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Tories: on a right wing and a prayer

The Tories will again spread discord and disharmony if they win power

Where there is discord, may we bring harmony
Where there is error, may we bring truth
Where there is doubt, may we bring faith
And where there is despair, may we bring hope


With this interpretation of the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi, uttered to a media scrum outside Number 10 Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher began her 11-year premiership. The words did not sound very convincing at the time and it was not clear whether the new Prime Minister was referring to the new Government or simply herself. They at least suggested that, after a charged general election campaign, Britain would be governed as “one nation”. Yet the divisions in the country widened in the 1980s.

Should the Conservatives win the 2010 general election, David Cameron might want to begin with similar words of peace, but it will be the policies which matter.

Thatcher started her premiership with a prayer, so what moral judgement can we make of those Conservative years? Questions of morality and politics immediately become entwined with ideology, because politics is always a question of what is the right thing to do. It is easier to say a policy is wrong than to determine a better course of action. Adding a moral dimension makes things more complicated. As a start, we might look for the promotion of that elusive concept, the common good, which includes a society in which all are valued.

Britain in 1979 was a fraught nation and in a mess. The old levers of economic policy were no longer working and the country suffered high inflation and rising unemployment. With considerable courage and against much opposition, the Labour Government had begun to bring the public finances under control and was looking ahead to an increase in North Sea oil revenues. The public sector suffered and a series of strikes contributed to the “winter of discontent” which helped to eject Labour from office.

Any party winning the election in 1979 faced severe difficulties. The oil price was hiked for the second time in seven years which would help push the world into a deep recession in the early 1980s. British industry needed to modernise to compete, but the high oil price pushed up the pound as North Sea oil output increased, making things much worse. We should not forget that the Cold War was in its fourth decade and the fear of nuclear conflict was pervasive, helping to heighten a general feeling of political angst.

Strong leadership was required, although there was more than one route a government could take. A tough budget from Chancellor Geoffrey Howe raised VAT and limited spending. So it was that the country experienced unemployment over three million for the first time (repeated under John Major). Many workers took industrial action. However, their power, while in some cases considerable, was ultimately limited because the ideology of “creative destruction” of industries prevailed and they had insufficient wider public support. The scale of unemployment and the industries hit by recession meant that whole communities were hit. That legacy remains with us.

Increasing numbers of people out of work presented not only an economic problem, but also a moral issue. The Conservatives’ economic model allowed no time for communities to adjust to changing economic realities and they came across as callous. Church leaders spoke against the Government. In 1985, the Church of England published the groundbreaking report of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas, called Faith in the City. This looked at the causes of urban decay and recommended more dedicated government action. Criticised by some Government supporters as communist-leaning (which might have surprised Karl Marx, who attacked what he called “clerical socialism”), most of the recommendations in Faith in the City were aimed at the church itself. However, it did call for a more proactive Government approach to urban poverty. Its recommendations were ignored by Tory ministers, but the report prompted the church to take action itself, redistributing its income to the poorest parishes.

This sense of a divorce between the radicalised right-wing Government and the church as a guardian of the nation’s conscience had been glimpsed in the response of both to military conflict. The Falklands War helped boost to national confidence, but Thatcher’s triumphalism clashed with the church’s instinctive refusal to celebrate (as opposed to remember) armed conflict. Archbishop Robert Runcie’s thanksgiving service sermon, which mentioned British and Argentinean deaths, did not go down well with some people close to Thatcher. Differences of approach taken by church and state towards apartheid South Africa were also apparent, while at home limited progress was made to heal racial divisions.

Further divisions were exposed in 1986 when the Conservatives tried to legislate for free Sunday trading. This sat oddly with a party which talked so much about family values. Free-market ideology prevailed, but a rare defeat in the House of Lords prevented Sunday trading becoming law until John Major’s premiership.

Thatcher’s Government claimed to be shaking free from the discredited ‘post war consensus’ which had overseen Britain’s decline, with an aggressive focus on free markets. At the same time, the Government used the rhetoric of family and traditional values in social policy. It was unable to reconcile the two. The “Loadsamoney” economic ideology trampled on social relationships. Shortly after the 1980s recession, the divorce rate rose to a new high. Conservative ministers blamed 1960s attitudes, which they believed had weakened the country. However, they could not see that they themselves were children of that decade. The strident individualism of the era of free love had mutated into a loveless economic liberalism and an erosion of community. The focus on individual freedom was turning into a more self-centred culture. This was compounded by the lack of compassion shown in public by many Conservative ministers, who were focused on winning the ideological battles. The nation learned to buy what it wanted on credit but the data show income inequality rose steeply during the Thatcher years.

Thatcherism contained the seeds of its own destruction. While it had seen social division as a necessary side effect of its policies, in the poll tax it seemed to place itself deliberately in opposition to most of the country. By the time of her resignation and contrary to her opening prayer, Thatcher’s Government had brought more discord in society and in some communities more despair.

If we are going to start talking about moral responsibility, we should not ignore our own shortcomings. We might want to argue the left was on the side of the angels, but the moral cause at its heart – equality and social justice – was often compromised by bizarre ideological battles, the ambition of some leaders, woolly economics, and a preference for the security of opposition rather than effective power. It took a monumental effort by Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to realign the Labour Party with the progressive instincts of the nation, where it remains to this day. We have all been profoundly influenced by the Thatcher years. We live in a better country thanks in large part to this Labour Government.

In this election campaign, we are faced with a Conservative Party run by a different generation, but one which looks fondly on the Thatcher years. George Osborne probably fancies himself as a tough Chancellor similar to Geoffrey Howe. Many Tory candidates appear to be ideologically to the right of their leaders’ public statements. What economic policy we can discern from the modern Conservative Party is Thatcherite in principle, focusing on debt reduction ahead of recovery and with no focus on tackling unemployment. The Thatcher years tell us that right-wing economic ideology will always trump pro-community pledges and with serious moral implications. Britain needs to remember that as we approach polling day.

This article was first published in Tribune on 16 April 2010.

Tribune, 19 April 2010, 22/04/2010

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