Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979 and after 4 years sought re-election. David Cameron was elected in 2010 and so on the Thatcher timetable would be up for election this year. I thought it may be interesting to compare and contrast their records.
Thatcher presided over two major military conflicts in her first four years. The Falklands and Northern Ireland. The Falklands war was a major victory and will perhaps always be viewed as the defining moment of her career. At the time of the war, the USSR did not consider that the UK had the capability to mount such a campaign. The Argentinian generals did not even consider such an option, thinking Britain would roll over and say "kick me". At the time the USA had an aversion to foreign adventurism, having its fingers burned. Thatchers war changed all that. Reagan realised that a successful military excursion is good for votes. I believe the Iraq and Afghan adventures are a direct result of Thatchers PR victory. What is never discussed in such glowing terms is the Northern Ireland situation. Under Thatcher there was a terrible military stalemate, where the ordinary people suffered under a repressive state and terrorism. Thatcher never really had a clue where to start with Ulster. In my opinion her period was one of unmitigated failure, but due to the Falklands success, the airbrush has been applied. Nevertheless, with her leadership during the Falklands conflict, no one could argue that Thatcher wasn't a proven leader in a time of war.
Cameron has presided over the Afghan debacle in much the same way. It is clear that Cameron doesn't know what to do, hasn't got a plan and is simply a passenger in the process. British servicemen die without a sense of what the mission really is. When the British and americans go, everyone knows things will soon degenerate. When the UK leaves Afghanistan, will it be a better place than when Cameron took over? I doubt it. The problem is that, unlike Thatchers Falklands war, there is no plan, no objective and no idea what we are really trying to achieve. In four years, I've yet to hear a single coherent sentence from Cameron on the subject. Whilst I believe history proved Thatchers non engagement with the IRA wrong, at least she was consistent and could elucidate why whe was persuing this course. Cameron simply comes across as vacuous.
When Thatcher took over, Great Britain was in terminal decline. We were the "sick man of Europe". Whatever you may think of the UK when Cameron took over, we have maintained a high degree of economic prosperity and the problems with our country have not resulted in others viewing us as a complete basket case. In 1979, the UK was viewed as a spent force which had nothing left to offer. Thatcher believed that the key to fixing the economy was to cut the balls off the Trades Unions. She believed in "moneterism" (a phrase which seems to have disappeared). The first two years of her rule were met with a huge fiscal squeeze and spiralling unemployment. Thatcher despised socialism and sought about taking an axe to the low hanging branches on the tree of social government. What people don't appreciate about Thatcher was that she was firstly a pragmatist (most successful Tories are). She kept well away from the NHS and when she was looking to privatise, she picked off easy targets and by doing mass share offers that made the ordinary man a few quid, she made herself popular. The targets for privatisation were carefully picked. They were not picked for ideological value, but for the likelyhood of success. BT was the first. It was clear to all that Telecomunnincations needed deregulation. I don't think anyone can argue that privatising BT was successful. In this day and age, the concept of waiting three months for a telephone line is uniimaginable. However harsh, Thatchers medicine for the economy eventually worked. The economy was booming within ten years, Harry Enfield parodying Thatchers children with his Loadsamoney character.
Unlike Thatcher, Cameron doesn't seem to have a coherent plan or too many answers. The British economy has many structural issues to address, government debt, welfare dependency and a money supply crisis for small business. The economy has returned to strong growth in the last year, but oddly this even confounded George Osborne's own predictions from this time last year. There have been huge cuts to the benefits system, but so far this has had no effect on government debt. Unlike the Thatcher "Loadsamoney" boom, this recovery shows no signs of ending up in the pockets of anyone apart from rich bankers who started the problems. Like Thatcher, Cameron seems to like the idea of privatisation, however unlike Thatchers BT privatisation, he didn't see the Post Office privatisation as an opportunity to make the ordinary working man a bit better off. There was no TV campaign to persuade us all to buy shares and pocket a few quid. Wheras Thatcher always knew what she was doing, Cameron gives off the air of bending with the wind. I was talking to an economist, who was explaining that the most successful economic policy of the coalition was raising the income tax threshold to £10,000. He pointed out that this was actually one of the policies the Lib Dems brought to the table. No one seems to know what the basis for Camerons economic vision is. Least of all David Cameron. Unlike Thatcher, we suspect that Cameronism is a byword for bending with the wind.
Perhaps the biggest misconception of people who haven't studied Thatcher is the concept that she was "anti European". This is complete baloney. She never advocated withdrawal. She signed every treaty put before her, most notably the single European act. This is the single most important pro euro piece of legislation. She never advocated a referendum. Thatcher recognised that the UK had to be "in the club" or our vital interests would have no protection from our European neighbours. She was a total pragmatist. She realised that the European commission was democracy free zone, dedicated only to making itself ever more powerful. Her strategy was to limit the power of the commission in the UK as far as possible and to get the best deal possible for the UK in fiscal terms. She had no interest at all in the smooth running of Europe, she couldn't care less. She wanted free access to trade markets and as little European interference in UK affairs as she could manage. She also wanted the UK to keep as much of our cash as possible. That was her method for dealing with our EU partners. She was single minded and once they got over the initial shock, they found that they simply had to horse trade with Thatcher. To give her her dues, she was probably the most effective UK Prime minister in protecting our interests.
