This on-line version is the pre-copyedited, preprint version. The published version can be found here:
Bob Jessop, Kevin Bonnett, Simon Bromley, Tom Ling, ‘Authoritarian Populism, Two Nations, and Thatcherism’, New Left Review 1984, No. 147, pp. 32-60.
Faced with the devastating electoral and political successes of Thatcherism in the past five years, the British Left responded in various ways.[*] Some activists anticipated the imminent collapse of Thatcherism due to a sudden upsurge of union militancy, popular disturbances, or urban riots; or due to a Conservative U-turn prompted by rising unemployment and political unrest. Others called for the Labour Party to adopt more radical economic and political policies and to restructure itself as a vehicle for the eventual implementation of a socialist alternative economic strategy. They hoped that this would undermine Thatcherism by refuting its claim that there is no alternative; or that it would at least give the left the initiative when Thatcherism collapsed for other reasons. Yet others concentrated on the ideology of Thatcherism and called for a similarly ideological strategy from the Left. They attributed Thatcherism’s success to the initiatives of the new Right in constructing a new hegemonic project and mobilizing popular support for a right-wing solution to the economic and political crisis. Complementing this apparent celebration of Thatcherism is the charge that the Left has failed to adopt a ‘national-popular’ approach of its own to ideological and political struggle and has fallen back on economistic or voluntaristic analysis of the growing crisis of social democracy and the Left in Britain.
This last approach is represented above all in the work of Stuart Hall, but it has since been adopted quite widely on the left. The guiding thread of Hall’s work is the argument that Thatcherism rests on ‘authoritarian populism’. He argues that ‘authoritarian populism’ (hereafter ‘AP’) successfully condenses a wide range of popular discontents with the post-war economic and political order and mobilizes them around an authoritarian, right-wing solution to the current economic and political crisis in Britain. This success is regarded with begrudging admiration because Thatcherism took the ideological struggle more seriously than the Left and has reaped the reward of popular support. Some conclude that the Left must articulate Thatcherite themes into its own discourse, but others, such as Hall, insist that Thatcherism can best be defeated by developing an alternative vision of the future, a socialist morality, and a socialist common-sense. Thus the apparent ideological celebration of Thatcherism is complemented by an emphasis on ideological struggle in the socialist response. This approach has been much acclaimed on the left even if it has not yet become the dominant approach to Thatcherism.
I. The Ideological Celebration of Thatcherism
We criticize some implications of this approach in the present section and will consider alternatives below. Firstly, we argue that the precise meaning of ‘authoritarian populism’ is unclear and that this can lead to incoherent or inconsistent explanations. This derives in turn from an uncritical use of Gramsci’s rather descriptive accounts of hegemony and/or from an over-extension of ‘authoritarian populism’ (AP) to very different fields and levels of social, political, and ideological analysis. In particular these studies generalize too readily from changes in the ideological field to other areas of British society. This tends to mystify the real sources of support for Thatcherism because they are subsumed indiscriminately under the rubric of AP. This problem is compounded since the politics of electoral support is often conflated with the politics of governmental power. Thus the AP approach ignores some potential sources of contradiction and tension within Thatcherism and overstates its general strength and resilience.
In later sections we consider the economic and political background of Thatcherism and the specific characteristics of its economic and political strategy. Our account is not totally at odds with Hall’s approach and it often accepts or expands themes found in Policing the Crisis and The Politics of Thatcherism. But we do wish to reject the ‘ideologism’ of the AP approach. Thus we also consider the political and institutional context in which Thatcherism developed, as well as the crisis of hegemony to which it represents one response. In particular we focus on the ‘dual crisis of the state’ as a neglected aspect of the crisis of the British state and on the ‘two nations’ character and effects of Thatcherism as a neglected aspect of its politics of power. We also argue that a one-sided emphasis on AP can produce mistaken conclusions about the most appropriate left-wing strategy to counter Thatcherism.
1. The Background to ‘Authoritarian Populism’
The intellectual background to the AP approach is found in the work of Stuart Hall and his former associates at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.Their work is directly concerned with historically specific, ‘conjunctural’ phenomena in the cultural and political fields and is strongly influenced by Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. The most significant source of the AP approach is the Centre’s work on the ‘moral panic’ over mugging which occurred in Britain in 1972–73 and its wider political and ideological context. This study of Policing the Crisis charted the rise of an exceptional form of representative state in Britain and also alluded to the development of ‘authoritarian populism’. But it was other work by Stuart Hall himself which really sparked the debate on ‘authoritarian populism’ on the British Left. An influential article on the rightward drift of British politics and culture appeared in January 1979, and there has since been a spate of articles by Hall and others on AP and its implications for Thatcherism. The Politics of Thatcherism presents some of these contributions but there are many others.
