RECENTLY the conservative historian Andrew Roberts made a very incisive observation: that Margaret Thatcher was finally slipping away from being a figure in current affairs to a historical one, whose legacy is no longer directly felt in the way it once was. This is highly significant, for reasons I will come back to later.
Thatcher was, of course, a titan of British politics, but ultimately in some ways a tragic figure. Why? Because despite successfully transforming British society, seeing off foreign aggression and helping to win the Cold War, the sheer power of her personality convinced an entire generation of conservatively-minded voters that the Tory party was a very different beast from what it actually is. Much is made, quite correctly, of her courage and adamantine will, but she was also a woman of the most astonishing agency, according to Norman Tebbit often reducing Cabinet ministers to considerable distress when they realised that she knew their briefs better than they did. Ever since her reign came to an end, most Tory supporters and much of the Right-wing commentariat have been yearning for her spiritual return; there is always an anointed heir apparent, who falls by the wayside or inevitably disappoints, and the same grumbling goes on and on that ‘Maggie was the last proper leader the Tories have had’.
True enough, but the collective amnesia here is quite astonishing: Thatcher’s shadow seems to have permanently blotted out the equally disastrous run of Tory leaders that long preceded her. You would think instead that she was instead the last of an unbroken line of heroic figures from at least Churchill onwards. Instead we had Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home and Heath. None of these leaders tried much to stop the catastrophic drift to economic socialism that was blighting Britain by the end of the 1970s; indeed, Macmillan thought it inevitable and Heath – apart from his disgraceful betrayal of his country over ‘Europe’ – bottled the proto-Thatcher agenda of ‘Selsdon Man’. Nor, it goes without saying, has any Tory Prime Minister since Thatcher tried to stop the largely successful cultural Marxist transformation of our society.
The truth is that, far from being dynamic Thatcherites, the Tories are quite exceptionally low agency. Perhaps because of its roots in the gentry and a sense of entitled but unearned privilege, the party much prefers to stand aloof from the fray, implementing the ideas of others while expending the minimum of political capital doing so. We can see this in the almost entirely derivative rag-bag portfolio of policies followed by the Johnson government and, most catastrophically of all, its response to the Covid-19 crisis. Rather than leading, the Tories chose to ‘follow the science’, resulting in the quagmire of timidity, confusion and economic and social calamity we have today.
The general practice of ‘followship’ is strongly linked to a natural lack of courage, and both have far-reaching and baleful consequences; as Norman Tebbit once complained of David Cameron, the Tories often choose to occupy the centre ground rather than the common ground, triangulating to avoid confrontation. This has the effect of encouraging the radical Left to be extreme as possible, to lever the perceived mid-point of any political debate as far as possible in their direction. We saw this most recently with the Black Lives Matter movement: the activists knew they would not get anything like all their demands, but nonetheless were highly successful. The Tories could have chosen to fight on the common ground where the vast number of people stood, and not given an inch, but that would have required courage and the will to do so. It is the same on issue after issue: law and order, the migration crisis and so on. In consequence, the perception is already forming that this government is going to be very disappointing and the reboot of British society that most people yearned for will not be forthcoming.
It is here that the fading of Thatcher from memory to history is potentially so significant and potentially so ominous for Toryism: while her legacy was part of a widespread lived experience, the much-to-be-wished-for defenestration of that fundamentally parasitical political creed was endlessly postponed. However, from now onwards, fewer and fewer conservatively-minded people will be willing to believe that their salvation will come from some similar figure emerging from the massed ranks of grey, insipid, Tory men and women. Particularly, those in the new Red Wall seats who lent the Tories their votes will not want to repeat the experience. As Labour remains so estranged from its working-class roots, perhaps soon the time will be ripe for a new socially conservative, patriotic force to emerge in British politics. Or perhaps that is merely a new delusion no better than the old, and we are doomed to alternate between the malignancy of Labour and the weakness of the Tories, forced to endure the endless decline that Thatcher fought so hard against, but could not ultimately stop.