Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Thatcherites use History as a Weapon

It's no surprise to see a paper like the Mail, which fawned over Margaret Thatcher in life, doing so in death. One might well have expected the sanctimoniously eulogising and uncritical adulation and one might also have expected the carping waspish abuse toward the slightest hint of criticism. The Mail yields to no one in its desire to assassinate by innuendo and smear anyone who dares to disagree or protest the orthodoxy of worship for Mrs Thatcher.

That whole regions of Britain, including the North and Scotland, are choosing not to bow in respectful obeisance toward a former Prime Minister is to be ridiculed and condemned rather than understood.

As a final resort and just to put the fear of God into any doubters, the Mail have wheeled out the historian Dominic Sandbrook and got him to write a piece depicting a Britain in which Thatcherism never happened. Now, I'm a fan of and occasional writer of counterfactual history and while I naturally expected Sandbrook, who is an absurd right-winger, to trot out some ridiculous drivel he plumbed new depths with this:

We are supposed to believe that had Margaret Thatcher not become Prime Minister, we'd be living in some socialist dystopia now. Sandbrook is entitled to write what he likes but he demeans the discipline of historical and counterfactual historical writing with this appalling piece of politically-biased nonsense. His timeline is so full of holes and so lacking in credibility that it reads more like something a Conservative Party researcher cooked up after a few drinks on a Friday night.

Sandbrook clearly believes satisfying the odious prejudices of his paymasters to be more critical than any notion of intellectual rigour or unbiased honest writing.

Where to start debunking this rubbish - well, the assumption that Callaghan would have won an autumn 1978 election is a long way from being proven. It's quite possible that far from a majority,a hung parliament might have resulted.

Would such a result have finished Margaret Thatcher? The Conservatives have recently been ruthless with failing leaders but back in the 1970s, it seems probable to me that Thatcher would have survived had Labour got back with a very small majority (say under 10). The likelihood of a second quick election combined with the fact that it was the backbenchers rather than the grandees who put Thatcher into the leadership in 1975 makes me think she would have survived.

What then of the re-elected Callaghan Government? Sandbrook posits a much worse Winter of Discontent than we experienced but it's hard to see how or why. There might well have been strikes as the powerful unions sought to exploit the re-elected Government but the notion of a State of Emergency let alone troops shotting strikers seems ridiculously far-fetched.

I don't know how a second Callaghan Government would have fared - it's possible that the slow improvement in economic fortunes achieved in 1977-78 would have foundered on the oil price rise of 1979-80 forcing Healey to once again instigate spending cuts and attempt pay restraint leading to a greater risk of union militancy.

Callaghan, who never really wanted to be Prime Minister, would, I suspect have stepped down in 1981 and, contrary to Sandbrook, it's hard to see Denis Healey not getting the top job. With no Thatcherite defence cuts, it's hard to imagine the Argentinean junta wanting to invade the Falklands.

The potential for schism in Labour on defence, Europe and other issues would have remained and it's not hard to imagine the Labour Party drifting into internal crisis and division.

Some counterfactual historians have argued that Healey would have been re-elected in 1983 or 1984 on the basis of an economic upturn but I find that harder to argue. It's possible that with the Labour poilicies, any upturn would have been more fitful and less impressive (the trough might have been shallower but then so would the recovery).

I therefore contend that the Healey Government would have gone to the country in 1984 after ten difficult years in office and would have lost to Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives returning to power for the first time since early 1974. In Opposition, Labour would have split as we experienced - Healey would have stepped down and Neil Kinnock would probably have won the leadership election with perhaps Tony Benn as his Deputy prompting the traditional right-wingers in the party to leave and form the SDP by 1986 or 1987.

The Thatcher Government would have embarked on a radical first term of policies which would have alienated and impressed as in our experience. With Labour under Kinnock veering to the Left, the way would have been open for the SDP under David Owen and the Liberals under first David Penhaligon and then, after his tragic death in 1987, Paddy Ashdown, to form an electoral pact,

The May 1989 election remains one of the most dramatic of British political history - the Conservative vote share fell to 37% with the combined SDP and Liberal Alliance winning 31% and Labour just 28%. The Conservatives were the largest party despite having lost seventy seats while the Alliance won more than a hundred seats.

Margaret Thatcher formed a second minority Government but soon faced the same internal tensions as had bedevilled Labour in Government. Though the original "Wets" had long been discredited, Europe had emerged as a major faultline within the Conservative Party. The ending of the Cold War threw the European debate into sharp focus as the federalists urging closer integration with a re-emergent Europe clashed with those advocating a more distant approach in the light of German re-unification.

