Margaret Thatcher began the shift to the right that has affected almost all the countries of the west in the past three decades. She died in London April 8 at the age of 87, 34 years after she became Britain’s first female prime minister. The reign of her ideas in western politics is still not over, despite the crash of 2008 and the long recession that has followed.
“This woman is headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated,” wrote some minion in the personnel department of British chemical giant ICI, rejecting her application for a job as research chemist in 1948. She was fresh out of Oxford University, 23 years old, brimming with self-confidence and absolutely full of opinions. She probably frightened the job interviewer half to death.
But she landed a job with a plastics company in Colchester in 1949. She joined the Conservative Party and stood for parliament in the 1950 election (she was the youngest candidate ever). And she finally made it into parliament in the 1959 election.
She entered the cabinet of Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1970 as the “statutory female” (as he gallantly put it) — but she replaced Heath after the Conservatives lost the 1974 election. As party leader, she ruthlessly broke the welfare-state consensus that had dominated all the major parties for the previous thirty years.
“It is our duty to look after ourselves,” she declared, and the political orthodoxy trembled before her onslaught. That was what carried her into office in the 1979 election, and as prime minister she acted on her convictions.
After Thatcher won the Falklands War against long odds in 1982 her popularity was unassailable, and she used it to break the power of the trade unions and privatize state-owned industries. More than that, she made free-market ideology for all intents and purposes the state religion.
So it remained for 30 years, long after her harsh and confrontational style had lost her the support of her own party. She was ousted as Conservative Party leader by her own colleagues in 1990 but the Labour governments of 1997-2010 were also in thrall to her ideas. The influence of her ideas abroad, particularly in the United States, was equally great.
Yet her greatest contribution to politics, and the foundation of the right’s political success over recent decades, was not ideological but tactical. She was the first politician to grasp the fact with the decline of the old working class, it had become possible to win elections on a platform that simply ignored the poor. There weren’t as many of them as there used to be, and the poorest among them usually didn’t bother to vote.
This insight is still a major factor in the calculations of parties both right and left down to the present day: you cannot count on the poor to win an election for you. Her influence lives on — but it may not last much longer.
The powerful middle class on which she founded her political strategy has been hollowed out by the very success of the free market policies she promoted. Average middle class incomes in the United States, for example, have not grown at all in the past three decades.
The time may be coming when gaining the votes of the poor, including the growing numbers of the “new poor”, will once again be essential to win elections.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.