“We reject the cult of selfish individualism,” declared last week’s Conservative manifesto. “We see rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous”. Theresa May styles herself as a “strong and stable” female Prime Minister. Yet during this manifesto launch, she downplayed comparisons with Margaret Thatcher.
“There is no such thing as society,” is one of the best-known aphorisms of the 1980s. “You turn if you want to – the lady is not for turning,” is another of Thatcher’s most quoted quips. The statements at the start of this column – presented as May’s “philosophy” – seem designed to rebut two of Thatcher’s trademark phrases.
“You turn if you want to,” she said icily. “The Lady is not for turning”. I’m old enough – just – to remember hearing a then newish Prime Minister utter these words on News at Ten. What no-one knew at the time, but is obvious now, is that Margaret Thatcher’s speech to the 1980 Conservative Party conference marked the moment the grocer’s daughter from Lincolnshire melted away and the Iron Lady was forged.
The trade unions were militant, unemployment was sharply up and Britain had just suffered its humiliating “winter of discontent”. Thatcher’s response to economic stagnation, ubiquitous strikes and creeping statism wasn’t to buckle like previous Tory prime Minister Ted Heath, mollifying vested interests with ever more government largesse. She set out, instead, to tackle the unions, liberalize the UK economy from its sclerosis and, above all, amidst howls of protest, rein-in public spending.