Simon Jenkins

Complete the Thatcher revolution

Simon Jenkins says that the Iron Lady’s work will not be complete without the devolution of power to local communities. Is the Tory leader ready to embrace this mission?

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Simon Jenkins says that the Iron Lady’s work will not be complete without the devolution of power to local communities. Is the Tory leader ready to embrace this mission?

The Tory party still has to come to terms with Margaret Thatcher. As she broods this week in Chester Square, the revolution associated with her name is still swamping British politics. Labour and Conservative front benches wrangle over the upheavals she initiated like crews clinging to the same wreckage. But with Gordon Brown possibly about to swim free, the Tories must redefine their Thatcherite heritage if they are to persuade electors that they are genuinely new Tories. But redefine does not mean deny.

David Cameron has wisely steered clear of policy, adhering to the Blair maxim that policies never win elections, only lose them. But he has yet to come up with an ideological penumbra, a sense in the air of what a Cameron Britain would be like — the so-called narrative. The message of the polls is that the public likes him but has no idea what he is about.

Most Tories still declare themselves Thatcherites but add such qualifications as ‘with a human face’ or ‘compassionate’. Yet in reality Thatcherism in government is, if anything, stronger than ever. Brown’s last Budget with its emphasis on the private-sector delivery of public services and an insistence on City finance for public investment was near-fundamentalist. It contained nothing to which Lord Howe or Lord Lawson could take exception. Tax credits, benefits reform and fiscal centralism, however ineptly handled, are of the faith. There is as yet no such thing as post-Thatcherism.

Accurately defining the last revolution of the 20th century remains the central challenge of contemporary politics. This means understanding that there was not one Thatcher revolution but two. The first was the familiar portfolio, well-stocked from Adam Smith and Samuel Smiles through Friedman and Hayek to Tony Blair’s Granita agreement with Brown, crowning the era of Treasury supremacy. It saw fruition in the ‘restructuring’ recessions of the early 1980s and 1990s, in industry denationalisation and service privatisation. It transformed Britain from a basket economy to the envy of Europe. It is imitated (or at least advocated by name) worldwide.

The second revolution was very different. It was a revolution in the distribution of power in Britain. To defeat socialism Thatcher declared that she must have control. She disclaimed laissez-faire and was an uncompromising opponent of political and constitutional pluralism, which she saw as a fifth column for the Left. She proclaimed, like Marx, ‘the withering away of the state’, but like Lenin she never quite got round to it.

This second revolution eroded the balance of power in Britain, demoting Parliament and other elected assemblies, agencies and councils in favour of the denizens of No. 10 and No. 11 Downing Street. It distanced government from its customers and democracy from its electorates. Centralism led ministers to rely on mechanistic controls, on obedience to central targets, league tables and fiscal dirigisme. Services might be privatised but they were wrapped in regulators, inspectors and red tape. I know of no one — doctor, farmer, teacher, builder, businessman — who would claim that 25 years of Thatcherism has meant less intrusion by government.

Blair came to power by ruthlessly centralising the leader’s control over the party. Not surprisingly, when he came to power Thatcher’s second revolution was to prove as magnetic as her first. He restructured government along more ‘Napoleonic’ lines even than Thatcher and John Major. It is significant that Brown, in setting out his stall this past week, decided that decentralisation would be his new pitch against the Blairites.

A party of the Left can accommodate Thatcher’s two revolutions. Labour and Brown have always presented privatisation as a means to an end, the harnessing of profit to deliver standardised, egalitarian public services commissioned by a strong central directorate (the Treasury). In true second revolution style, Labour’s version of the first revolution has required half a million extra civil servants to administer and regulate its myriad subcontracts.

For Conservatives the two revolutions should be diametric opposites. By enhancing central state power, the second denies the liberation of individuals and communities from that power. It pollutes the stream of Hayekian liberalism. It dances to the statist tune, of nationalised standards, bureaucracy and the cry of ‘postcode lottery’. It loses touch with what would once have been the Tory cry, ‘postcode choice’.

Every time Cameron’s Tories cry ‘something must be done’ in the Commons or demand the curbing of local taxes (and their concomitant power), they are walking into this trap. They sound like Blairites Mark II. They must disentangle the failings of Thatcher’s second revolution from the virtues of her first. It was one thing in the 1980s to denationalise the state industry and trading sector. But the privatising of welfare state delivery by government of both parties was a means, not an end. It demolished local democracy and centralised control of health, education, police and planning. It brought government more power, not less. As Nicholas Ridley once told Thatcher, the state need not own what it wants to control.

Nothing said by Cameron and his team to date suggests that they know what this entails. Yet the devolution of power over the public sector should find natural support among Conservatives. Such delegation should be to the very institutions where Conservatives used to be strong: county councils, city corporations, suburban municipalities, agriculture, the professions and businesses, not to mention the schools, colleges, hospitals and charities that once formed the bedrock of Tory voluntarism. They were Toryism’s electoral power base as well as its ideological one. With their disappearance has gone its activist membership.

The smashing of these bases by Thatcher and her followers in government was the biggest error committed in the name of Thatcherism. Correcting that error lies at the heart of a post-Thatcher programme.

Those of us who have spent years banging the localist drum are wary of Westminster’s sudden adoption of community empowerment, double devolution, boards, trusts and ‘new localism’. Such ideas are being presented by Labour as some pain-free democratic elixir, like Blair’s pre-1997 affection for communitarianism. They are in truth very difficult. They require an abnegation of power at the centre and an acceptance that service quality may vary from one local electorate to another. Such diversity is normal on the Continent, where it is locally accountable and within agreed national parameters. It remains abhorrent to British politics: witness the extraordinary national obsession with league tables.

The Tories are no more ready to acknowledge a new Thatcherite dispensation than was Labour (at least until Brown’s speech last week). Both still fail the test of a sincere devolutionist, to tolerate subsidiary tiers of government raising resources, whether from property, incomes or businesses, and answering for it to a local electorate. Thatcherism should award to local choice, to collective decisions by cohesive communities, the same autonomy that the first revolution proclaimed for individuals. This appeals to the centre-right across Europe and America, but not apparently in Britain. It is the reason why British politics is so moribund. Brown has heard this message. Are Conservatives asleep?

Simon Jenkins’s history of Thatcherism, Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts, is published this week by Penguin.