Thatcher and the Centre Ground

John Rentoul

mandm1 e1365427692939 225x300 Thatcher and the Centre Ground There will be lots of nonsense said and written about Margaret Thatcher this week, but Ed Miliband wins an early prize for this:

“She moved the centre ground of British politics.”

This is simply not the case, as those who have written books on the subject (pictured) can attest.

She did not even do anything like as much as she should have done to persuade the British people of the virtues of market forces, as I repeatedly complain. Profit, unfortunately, is still a dirty word.

She benefited hugely from the delusions of the Labour Party, which were intensified by her victory in 1979, and which led to the SDP breakaway. But one of her greatest achievements was to cure Labour of its fixation with an alternative to capitalism in which everyone is nice to each other.

If you call eliminating sub-Marxist delusions from mainstream politics “moving the centre ground”, she moved the centre ground. Otherwise, the British people stayed firmly where they were, an inconsistent mix of social democracy and moderate conservatism.

The worst and most dangerous part of Ed Miliband’s tribute is that he seriously believes that a political leader – that is, him – can not only shift the centre ground of politics but can do it from opposition.

Update: Dan Hodges expresses a similar view, more colourfully, today, adding this information:

Yesterday I was speaking to a member of the shadow cabinet about the death of Baroness Thatcher. He pointed me to Ed Miliband’s statement of tribute. “Have a look at the passage on the middle ground. It’s only a small thing, but they slipped it in there deliberately.”

As I feared.

But it seems that I have not been clear in my refusal to accept that Thatcher moved the centre ground. Tom Doran and others on Twitter seem to regard this as a fantastic suggestion. They remind me of one of the reviewers of Me & Mine (above), who demanded to know of the author: “Has he ever been to a wine bar?” (Wine bars, I should explain, were something of a novelty at the time, 1989, and associated with greed-is-good yuppiedom.)

I think there might be some confusion here. Thatcher obviously made an electoral success of right-wing Conservatism (although bear in mind what I said about the opposition being divided and in disarray above), but that is not the same as changing the minds and political outlook of the British people. Most of the opinion research for Me & Mine found that the voters, if anything, moved to the left during Thatcher’s time, on questions such as welfare and public spending, although this was probably a response to the changes she made (as unemployment rose people became less likely to think that benefit claimants were workshy, for example).

She changed the Labour Party too, which some regard as moving the centre of British politics to the right. I disagree. Just because the Labour Party lurched to the left in 1979, split and then, very slowly and painfully returned to the centre does not mean that the centre ever moved.

On which point, I do recommend Stephen Bush and Philip Collins (pay wall) on why Tony Blair ended Thatcherism, not perpetuated it.

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