Hot Topic Reporting season
Hot Topic Reporting season
4 mins to read

So what’s your alternative?

A former Labour cabinet minister remembers "a staggeringly successful politician."

Steve Maharey
Sun, 21 Apr 2013

The reaction of the left to the death of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was predictable.

While the right saw Baroness Thatcher and her fellow traveller President Ronald Reagan as the duo that breathed life back into the view that the market knows best, her opponents see her legacy as economic failure, social breakdown and personal isolation (there is no society just the individual, she once claimed).

I lived in the UK at the height of Thatcher’s reign and took both a professional and personal interest in her policies.

My view was that when she emerged as a political force, change had to come to Britain and representative democracies around the world.

As progressive as the policies of the post-World War II period were, they had run their course. Change was in the air in the 1970s and someone had to answer the call. The left of politics, closely bound to the successes they had enjoyed in the middle of the century, did not respond.

Frankly, they were incapable of responding because they saw the rise of the welfare state as the best they could do.

Thatcher and others on the right did respond and in so doing set in train the political agenda we are still dealing with today.

The enormous success of the Thatcher revolution drew three main responses. The first was purely defensive. What might be called the traditional left could not believe her style of politics could last. They dug in and waited for it all to blow over.

The second took the form of a cultural flowering. The cultural left is always at its best when it has a big right-wing target to aim at. Thatcher inspired some of the best cultural expression seen in many years.

The third response was the emergence of the Third Way led by President Bill Clinton in the US and Prime Minister Tony Blair in Britain.

I thoroughly enjoyed the culture Thatcher inspired (The Clash remain a favourite band) and threw my hat in with the Third Way crowd, hoping it would bring together a coherent programme based on the belief that we could have both an entrepreneurial and a socially just society.

I still think the Third Way had a lot going for it. But in the hands of Clinton and Blair it became little more than what Will Hutton has called “capitulation.” What began as a promising effort to redraw the boundaries of centre-left thinking soon came to grief on the desire to remain in power at a time when Thatcher’s ideas had become the common sense of the age.

Clinton and Blair did little to challenge the policies that their right-wing predecessors put in place. Instead they focused on softening the hard edges while trying to appeal to everyone. Thatcher must have laughed. She never tried to appeal to everyone – she was a conviction politician who craved enemies as much as she wanted to be adored.

Since the departure of Clinton and Blair, the Third Way has slipped into disrepair. This is despite the fact that in all but name politicians straddling the centre of politics are all Third Wayers. They, too, seek to appeal to as many voters as possible while focusing on small policies that make little or no difference while giving the appearance of busyness.

I have been reflecting on the state of politics in the wake of Thatcher’s death. The outpouring of vitriol from the left is not something I share. After all, the real problem is not what Thatcher did but what those who want to see progressive politics failed to do.

They have never explained why policies that have caused so much pain for so little gain have endured and show no signs of going away. And why the left has yet to come up with a convincing narrative that will allow it to take over the policy steering wheel. Despite many worthy efforts, the left is still opposing right rather than proposing a clear alternative.

President Obama might have offered a way forward but, to date, has not. French President François Hollande has talked a good game but has become preoccupied with “domestic” issues. There is no other flag carrier on the horizon.

The death of Thatcher, then, has to seen as the death of a staggeringly successful politician. She changed not just the UK but the world and her influence looks set to continue – perhaps to revive.

Taking comfort from her death may be of passing comfort but it will do nothing to answer the question: so what is the alternative that will capture the imagination of those who want to live in a better world for the many not the few?

If there is a heaven and Thatcher is comfortably seated there, she will no doubt be pleased to see that the worst her opponents can do is celebrate her departure. In fact, she may even take pleasure in seeing her opponents in the streets as she did in life.

What would hurt would be to see the emergence of a powerful workable vision of a progressive future. There are many ideas but no political party that seems ready to advance them any time soon. 

Steve Maharey is vice-chancellor of Massey University, a sociologist and a former Labour cabinet minister.

Steve Maharey
Sun, 21 Apr 2013
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So what’s your alternative?