Thatcherism or Compassionate Conservatism: Where now for the Tory Party and the country?

thatcherMargaret 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).

Compassionate Conservatism

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.

Niall Cooper is National Coordinator of Church Action on Poverty.

4 thoughts on “Thatcherism or Compassionate Conservatism: Where now for the Tory Party and the country?

  1. The future for the Conservative party is opposition, and, we can all hope, a death like that of the Liberals. The future of the county is socialism. We must bury not just Maggie Thatcher, but her divisive and cruel thatcherism and her nasty party with it. Compassionate conservatism was never anything but a smoke-screen for keeping the poor on side while the millionaires grow their vast and wasteful fortunes.

    • Thanks David for your comment. Just to be clear, Church Action on Poverty isn’t party political – our primary concern is to tackle poverty in the UK – and our aspiration is to be able to work with politicians of all political persuasions to achieve this. Over the years there have been many Conservative politicians committed to tackling poverty, stretching back to the One Nation Conservatism of Disraeli and Macmillan for example… The point of the blog is simply to point out that the Conservatives (and all other parties) have real choices to make, as to whether they want to grow or shrink the gap between rich and poor in the UK over the coming years.

    • Thing is, I wonder if there is something to be said for socialism (to the sense it existed in the postwar era) not working, and hence the appeal of Thatcherism, to sort out the problems of that implementation of socialism. The trouble is it soon became apparent (even more so as her legacy wore on) that Thatcherism wasn’t working either. I wonder then what is the real answer? A different kind of socialism? Or was what we had before not true socialism? Or is it something yet radically new?

      I would probably agree “compassionate conservatism” looks more and more of a political smoke screen, or if not, policies like the current benefit reforms are not working for those who need them most (such as for the disabled being wrongly deemed “fit to work”). I somehow wonder if what does not work, is in part that which is done with the best of intentions but ultimately flawed. But in many cases it is not- simply it is greed and power hidden in a cloud of spin.

  2. as a life-long anti-conservative asnd observer of the botches of various governments, i would simply say, on universal credit ,i am sceptical of successful implementation.
    i hope compassionate conservatives are deeply unhappy at the grossly unequal society we have, one growing rapidly more so.
    church action should be against this, well done.
    P.S.can you explain , please, how any thoughtful christian can justify updating trident in present circumstances?prohibitively expensive, no defence, why should we be entitled to threaten to blow everyone up if we do not get our way?(David cameron, it seems , thinks our nuclear weapons would be useful to wave about in the north korean crisis. i commend him to the loving attention of Conservatives compassionate or otherwise!)

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