Creating your very own ‘ism’: Thatcher’s unique ideology

To see how the culture of popular music was affected by Thatcherism it is crucial to look at what Thatcherism actually was, and which particular aspects of it would have created a backlash in the form of musical protest. Numerous accounts give different views as to what it actually was, for example that it was identifiable by the policies that Thatcher was trying to implement. Others argue that it was more to do with the cult of personality- and that she showed a stark contrast to previous post war leaders in her conviction to restore British values. It is these two sides of the Thatcherism movement that I will look at, both of which are worthy explanations in the feelings of dissatisfaction and disillusionment felt amongst society in the 1980’s, including those groups who expressed their feelings through the form of music.

Once Thatcher got into government in 1979 there was a highly noticeable change in policies. This was not only due to the switch from a Labour to a Conservative government but also because of Thatcher’s own distinct ideology. Her party predecessor Edward Heath had a noticeably different approach and after Heath left office he himself admitted to the shift in the Conservative identity between 1974 and 1979, warning the party of moving further to the right.[1] This rethinking of the Conservative brand was seemingly a key instigator for what would later become “Thatcherism”.[2]

One of the main concerns within the Thatcher Government was with the apparent decline of Britain. Prior to the 1979 election, Thatcher called for “greatness in our country again…the need for renewal at every level…”[3]  A big part of this was to do with social values, and so one area of her policies that became a huge part of the Conservative ideology was based on social reform. Thatcher was undoubtedly one of the most prominent politicians in the post war period in terms of altering social structure and values.

The welfare state which had been established after the war was still in operation after 30 years and by this time it was of the opinion of the Conservative government that it had achieved what it originally set out to establish. Not only did Thatcher see it as superfluous, but the Conservatives saw it as being detrimental to the general public- most pressingly it contributed to a limited sense of responsibility.

At the start of the post war period the welfare system was seen as effective as it helped many out of poverty. However after decades of this system, poverty had decreased dramatically. By the 1950’s Britain saw sudden prosperity which was steadily maintained in the following years. As the Conservative government now saw it there was not much of a case for the welfare state. All that it appeared to accomplish now was inclining thousands not to work for their own money.

In Thatcher’s eradication of welfare in the following years there were inevitably many working citizens whose living standards plummeted, and between 1979- 1985 the number of those with an income below the poverty line rose by 55%.[4] Those who had been unemployed but receiving support from welfare now had virtually no source of income.

In addition to this, unemployment was bolstered through Thatcher’s major economic reforms. Her government had ideals of a tight economic composition, and saw reductions to public expenditure and increases in indirect taxes. As a result of this unemployment reached 2 million by November 1979,[5] and nearly 3 million in 1981 with public spending cuts falling hardest on the poor.[6]

The 1981 riots in Brixton and Chapelton in Leeds were so extreme partly because of this high unemployment, citizens rioting out of both frustration and the feeling there was nothing else to be part of. And yet Thatcher remained adamant that unemployment was not an underlying cause. In August 1982 the Spectator reported that 584,000 teenagers having left school would be without employment that autumn.[7] Job opportunities were scarce, and the reality was that the social situation of Britain could only decline further.

Decreasing the power of the Trade Unions and the specific reform of Trade Union law was another key area of Thatcher’s focus once getting into office in 1979, and it embodied her desire to significantly decrease the power of any smaller independent organisations, especially ones with a left wing motivation. Most trade unions were of a highly socialist emphasis, touching on areas of providing support for the unemployed, making improvements in the workplace and advocating strikes.

Most of the trade unions protested against the government’s plans to cut public expenditure, but the Conservatives held the argument that failure to reduce public expenditure increased government borrowing, thus increasing the interest rates.[8] Thatcher wanted to establish a power greater than any smaller organisation and to set the Conservative government out as the sole power, something her predecessors failed to do.

Edward Heath notoriously had a lack of control when it came to the trade unions, and his second defeat to the miner’s union resulted in the ill-fated February 1974 election debacle.[9] Since, the Trade Unions had increasingly gained power and influence and were seen as the main obstacle to British management, there becoming the question of who was ruling the British industry.[10]

This was something that Thatcher was dedicated to quash, and during Thatcher’s first government a series of acts were introduced in attempts to achieve this. The 1980 and 1982 employment acts saw the trade union legal immunities significantly reduced, and the 1984 Trade Union Act removed the union’s immunity to prosecution.[11]

