Margaret Thatcher’s passing this week has given all of us over the age of 40 the opportunity for nostalgia (of one form or another) for the 1980s… But as Jonathan Freedland has aptly pointed out, the debate over how to remember Maggie is not about the past. It is a contest over Britain’s present and future.
The challenge is most acute for the Conservative Party, not least in the light of the recent controversy in relation to welfare reform: Is it still committed to Compassionate Conservatism, or is it returning to its previous incarnation as the Nasty Party?
For many Conservatives, the purpose of Operation True Blue, is to not to so much to remember Mrs Thatcher, but to reclaim Thatcherism as the true heart not just of the Tory party, but of British political life per se.
The Nasty Party
But part of the legacy of two decades of Thatcherism was the Tory Party’s image as the Nasty Party: A party which cared little for the poor and the vulnerable; a party which was willing to take a swipe at single parents, benefit scroungers, and other groups who were considered a ‘threat’ to society. Mrs Thatcher may have been strong, decisive (and a whole host of other things), but even strongest defenders would struggle to describe her style of political leadership as compassionate (though Paul Goodman has a try here).
Ten years ago, Compassionate Conservatism was launched by a bevy of senior Conservatives (chief amongst them David Cameron), as part of the wider project to detoxify the Conservatives of their Nasty Party image. Some of its was quite blatant political re-positioning (remember ‘Hug a Hoodie), but beyond this there was a project of some substance. At the heart of the project was the work of the Centre for Social Justice: Iain Duncan Smith’s programme to re-engage with issues of poverty and social justice – and to come up with a positive agenda to tackle ‘Broken Britain.’
Iain Duncan Smith has admirably stuck to his guns in Government, forcing through the introduction of the Universal Credit – which though it has its faults – is fundamentally a welcome attempt to redesign and simplify the benefits system to genuinely ensure that work pays (and to that extent completes the task started by Gordon Brown in introducing Tax Credits fifteen years ago).
Truth and Lies about Poverty
But as the Free Churches have so powerfully demonstrated in their recent report Truth and Lies about Poverty – the wider welfare reform debate has effectively been re-toxified in recent months. The language of strivers and skivers has much more in common with the Thatcherite approach of blaming the poor than anything to do with the project of Compassionate Conservatism.
So which way now for the modern Conservative Party?
Is it still committed to the course of Compassionate Conservatism – trying to reach out to the poor and marginalised; trying to understand the world they inhabit and find solutions to their problems (whether or not we agree with their analysis or their prescription)? Or has it become again the Nasty Party – willing to deliberately sow social division at the expense of those it is happy to demonise as an undeserving underclass for the sake of party or electoral advantage?
This is the true choice facing not just the Conservative Party – but the country at large – as we contemplate the legacy of Mrs Thatcher this week.