no 'big idea' – it is obviously there, but you do have to work at it to pull it out.



What most people want to talk about is not political philosophy, but policy — what does it mean to me, my family and my community? A curious irony about the '79 Tory manifesto is that, despite its protestation against theory, it is relatively thin in terms of policy detail – indeed in its opening section it admits to its audience: 'Those who look in these pages for lavish promises or detailed commitments on every subject will look in vain' (p. 7). This is particularly striking given the accusation by some on the right that The Road to the Manifesto lacks such detail. On the face of it, the Road has considerably more policy detail in it than the '79 manifesto.

Rather than offer detail, the '79 Conservative manifesto concentrated on a few selected policies. This approach also made sense in that the implications of these policies, especially the details of the cuts that would be needed to finance many of them, could be avoided. The main stated policies were: to master inflation through 'proper monetary discipline' and control over 'the growth of the money supply'; to cut income and capital taxes; to reform the Trade Unions; to reverse nationalisation (specifically Aerospace, shipbuilding and the National Freight Corporation); to promote the sale of council houses; and to increase defence spending. Of these, by far the most detailed proposals were those concerning the reform of the trade unions. Of course, many of the policies that people think of as being introduced in 1979 were actually introduced during the second term, and in many areas, such as health, criminal justice or Europe, the policy commitments made in the '79 Conservative manifesto bear little resemblance to those that eventually emerged.

The comments on Europe look particularly amusing in today's political context:

If we wish to play our full part in shaping world events over the next few years, we must also work honestly and genuinely with our partners in the European Community … the frequently obstructive and malevolent attitude of Labour Ministers has weakened the Community as a whole and Britain's bargaining power within it. By forfeiting the trust of our partners, Labour have made it much more difficult to persuade them to agree to the changes that are necessary in such important areas as the Common Agricultural Policy, the Community budget, and the proposed Common Fisheries Policy. The next Conservative government will restore Britain's influence by convincing our partners of our commitment to the Community's success. This will enable us to protect British interests and to play a leading and constructive role in the Community's efforts to tackle the many problems which it faces. [pp. 29-30]

The moral from this seems to be that when a nation's leaders have lost their way and are unsure of their own purpose, the world outside is portrayed as a hostile and suspicious place. It should also serve as a reminder of the long history of difficulties that British governments of all persuasions have had in their relations with Europe. Less amusing are the now-hollow claims in the '79 manifesto that the policies presented would create employment and reduce crime.

When we turn to The Road to the Manifesto, one can see many of the same concerns to protect individual liberties and to ensure that incentives are strong and effective. However, in line with the philosophy described above, there is a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of the causal processes that underlie social problems, a less selective application of key principles, and, of course, a real concern about issues of social justice. Hence, alongside the commitment to maintain incentives though the continued avoidance of high marginal tax rates for the relatively affluent is the commitment to reduce the much higher effective marginal tax rates for those seeking employment (through, for example, the introduction of a minimum wage). But the underlying principle has two sides reflecting a deal or 'contract' between individual and community: rewards should be appropriate to efforts, but the state should seek to attenuate the effects of arbitrary and brute luck.

In educational policy, for example, the priority is to ensure a high-quality but free primary and secondary school system, maximising the opportunities for all regardless of background or social position (the pledge to cut class sizes); while in higher education individuals are expected to take at least some responsibility for their own decisions and efforts (income contingent graduate loans).

Similarly, these same principles are reflected in the application of the 'polluter pays' principle in environmental policy, and, in criminal justice policy, in a faster-track system of sanctions combined with a serious attempt to tackle causes of crime through both incentives-promoting and capability-promoting policies (the ambitious plan to train and/or employ a quarter of a million under-25s).

This twin-track approach is coupled with a practical focus on investment (and the solution of 'collective action problems' such as those that affect in-firm vocational training) and basic managerial good practice, including tight public finances, the application of the Golden Rule, and a continued commitment to low inflation.

A related way of viewing the policies contained in the Road is to see them as systematically responding to widespread concerns over insecurity, or the 'Anxious Middle' as this phenomenon is now sometimes termed. An unstable economy, job insecurity, crime, disease, accidents of birth, arbitrary abuses of power, international threats – what these all have in common is that they are influences that are largely beyond the control of individuals and small communities, yet can have a massive and devastating effect on them. It is the state's unique powers to attenuate the effects of these arbitrary forces that make it worth having. The state is uniquely placed to help create predictable conditions of low inflation and stability, to offer a safety-net and training in the event of unemployment, to uphold the law and prevent crime, to offer health care at a price regardless of individual genetic make-up or misfortune, and so on. In essence, the state can play a positive role in securing protection against insecurity – and at a constant price or premium – in a way that even the most efficient pure market cannot deliver.

The other theme that runs through the policy proposals in The Road to the Manifesto is the reformation and opening of the policy-making process. When we look back over the last 17 years, it is difficult to believe that the '79 Conservative manifesto promised to improve parliamentary control over the executive and even to discuss a possible Bill of Rights. The prevalence of sleaze, secrecy and unaccountability in government makes it imperative that the Labour Party have clear policies to open up the policy-making process. In this respect, it is encouraging that the Road presents not only some of the larger democratic reforms with which we are already familiar, such as proposals for regional devolution (including for London), the introduction of democratic oversight into regional quangos and reform of the House of Lords, but also subtler reforms to the policy-making process, such as the commitment to re-introduce the use of the Special Standing Committee procedure, abandoned in the mid-1980s under pressure from Ministers unhappy about being called to account for the rationales behind proposed legislation.

