The backward march of Toryism

Pete Dorey examines the unravelling of Thatcherism and neoliberalism – and the Conservatives’ authoritarian response 

It is with a blend of grim satisfaction, and some trepidation, that one watches the Conservative Party’s three decades of slavish subservience to Thatcherism and neoliberalism steadily unravel, and the oft-repeated arguments eulogising the free market and deification of business leaders turn to dust. Yet as the failures and fallacies of market mania become ever clearer, so the Conservatives’ implacable Thatcherite ideologues lash out, both against other Conservatives for alleged betrayal, and against sundry sections of British society, who are either blamed for the country’s problems, or who might usefully serve to divert public attention from the craven connivance of the Conservative right itself in subjecting the nation to the Diabolical Trinity of Thatcherism, neoliberalism and Brexit.    

The premises and promises of Thatcherism have proved erroneous at best and downright dishonest at worst. One by one, the alleged benefits of unleashing market forces and unshackling big business have proved egregiously false. The much-vaunted trickle-down of wealth, which was supposed to accrue from making the rich even richer, evaporated long before it reached ordinary people, and, instead, we have CEOs and shareholders routinely paid millions of pounds, while many shop-floor or customer-facing workers – the real wealth creators – are paid the minimum wage and rely on food banks and/or top-up welfare benefits to survive. Moreover, contrary to the Thatcherite premise that earnings and wealth are correlated to effort and hard work, millions of British workers are working harder and/or longer than ever before but are no better off than they were 10-15 years ago; they are expected merely to be grateful they still have a job – until it is replaced by AI and a smart robot. 

Meanwhile, Thatcherites repeatedly promised that privatisation would yield lower prices and higher quality services as the newly private companies and industries competed against each for customers; the consumer would be sovereign. Yet the reality has often been the opposite of what was promised: Britain’s privatised railways have become renowned for ever-higher fares, unpredictable cancellations or late running of services, overcrowded trains due to lack of rolling-stock and, on some lines, uncomfortable carriages in which the rows of hard seats are akin to those found in buses. Elsewhere, some of our privatised water companies pump raw sewage into Britain’s rivers and seas while paying eye-watering dividends to their shareholders, rather than investing the money into improved infrastructure and repairing leaks in the underground pipes conveying water. 

There are, of course, very many other policy areas where Thatcherism has not delivered what it promised – often the opposite, in fact – but these two examples starkly illustrate the point. The next question, then, is how is the Conservative Party responding to the increasingly evident failings of decades of neoliberal nihilism? There are three main, but interlinked, responses. 

The first is vehemently to deny that Britain’s increasing economic and social problems are due to the contradictions and consequences of Thatcherism itself. On the contrary, it is variously argued that the Thatcherite revolution is incomplete, having allegedly been abandoned or betrayed by post-Thatcher prime ministers like John Major, David Cameron, Theresa May and, allegedly, Rishi Sunak, the latter having been accused by Lord Cruddas of leading a social democratic government. For today’s Thatcherites in the Conservative Party – whose numbers have greatly increased since the 1980s, certainly in terms of the veneration of economic liberalism and worship of ‘the market’ – the solution to contemporary socio-economic problems is more contracting-out of public services, more deregulation, more labour market flexibility, more privatisation, more supply-side economics, more curbs on trade unions and workers’ rights, more tax cuts, and more cuts in welfare provision; Thatcherism mark II.  

Rather like the old Soviet Communists, Thatcherite Conservatives cannot consider or concede that their inhumane ideology is intrinsically fundamentally flawed and doomed to fail. Instead, what is apparently needed is either for more time and patience so that the theoretical benefits of the ideology can be realised in practice, or simply for the ideology to be pursued and implemented with more energy and enthusiasm. Implicit in this last assumption is the Conservative right’s suspicion that the successful implementation of Thatcherism has hitherto been sabotaged by hostile elements in the deep state, who therefore need to be replaced by more obedient and reliable public servants; for example, appointing more senior civil servants on explicitly political grounds, rather than proven competence, experience and merit.    