By the start of Thatcher’s second term the three pillars of trade union power built up from the period of 1945- 1979 had in effect been demolished.[12]  A policy that followed on from this theme of taking away power from the smaller organisations is reflected even more in the electoral system that Thatcher favoured. The idea of any electoral reform was rejected on Thatcher’s arrival, instead preferring the First Past the Post system. In doing this it ensured that the two main parties were favoured whilst discriminating against any smaller parties that represented a particular sample of society. As a result, throughout the 1980’s there were numbers of smaller parties that were representative of race and creed that found it hard to make their voices heard or gain electoral success. It was only by 1987 that coloured ethnic minorities gained representation.[13]

Thatcher’s immigrant controls was a further aspect of Thatcher’s policies that antagonised a large section of society. Certainly the matter of immigration had been a concern right from the 1960’s, but it was during Thatcher’s reign that immigration controls became so decisive. It was established as a major issue in her 1979 manifesto, promising to introduce further restrictions to prevent the country from becoming “swamped” by immigrants.[14]

The general immigration strategy was to reduce annual immigration into Britain by about 1,500-2,000 out of a total of 70,000.[15] In response to these proposals, the British Nationality Act passed in 1981, restricting British citizenship and later tightening immigration rules with respect to marriages.[16] From this came a growing feeling of disheartenment from ethnic minorities who were now living under Thatcher’s rule.

Immigrant families who had lived in Britain for decades now were discriminated against and racism on the streets grew as a result of the increased awareness of immigration. As the Economist commented in 1982, “numbers of white people are encouraged that blacks will be sent home, as though ‘home’ for them was anywhere else but in Britain”.[17] From this it appeared to many that the Conservative government wanted a nation that was purely nationalist, which created much controversy.

Overall, there was a prevailing sense of uncertainty concerning the nation- the question of where the country was heading and how Thatcher’s decision making could create disarray. This was emphasised by Britain’s place in the world and Thatcher’s involvement in global issues. Her relationship with Ronald Regan meant that the country was on the verge of becoming part of the Cold War with the constant threat of nuclear war. In 1979 Thatcher allowed American cruise and perishing missiles to be deployed in the UK and her government became locked in a battle with several peace groups such as CND and Cruise Watch who identified Thatcher as an advocate of world conflict.[18]

In 1981, the Gallup Poll revealed that 39% of British adults expected a nuclear war in their lifetime.[19] There was an underlying fear of the Soviet Union, and in addition to this, the Falklands War brought the sense that such a battle for a leftover of Empire so far from home was of an underlying irrationality.[20]

However, other than solely focusing on Thatcher’s main policies, there are further ways of explaining what Thatcherism was. The fact that she was a new and unique political figure means that there are a number of other explanations concerning her personality and her general promotion of certain values. More so than any other 20th Century British politician, she created a movement that had a lasting impact on British citizens, whether it good or bad. Even a significant leader like Winston Churchill never coined the phrase “Churchillism”, and this is something can be looked into. Thatcherism was more than a set of policies, it was a movement. But was it an ideology or more of a cult of personality?

Thatcher’s personality enhanced her government whilst simultaneously creating a sense of fascination and intimidation. It is first worth mentioning that being the first female Prime Minister of Great Britain there was already a celebrity status, something that she was able to use to her advantage. Interest in her as a leader abroad resulted in the name of ‘The Iron Lady’, a phrase used by the Soviet Union as something of an insult rather than a compliment, but yet was used by Thatcher and her party.  Her gender was very much a factor in generating this cult of ‘Thatcherism’, almost like another form of feminism.  It also helped create a sense of freshness, someone different from the rest of the post war leaders. This suggested that major changes were about to occur.

Certainly, the Tory brand was promoted in a way that welcomed rejuvenation, so much so that they had an ex television producer working to create a completely fresh image for the 1979 election.[21] She had an extremely powerful public personality and technique as a public speaker, and was seen as being skillful in the art of intimidating her opponents, capable of hectoring and embarrassing them.[22] As Thatcher herself observed of her techniques as a leader; “I used public statements to push reluctant colleagues further than they would have gone. Without such tactics Thatcherism would merely be a theoretical viewpoint”.[23]

Most of all, by the time Thatcher got into power in 1979 she had built up a belief that her plans for Britain were faultless and precisely what the country needed. She was determined in her own agenda so much that she was almost deluded, shunning any criticisms or suggestions that the way she was running the country was flawed. And this is one of the key aspects of Thatcher’s rule that instigated such a reaction in certain areas of society.

Furthermore, the general promotion of a number of core values is also a good representation of what Thatcherism was, and were heavily imposed on British society. Since her leadership historians have attempted to define Thatcherism as a single body of thought, but it is possible that it is a combination of different themes rather than one fixed theme.  I would like to focus on two specific themes, both of which link into each other slightly. Both were so prominent in Thatcher’s belief system because they were a part of her background and childhood upbringing.

