The “new” in New Labour was skin deep: it marked the party’s capitulation to Thatcher

The 30th anniversary of Lady Thatcher’s election in 1979 – and the beginning of the era of Thatcherism – now looks very different from how it would have been viewed just a year ago. Indeed, one is reminded that Gordon Brown regarded an invitation to the Iron Lady for tea at No 10 as a means by which to lend authority and credibility to his premiership in its earliest days. Would he do so now? Perhaps. But that is mainly because the present Prime Minister is unable to shed his own Thatcherite clothes even though reality is dragging him kicking and screaming remorselessly in that direction. The 30th anniversary of the Thatcherite revolution is taking place at a time when the whole edifice of its assumptions, panaceas and policy prescriptions is crumbling in spectacular fashion. If Thatcherism has defined the zeitgeist of British politics for three decades, suddenly it now seems out of time. That is what historical turning points are about.

Margaret Thatcher was, from the outset, an unusual British political leader. As editor of Marxism Today – in whose pages the term Thatcherism was first used – I sometimes thought of her as a Bolshevik, which in a way she was. Thatcher was a revolutionary who believed that the old social-democratic order, and all its baggage, needed to be overthrown. In neoliberalism – or market fundamentalism – she was possessed of an ideology that informed her every move and gave her an inner strength, a sense of direction and mission, that has been quite alien to the pragmatists that have usually dominated British parliamentary politics.

Not least, it gave her a clear strategic perspective, in that she was the antithesis of Harold Wilson, who dominated the political scene from 1963 to 1976 and who opined that a week was a long time in politics. Strategy, ideology, iron will, revolutionary intent: these were the attributes of an extremely un-British political leader. That she led a party that historically and contemporaneously had been wedded to the status quo, to a tradition of continuity and gradualism and the preservation of Britain as it was, made her Bolshevism even more unlikely.

Seeing things in this light, it is not surprising that it took most political observers – and certainly the Labour Party – the best part of a decade to understand the nature of the beast. Labour, like everyone else, was so steeped in a politics that valued incremental change and had so little time for ideology that it found itself continuously confounded by Thatcher and on the defensive: encircled, beleaguered and defeated. Historically, it is clear that Thatcherism was a very new kind of phenomenon. Unlike the far right, the traditional right had never before seen itself as the outsider, as anti-Establishment, as opposed to the status quo, as desirous of carrying through a fundamental change in the nation’s arrangements and belief systems. It was as if blue had turned red.

The project was to prove enormously politically successful. Thatcher won three general elections; more fundamentally, she changed the way Britain thought about itself, wrought a huge change in the balance of political forces and inflicted a defeat on the labour movement from which it has never recovered. When eventually the Labour Party came to accept that Thatcherism was a completely new kind of adversary, its response was not to engage in a fundamental rethink, but meekly to acquiesce in the new common sense and itself become a creature of Thatcherism. The ‘new’ in New Labour was skin-deep; essentially it marked Labour’s conversion to Thatcherism.

The high-water mark of the British left was the postwar settlement (full employment, the welfare state, the nationalised industries, all of which were to signal a greatly enhanced role for the state), which came to define the underlying assumptions and expectations of British politics for three decades. Its strength and popularity, rooted in the experience of war and depression, was such that the Conservative Party was obliged to acquiesce in the fundamental tenets of the social-democratic era and itself become an integral part of a new political consensus. Never before had the British left succeeded in having such a fundamental influence on British politics and society. Nor since, indeed. Although Labour may have won the past three elections, it has been operating not on its own territory, but on that which it inherited from Thatcherism. Labour’s conversion to Thatcherism represented the historical obverse of its 1945 achievement. If 1945 marked the high point of the British left, 1979 was to signal its nadir.

We are now entering quite a new era. Thatcherism was the quintessential ideology of free-market globalisation. The power of Thatcherism was to recognise the way in which the world – and not only Britain – was changing and thereby also to help shape those changes. The espousal of the City and its deregulation, the embrace of global financial markets, the freeing of the domestic labour market and the opening up of markets in the developing nations transformed the world in the image of neoliberalism. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War further fed a mood of gathering neoliberal triumphalism. It did seem as if there was only one show in town.

The financial crisis that is now wreaking havoc all over the western world, however, tells a very different story. The Thatcherite world is unravelling before our eyes. Its beloved City has been damned in the minds of most, as the shock troops of the neoliberal revolution, the bankers, have become the object of enormous popular anger. The market, the white knight of Thatcherism, has failed in the most spectacular way imaginable. The state is universally seen as indispensable to any solution. In the United States, which for Thatcher was always the compelling model, the new president appears to be on the verge of nationalising the banks; it cannot be long before the same thing happens here. Nationalisation, the state as saviour, the failure of the market, the demise of the City, the rise of protectionism, the decline of the US: on the 30th anniversary of Thatcher’s rise to power, we are witnessing nothing less than the implosion of the Thatcherite project. Its system and credo have landed the country in its greatest economic crisis for 60 years, perhaps much longer.

But just as it took a long time for people to understand the significance and meaning of her rise in the 1970s and early 1980s, so now it is as if the country is in a state of shock, unable even vaguely to comprehend the ramifications of what is happening. The Thatcherite era is dead, but there is nothing at hand to replace it and what will follow remains entirely unclear. The Labour government, meanwhile, remains trapped in its own past, still praying at the Thatcherite altar while in crablike fashion seeking to respond to a crisis caused by the deeds of its patron saint. The political and business elite are flying blind. We are still searching for the bottom of the crisis, whistling to keep our spirits up. We are entering an entirely new, tumultuous and dangerous political era.