Finally, one of the most refreshing aspects of the Road is the recognition that policy issues are linked. This apparently modest insight, if implemented, actually represents a quantum leap forward in political thinking, especially if government departments can be encouraged to co-operate across existing demarcations. Presumably such a shift reflects a preparedness on the part of Labour to examine causal relationships within issue-areas rather more closely than has been the case in recent years. Hence, Labour's endorsement of increased investment in people, especially at young ages, makes sense not only for classical economic reasons, but also because it is seen as a way of creating opportunities for individuals, a more inclusive society and of heading off a variety of social problems before they arise. The style of these policies is also striking in that the implicit time-scales stretch beyond a single parliamentary term and indicate a serious commitment to address problems in their own terms rather than simply chasing the electoral cycle.


Group interests

In the '79 Tory manifesto, the phrase 'privilege without responsibility' was used to great effect (referring, of course, to the trade unions). Surely this is a phrase that will return to haunt the present administration, but with reference now to the conduct of the privatised utilities and the cluster of other interests that have abused the privileged position they have been given, whilst remaining unanswerable to the general public for their activities.

One of the obvious shifts that will occur upon a change of administration will be towards a greater concern for the disadvantaged. However, under New Labour, and as reflected in the Road, this is not a simple shift to policies that will favour a particular socio-economic class, but again one that reflects a concern with the specific causes of relative advantage and disadvantage. The unemployed and the poor are no longer seen as an undifferentiated group, but as individuals who should be encouraged and assisted in regaining employment. Hence, for the long-term unemployed, opportunities for re-training and work are offered, but the option of refusing such opportunities and continuing on benefit is closed. The treatment of the 'well-off' is equally differentiated. For example, the Road discriminates between policies regarding profits that are made through competition and those that are made through monopoly privileges bestowed by the community.

For a political party to really make a difference it must stay in power for longer than just a single term, and to do this it needs to draw on support from a wide base, not just a particular group interest. The Conservatives were able to do this, at least in part, by convincing a broad sweep of the middle classes that a minimalist state and ever lower taxes would benefit them as well as the very affluent. New Labour appears to be well placed to achieve similar popular support — though hopefully with a sounder empirical base to support its claims. Given that the types of insecurities that used to be thought of as the exclusive province of the working class have spread into the middle classes, New Labour's model of the insurer-investor state is capable of capturing widespread support, especially given that these insecurities look likely to continue into the foreseeable future. Thatcher's vision of Britain, and of the powers of the state that governs it, is no longer adequate to cope with the challenges faced by the majority of citizens. The state cannot eliminate the process of change, cannot solve all of society’s ills, and is not unique in its ability to provide the public with services. However, the state is unique in its ability to regulate, facilitate and spread risk and opportunity in the interests of justice and efficiency for the whole community.



Against the dramatic historical background of the winter of discontent, the 1979 Conservative manifesto offered a winning formula of a simple political philosophy, a small clutch of immediately appealing and plausible policies, and the perception that a broad majority would benefit from the approach. There were many flaws and omissions to the analysis, but there was enough that was plausible and attractive to make it a common-sense alternative for a weary public.

The formula offered in The Road to the Manifesto has many of the same components. The historical context provides a number of glaring problems that the present government seems unable or unwilling to address, notably sleaze in public office, the abuse of 'privilege without responsibility' (to use the phase of '79) in the boardrooms of the monopolies, a multitude of insecurities and anxieties experienced by the broad majority, and a political culture of short-termism coupled with a reluctance to invest. It may of course be that in terms of engineering dramatic images of political decline, none of these problems will be as potent as those of unburied bodies or uncollected litter, though their ultimate sociological and economic effects are certainly deeper and longer-lasting.

The political philosophy that runs through the Road is relatively subtle but it remains largely implicit. In essence, it is about giving people and communities as much responsibility and power as possible over the things that they can reasonably control, while at the same time using the state as an insurer-investor to spread opportunities and protect people from, or spread, the risks over which individuals have no control, such as ill-health, structural unemployment, unstable inflation, crime and so on.

The Road offers a range of policies reflecting this approach, including a dramatic redirection of resources towards the education of the young, the cutting of youth unemployment through training and (where necessary) state-sponsored employment, cautious but investment-driven economic policy, and a radical shake-up and opening of government itself. Rather like the '79 Tory manifesto, many of these policies are as much suggestive of priorities than descriptive of a detailed policy programme, and are essentially modest. This modesty will disappoint some, but the fact is that most social and economic problems have deep roots and, given the nature of their causes, take many years to turn around – and certainly more than a single term in office. Blair cannot rely on the twists of fate that brought Thatcher her second term, but must instead build up trust between his government and the people. He will not be rewarded with a second term by unrealistic promises and a disappointed electorate. But for those who will read The Road to the Manifesto carefully, as with the Conservative manifesto in 1979, clues can be seen for how policy will unfold not just over five years, but over a generation.

Finally, as in 1979, there is a clear sense in which the majority interests lie with those who want change. This is not because of a radical shift to the 'right' as some have claimed, but because the philosophy and policies offered will genuinely move Britain towards being a more meritocratic society, and away from a society characterised by inherited or politically-allocated privilege. This means a society in which the hard-working, be they brick-layers or wealthy entrepreneurs, will benefit from their efforts; a society in which the social fabric that makes life a pleasure rather than a burden is reinforced, not eroded; and a society in which politics is owned by the majority, not the few.


The authors would like to thank Helen Thompson and Desmond King for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article. 

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