The first of these is the idea of hard work. Through her dismantling of welfare it made people more motivated, aspiring for personal wealth. This hard work orientated society was intended not to oppress, but rather to show how “work deserved reward, not taxation”, the notion of “the cake having to be baked before it was distributed”.[24]

The second major theme is that of Individualism. This was established as a main theme in the new Conservative government and was reflected in Thatcher’s notorious line; “There is no society, only individuals”. She believed this promotion of individually was important, it reinforcing personal responsibilities. It also encouraged competition between members of the public, and this again stressed the notion of hard work.

Certain sources suggest that this Individualism “provided the framework for individuals to pursue their own interests free from government intervention”,[25] suggesting that Thatcherism was in fact trying to restore some kind of freedom. Both of these values were inevitably such a prominent principle in Thatcher because they had been part of her since her childhood. Her parents were determined for her to work hard and take advantage of every educational opportunity[26]. As Thatcher observed; “In my family we were never idle…partly because idleness was a sin”.[27]

Overall, both hard work and individualism can be linked in with another value that Thatcher closely followed; that of Traditionalism. She displayed a distinct dislike to any radicalism throughout her reign, such as the emergence of gay rights. In general, Thatcher strived to revive aspects of the innate human drive and the values that were held so dear around a century previously- what she saw as a Golden Age for society.

As a final point, Thatcherism was a combination of policies and a set of ethics. Generally speaking, Thatcher and her government possessed a typical right wing train of thought, but a new and updated version. Conservatism had not had much success in power since the early 1960’s, and so it can be said that Thatcherism was very much a rejuvenated, rethought version. It certainly differed noticeably from the party identity of Edward Heath’s government, perhaps being slightly more subversive. Heath himself reflected on the apparent difference in ideologies, commenting how “I was experiencing increasing difficulties with the policies that were being put forward by my successor…” [28]

Paolo Hewitt went further than suggesting a simple revival of Conservatism, noting that it was “a revenge mission on anyone who had harmed her party”,[29] implying a devious and vengeful set of motives. Perhaps it was a highly extreme version of Conservatism. Tony Benn described it in the context of the patriotism surrounding the Falklands War as pure fascism.[30]  However extreme an ideology it was, it was enough to create a backlash in society in the form of musical protest throughout the 1980’s.

[1] Heath, E., The Course of My Life, Hodder & Stoughton, 1998, p. 568

[2] Thatcher, M., The Downing Street Years, Harper Collins, 1993, p. 13

[3] Riddell, P., The Thatcher Decade, Blackwell, 1989, p. 7

[4] Riddell, P., The Thatcher Decade, p. 156

[5] Seldon, A., & Collings, D., Britain Under Thatcher, p. 14

[6] The Times, Thursday December 31, 1981, p. 8, Issue 61120

[7] The Spectator, 7th August 1982, p. 4

[8] The Economist, 1st– 7th  December 1979, p.27

[9] Holmes, M., The First Thatcher Government 1979-1983, Westview Press, 1985, p. 11

[10] Sked, A., & Cook, C., Post-War Britain (4th Edition), Penguin Books, 1993, p. 343

[11] Holmes, M., Thatcherism: Scope and Limits 1983-7, MacMillan, 1989, p. 38

[12] Holmes, M., Thatcherism: Scope and Limits 1983-7, p. 38

[13] Jones, B (ed)., Political Issues in Britain Today (4th Edition), Manchester University Press, 1994

[14] Sked, A., & Cook, C.,  Post-War Britain (4th Edition), p. 358

[15] The Economist, 8th– 14th December 1979, p.12

[16] Sked, A., & Cook, C.,  Post-War Britain (4th Edition), p. 358

[17] Sked, A., & Cook, C.,  Post-War Britain (4th Edition), p. 358

[18] Time Out, London Calling, Time Out Guides Limited, 2008, p. 76

[19] Time Out, London Calling, p. 76

[20] Hastings, M., & Jenkins, S., The Battle for the Falklands, Book Club Associates, 1983, p. 315

[21]Thatcher: The Making of Margaret, ITN, 2008

[22] Skidelsky, R (ed)., Thatcherism, Chatto & Windus, 1988, p.57

[23] Thatcher, M., The Downing Street Years, p. 579

[24] The Economist, 15th– 21at October 1983, p.23

[25] Seldon, A., & Collings, D., Britain Under Thatcher, Longman, 2000, p. 81

[26] Thatcher, M., The Path to Power, Harper Collins, 1995, p. 19

[27] Thatcher, M., The Path to Power, p. 11

[28] Heath, E., The Course of My Life, p. 563

[29] Hewitt, P., Paul Weller: The Changing Man, Bantam Press, 2007, p. 150

[30] Holmes, M., Thatcherism: Scope and Limits 1983-7, p. 7


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