When Blue Turned Red: The "New" in New Labour Was Skin-Deep: It Marked the Party's Capitulation to Thatcher, Writes Martin Jacques, Whose Magazine Marxism Today Coined the Term "Thatcherism"

By Jacques, Martin | New Statesman (1996), March 2, 2009 | Go to article overview

When Blue Turned Red: The "New" in New Labour Was Skin-Deep: It Marked the Party's Capitulation to Thatcher, Writes Martin Jacques, Whose Magazine Marxism Today Coined the Term "Thatcherism"


Jacques, Martin, New Statesman (1996)


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.

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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. …

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