Soon after Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative party she came for lunch at The Spectator and our then proprietor, Henry Keswick, wanted to offer his congratulations — and his advice. It was time to crush the trades unions, he told her. ‘Mr Keswick,’ she replied. ‘You have spent the past 14 years in Hong Kong, where such things may be doable. I have spent them in Britain, where things are very different.’ She was advocating a simple principle: practicality comes before ideology. The only point in fighting battles is to win them.
Her victories were so decisive and spectacular that it is possible — as we have seen in the last few days — to dwell almost entirely on them (and those who didn’t like them). But another part of the Thatcher story is the battles she regarded as unwinn-able. She knew, for example, that the welfare state had started to ensnare the very people it was designed to help, that the National Health Service was being slowly captured by a bureaucratic elite, and that state schools were being made into the playthings of local government politicians. But there was only so much she felt able to do.
She had the solution. It was 1981 when Mrs Thatcher first came up with what she referred to as ‘education credits’ — now known as the Michael Gove agenda for school reform. Her mentor, Sir Keith Joseph, was put in charge of the project but faced uniform hostility from his department. His only reinforcement was a son of one of his friends, a young Cambridge graduate named Oliver Letwin. The two of them were blocked by their civil servants, failed to articulate a clear agenda, and reform was formally abandoned in 1983.
Mrs Thatcher can be forgiven for not fighting this battle: she had an economy to save, a Falklands conflict and a Cold War to win and a Brussels rebate to secure. But throughout her decade in power there was a slow decline in the quality of British education. Grammar schools kept on closing, and the comprehensive education experiment continued — with calamitous consequences for poorer communities. Her later reforms did allow a fifth of secondary schools to opt out of local authority control, the high-water mark of her reforms, but it took a Labour government to begin reform in earnest.
In this area at least, then, Cameron’s government has surpassed Thatcher’s. In under three years, the majority of state secondary schools are now independent ‘academies’. The seeds of school reform, nurtured by Blair’s education minister, Andrew Adonis, are blooming under Michael Gove. There are now 2,886 ‘academy’ schools and 79 entirely new schools, which have brought choice in education to 13,000 children. On Thursday next week, The Spectator will hold its third conference for Britain’s emerging schools industry. We will hear from free school pioneers such as our own Toby Young and head teachers of profit-seeking state schools such as the extraordinary Sherry Zand, from IES Breckland in Norfolk.
When pits and factories closed, ministers imagined that men of a certain age — who could not be expected to retrain — would sign on to benefits and wait for retirement. A one-off cost. Instead, welfare dependency moved in as industrialisation moved out, and it continues to blight each new generation. In combination with failed schools, this was a formula for deep social decay. The extent of this social tragedy was unforeseen. The consequences would become fully apparent only during the Labour years, when the boom failed to wash away the worklessness. ‘We must do something about those inner cities,’ declared Mrs T after the 1987 victory. She never did work out exactly what should be done.
What to do about those inner cities is to assess every single person on incapacity benefit for what work they can do, then require that they do it. But first you need years of advocacy to persuade the country this is being done to save lives not money. Until five years ago, the Conservatives had regarded welfare and poverty as Labour territory. No longer. Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reform has been as clearly explained and implemented as Thatcher’s economic reform. Like Gove’s school reform, it follows the finest traditions of Tory radicalism.
It is natural for Tories to look back with pride and nostalgia on a period in which one woman’s energy, grit and fearlessness saved a nation. But there was plenty of unfinished business then — and there is plenty now. Conservatives should be wary of accepting the myth of Mrs Thatcher as a Tory Boudicca who would have flown into every battle no matter what. Her success stemmed from her ability to mix principle with practicality. As they mourn, Tories ought not to be too hard on themselves or their current leader. In many important regards, this government is completing the Thatcher revolution.