This leads us to the second response of the Conservative right to the increasing – and increasingly obvious – socio-economic problems bequeathed by decades of Thatcherite neoliberalism – namely, repeated attacks on supposedly anti-Conservative and anticapitalist institutions such as the BBC, the Church of England, the civil service, the ‘education establishment’, the left-wing media (!), the public sector, and the universities. It is testimony to how far the Conservative Party has moved to the hard right that pre-Thatcherite Conservatives were committed to the defence of these established institutions, which seemingly embodied accumulated wisdom, constituted a vital source of social unity and stability, and provided a vital link between the past, the present and the future. Now these institutions are regularly denigrated by the Conservative right and subjected to a campaign of mendacious misrepresentation and malevolent mockery: the BBC is routinely denounced for disseminating left-wing propaganda; the Church is derided for meddling in politics when archbishops denounce poverty or homelessness, the civil service is disparagingly referred to as ‘the blob’, the public sector is invariably described as ‘bloated’ and paying ‘gold-plated pensions’; and universities are repeatedly depicted as being ‘Marxist-dominated’ and offering ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees (if the last was true, the universities would merely be responding to consumer demand, which Thatcherites ought to be delighted about!). All these institutions are therefore being subject to increasing political censorship, intimidation and threats, as the Conservative descendants of Thatcherism seek to suppress or discredit alternative ideas and values – even while condemning ‘cancel culture’ and threats to the sanctity of free speech.

Following on from ideological counter-attack is the third response by the Conservative right to the depredations of neoliberalism and its mounting social problems, namely the recent launch of the ‘culture war’. The aforementioned attack on established civic institutions is being buttressed by the identification or ideological creation of new targets against which British people’s day-to-day anger and frustrations can be directed, and thus their attention diverted from the underlying causes and responsibility for chronic job insecurity, decimated high streets, poverty wages, student debt, unaffordable housing and underfunded public services.  

The right have thus launched an ideological offensive against environmentalists and social justice campaigners, denouncing or deriding Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion and #MeToo, all of which are derided as being ‘woke’: the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, recently sneered at the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating Wokerati”. Moreover, when (mostly young) people condemn or campaign against homophobia, racism, sexism or transphobia, the Conservative right brand them as ‘snowflakes’ who are hyper-sensitive and too easily offended and, therefore, need to acquire resilience and tolerance of other views beyond their social media ‘bubble’ or echo chamber.

By waging this culture war or ‘war against woke’, the Thatcherite descendants among the Conservative right seek simultaneously to promote divide-and-rule by turning different sections of British society against each other to prevent a more unified political offensive against neoliberalism and the Conservatives’ central role in actively pursuing it since the 1980s, while also appealing to the social authoritarianism of many of the party’s supporters and the Tory press, who will warmly welcome the curbs on ‘disruptive’ protests, and the purported defence of social tradition against the supposedly liberal elites and militant minorities allegedly imposing their extreme views on the hard-working, law-abiding, patriotic majority.  

This is why we referred to a sense of trepidation at the start of this article, because history has repeatedly shown that when capitalism enters crisis mode, and its critics become more assertive in highlighting its contradictions and limitations, Conservatives have moved to the right and become increasingly authoritarian towards liberals and the left – who are themselves blamed for causing the nation’s problems and fomenting grievances and unrest for their own politically motivated purposes. The scene is then set for a period of right-wing authoritarianism and manufactured nationalism, ostensibly to defend freedom and democracy from ‘enemies within’, but ultimately to divert public attention away from the serious economic and social problems – and the extent to which the Conservatives’ free market ideology and concomitant policies are themselves the source of those problems.      

Peter Dorey
Pete Dorey is Professor of British Politics in the School of Law & Politics at Cardiff University. He has published extensively on aspects of British Conservatism and Thatcherism. His latest book, A Short History of Thatcherism, was published by Agenda earlier this year.      

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