Cameron suffers from a complete lack of authority in his party. Whatever he says on the Europe issue, no one believes him. He has made himself a hostage to the right wing of his party with his pronouncements, without actually buying himself any bargaining power. As with many issues, Cameron needs the Lib Dems to keep him afloat so he is stuck between a rock and a hard place. As a result he has no policy on Europe. Who knows what Camerons true position of UK membership of the EU is. Does he see any benefit? He is too scared to actually say so. Does he want to pull out? He is again too scared to say so. We expect some sort of Leadership from Cameron, but we get none at all. Our EU partners see Cameron as a man of straw, because they know he has no authority.
Thatcher famously stated that "there is no such thing as society". She passionately believed that the UK was simply a group of millions of individuals and that we only cooperated with each other because it suited us to do so. She despised anything "co-operative". She saw no value in community and her response to the miners strike, which completely polarised the country exemplified this. Thatcher once commented that any man in his thirties on a bus was a failure. For her, the concept of having to share your personal space with a bunch of other bus passengers was an anathma. She believed that social care should simply be an act of personal charity. She despised other Tories who viewed the weaker members of society as people and people who required care. She referred to such Tories as "Wets". She despised them more than she despised Socialists and viewed them as the real enemy.
Again with Cameron, no one knows what his policy on social responsibility really is. Following the death of his disabled son, he gave interviews praising the NHS. I for one felt that given his experiences, there is no way he'd let the NHS come to harm as Prime Minister. I thought he'd see the value in what it offers. Being fair to Cameron, the NHS has had its budget ring fernced. Given the cuts elsewhere, it has to be conceded that he has shown a degree more care than may have been expected. This is perhaps the only area where Cameron has shown any social concern. The changes to the Benefit system have been cruel. The "bedroom tax" has caused real unhappinees and hardship for many. I cannot see how penalising families when a child goes to college can possibly be seen as socially fair. The rise in food banks is the most tangible sign that Cameron doesn't care. It is odd that even with Thatcher despising social responsibility, we never saw a mushrooming of food banks in the way we see today.
The working class.
Thatcher believed that the working class by and large wanted to become middle class. She believed that there were large numbers of votes to be had on council estates. She believed that the British working man was aspirational. She designed policies to try and tap into this belief. The two keynote policies were selling council houses to their owners, with the right to buy and the popularist share issues, with attendent advertisng campaigns. Millions took advantage of these policies and they voted Tory to show their appreciation. Labour never really got to grips with this assault on their core vote. This failure kept them in opposition for 17 years. Thatcher created a whole new subgenre of Tory voters.
Cameron just doesn't get the working class at all. I think it is probably fair to say they don't get him either. Wheras Thatcher always kept this group in the corner of her eye, to Cameron they are invisible. Thatcher ensured every budget in her raign always threw this group a bone of some sort, even if that was taken away elsewhere. Cameron and his buddies from the poshest public schools don't see this, so they don't know where to start. Cameron was widely expected to sweep the board at the last election. I believe the reason he failed so miserably was because he had no policy that talked to this group. Thatcher always recognised that there were working people who wanted to own their own homes, run a car and go on a holiday abroad. Cameron doesn't talk to these people. It is there children who have borne the brunt of the hike in student fees. It is them who have been fleeced by utility companies. It is them whos parents are hardest hit by cuts to Council Social care budgets.
Whilst researching this blog, the Barnet Eye was struck by the fact that when you compare Thatcher to Cameron, the differences are huge. What is perhaps the most difficult thing to quantify is how the influence of the Lib Dems has tempered the policies of Cameron. We have to conclude that without the input from his coalition partners, Cameron would without doubt have been more harsh and more right wing. The Barnet eye believes that the Lib Dems have given Camerons uber right machine a small figleaf of social responsibility. We also believe that the influence of Vince Cable, an economist by trade, has managed to inject some sanity into the regime's economic agenda. It is impossible to be sure, but we believe that the economy would not be in recovery without this injection of sanity. The one thing we must give Cameron credit for, which I doubt Thatcher could ever have achieved is that he has managed to hold together a coalition for nearly four years of two very different parties. Whatever his faults, the UK is now experiencing strong growth, bucking the trend of the rest of Europe. I believe that Cameron is actually lucky that he has the Lib Dems as his partners. It gives him an excuse for all his errors and it gives him a safety catch on his most right wing nutcases. If Cameron loses the next election and a Milliband regime takes over, I suspect that this will be seen as a massive achievement. If the Tories win a majority, I would not be in the least surprised to see Cameron dumped in a palace coup, and replaced. Lets face it, if they could stab Lady Margaret in the back, having delivered three stunning election victories and an economic boom, why on earth would they persist with "Dave", who the vast majority of them despise.