At a dinner in Hampshire in 2002, Margaret Thatcher was asked to name her greatest achievement. She smiled and said “New Labour and Tony Blair”.
Depending on your perspective this may be funny, comforting or sad but it would be hard to deny its truth. When Tony Blair persuaded his party to tear up Clause 4 and its commitment to socialism, history recorded that the nature of British political debate had changed. Thatcher had made socialism electorally unpalatable by branding it morally evil (an ardent belief on her part which she expressed openly and often). The electorate rewarded new labour and Tony Blair for their acceptance of this.
Sadly, the political debate has been stuck in the same centrist sort of place ever since. There is a received wisdom that we are all capitalists of some sort or other now and none of the main parties drives a socialist agenda any more. Yet hugely important issues remain unanswered. In Burkean terms and as the historian Niail Ferguson believes: the contract between the generations has been broken. We have spent our children’s money and wasted their futures. In too many ways the condition of Britain is as desperate today as it was in 1979.
How do we renew that contract? What does that look like? How do we fund it? What should be the issues that frame the political debate for the next decade in the very different world we live in now? How do we promote equality? Safeguard human rights? Restructure society to accommodate a much older population? Protect individuals against huge corporate interests?
Thatcher was of her time. Her character and the circumstances allowed the changes greatly needed for the UK. Her achievements were many (well analysed by David Allen Green here http://jackofkent.com/2013/04/margaret-thatcher-in-perspective ) but she was also a divisive and mostly unsympathetic human being. Reactions to her remain largely emotional rather than ideological (if you don’t agree consider why Tony Blair was so popular while adopting so much of her legacy) and have prevented political growth and maturity in the UK.
My hope is that when the deserved analysis and memorials are over, the Conservative party can finally enter a new era of political debate. We are so much more than this one leader, this one woman. The iconic status the party has attributed to her has held it back. With respect for her memory and achievements we need also to be honest about the failures and omissions. We have so much more to offer and now is our time.