For Thatcher, who had been Party leader for fifteen years, the internal turmoil proved impossible to manage within the confines of a minority Government. The pro-European Conservatives had a Parliamentary majority when joined with the Alliance and a few remaining Labour pro-Europeans.

A critical vote on the Maastricht Treaty proved the downfall of the Prime Minister in 1991. The Prime Minister urged opposition to the social chapter but the motion passed in the Commons with Labour MPs abstaining. Margaret Thatcher resigned immediately and the ensuing election saw Michael Heseltine narrowly defeat Norman Tebbit to become Prime Minister.

Heseltine set about undoing some of Thatcher's more radical policies such as the Poll Tax which had led to a number of by-election defeats and defections to the Alliance but internally his leadership was persistently undermined by the actions of Eurosceptics such as Iain Duncan-Smith tacitly supported by the former leader and Prime Minister.

The 1993 election marked the end of Conservative rule - Michael Heseltine saw his party slump to just 165 seats on 29% of the vote. The Alliance swept forward to 38% and Paddy Ashdown became Prime Minister with David Owen returning to the Foreign Office after a gap of fourteen years. The new Government pledged constitutional reform and electoral reform including the introduction of proportional representation.

The Alliance Government moved the country closer to the European Union, joining first the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1994 while the economy prospered on the back of lower interest rates and an advantageous exchange rate especially against the Deutschmark. In 1997, the Alliance Government won re-election but in 1999 David Owen stood down as SDP leader and Foreign Secretary to be replaced by Tony Blair.

The Alliance sought to take Britain into the Euro but this was opposed by the Conservatives under Michael Howard and Labour under Ken Livingstone. Under pressure, the Government agreed to hold a referendum on joining the Euro in 2000. Despite the support of the Prime Minister, the referendum was lost 54-46 and Paddy Ashdown resigned to be replaced by Sir Menzies Campbell as Prime Minister and Liberal leader.

Campbell proved unable to hold the disintegrating Alliance together and at the 2001 election, both parties lost seats to the resurgent Labour and Conservative Parties. After much negotiation and manoeuvring, Tony Blair became Prime Minister of an SDP-Conservative Coalition which adopted an increasingly sceptical tone in European policy.

The Blair Government had backed American policy after the Al-Qaeda attacks of September 11th 2001 but when the Bush Government moved toward invading Iraq in 2002-03, Blair found himself in political trouble within his Government as many in the SDP and some in the Conservatives opposed British military involvement.

Blair pushed for the commitment of British forces but in a fractious debate in January 2003, a motion supporting Government policy on Iraq was lost when fifty SDP MPs either abstained or voted against. Tony Blair resigned and the Government fell apart.

The resulting election saw Ken Livingstone's Labour Party win a clear majority. Livingstone opposed American foreign policy at almost every turn and adopted a different economic policy. Initially, the economic good times continued and the Livingstone administration prospered on a policy of increased Government spending. By 2007, however, the economic storm clouds were gathering. Livingstone decided to go to the country to seek a fresh mandate but the election campaign was hijacked by the Northern Rock crisis and the apparent inability of Livingstone and his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to find a resolution.

The October 2007 election saw Labour's majority evaporate and the Conservatives under David Davis emerge as the largest single party. Davis formed a minority Government with the backing of David Cameron's SDP on economic policy. However, the global financial crisis broke the following autumn with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Chancellor of the Exchequer William Hague was rarely off the television screen that autumn as stock markets collapsed and Europe's sovereign debt crisis intensified.

Davis moved to undo many of the Livingstone Government's policies but found gaining popularity difficult in the face of the end of cheap food, cheap fuel and cheap money. Few blamed him personally but the Government in general suffered.

In the spring of 2012, Davis went to the country but found little gratitude and it would be Labour and the Liberals under David Milliband and Nick Clegg, who would lead the way into the future.

In April 2013, former Conservative leader and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher passed away. Her record as Prime Minister from 1984 to 1991 was considered mixed and many accused her of triggering the in-fighting which led to the fall of the Heseltine Govenrment. Yet many of the economic ideas, including lower taxes and Government spending, have come back into favour as a result of the financial crisis and are now almost de rigeur for most western Governments.

How's that for a counterfactual with a differnet ending, Dominic ?

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