Hall’s use of the term ‘authoritarian populism’ is most directly concerned with the emergence and success of Thatcherism. But it also refers to a wider political transformation—aspects of which were first charted in Policing the Crisis. This described the general shift in the seventies towards the coercive, disciplinary pole of state power at the expense of the consensual, hegemonic pole. This is ascribed to the decay of the post-war settlement under Conservative hegemony in the fifties and the subsequent failure of a labourist, corporatist alternative. Thus the crisis worsened and class struggle intensified. By 1966 the social democratic alternative was so exhausted that crisis-management through whatever means became more urgent than reconstituting consensus. The shift towards open repression and the ‘law-and-order’ society gathered pace. However, faced with a massive political defeat at the hands of the miners in 1972, Heath returned to the corporatist strategy. The new Labour Government in 1974 retreated further from the ‘law-and-order’ society but retained key elements of a more repressive mode of mass integration. There was also growing ideological polarization, a coordinated swing towards tougher social discipline on the right, and, most significantly, the capture of the leadership of the Conservative Party by the radical right represented by Mrs Thatcher.
In his more recent work Hall describes the 1974–79 Labour government as ‘pragmatic and creeping authoritarianism’ but does not consider that the Labour Party itself presided over the constitution of ‘authoritarian populism’. This must await the emergence of Thatcherism, which marks a qualitatively new stage in post-war British politics.
It is in this context that the contributions to The Politics of Thatcherism must be located. The general line in these essays is that ‘Thatcherism’ appeared at a historic conjuncture where three trends converged: first, the long-term structural decline of the British economy synchronized with the deepening into recession of the world capitalist economy; second, the collapse of the third post-war Labour government and the disintegration of the whole social democratic consensus which had provided the framework of British politics since 1945; third, the resumption of the ‘new Cold War’. Its contributors then deal with different aspects of Thatcherism, its policies, and their impact. Among many issues discussed are the economy, trade unions, the welfare state and health service, women, law and order, and the party system. However, although many contributions to The Politics of Thatcherism recognize the complex conjuncture to which Thatcherism corresponds, it is the notion of ‘authoritarian populism’ which has fired the imagination of many on the left. This is particularly clear in the specific strategic conclusions which have been drawn concerning the best response to Thatcherism. But we must first consider the problems involved.
2. The Ambiguities of ‘Authoritarian Populism’
The notion of ‘authoritarian populism’ has a certain intuitive appeal to those on the left seeking to explain the apparently irrational support which Thatcherism has won for its attacks on working people. For it links with a respectable theoretical tradition concerned with hegemony and also attributes an authoritarian and recidivist character to the Thatcherite project. But behind this intuitive appeal lurk some significant inconsistencies and ambiguities. Indeed, the very phrase, ‘authoritarian populism’, indicates these difficulties by coupling the notions of ‘authority’ and ‘people’. Sometimes its authoritarian, disciplinary, coercive pole is emphasized, sometimes its populist, popular, and consensual pole. This can be seen in several areas.
Hall notes that AP implies a convergence between the demands of those in authority and the pleas of the populace for the imposition of a solution to the current crisis. But at various times he has interpreted this as involving the rise of an exceptional form of the capitalist state, the routinization of coercion as the mode in which consent is secured, or simply the articulation of a new type of political project with popular support.
Hall also relates AP to ‘passive revolution’. Gramsci introduced the latter concept to describe a social transformation which occurs without mass mobilization—because it results from a gradual accumulation of small-scale, ‘molecular’ changes and/or because it is organized from above. When emphasizing its populist, popular, consensual aspects, Hall sees AP as a passive revolution from below; when emphasizing its authoritarian, disciplinary, and coercive aspects, he regards it as a passive revolution from above.
There is also some ambiguity concerning the relationship between the people and the power bloc. Sometimes Hall sees it as a populist unity between the people and the power bloc, so that organic links are constructed between the dominant and dominated classes; sometimes as a populist rapture in which the people are collectively mobilized against the power bloc; sometimes as a species of populist ventriloquism in which the power bloc speaks in the name of the people and dissimulates its own ideas as those of the people.
More generally ‘authoritarian’ and ‘populism’ often have very different connotations. At various times AP is ‘authoritarian’ because it calls for a strong state and social discipline, is transformist in effecting a passive revolution from above, articulates authoritarian themes, or is hostile to popular-democratic ideas, movements, and institutions. Likewise AP is ‘populist’ because it addresses a set of popular issues, stresses nationalist over sectional interests, redefines the nature of the British people, or simply appeals to the people. In short, it seems that the AP approach appeals to the Left because it condenses a large number of interpretative schemes and can be stretched in different ways according to circumstances. These ambiguities are not restricted to the analysis of Thatcherism but also influence accounts of other political phenomena. Thus Hall offers three different views on the rise of the Social Democratic Party: in terms of the general rightward drift which brought Thatcherism to power, in terms of the survival of the post-war social democratic consensus in the face of Thatcherism’s ‘damaging raids’, and in terms of ‘Social Caesarism’ due to a catastrophic political vacuum. These explanations could, of course, capture different aspects of the SDP. But this is never clarified and the ambiguities remain.
Indeed the very elasticity of the concept of AP is a source of inconsistencies and difficulties. This is why we argue that it mystifies the real sources of support for Thatcherism. But this does not mean all reference to ‘authoritarian populism’ must be expunged—merely that the term be used carefully. This might suggest that we could clarify its meaning and then proceed to analyse Thatcherism. But, insofar as the AP approach deals one-sidedly with the ideological dimension of Thatcherism, this would still involve real theoretical and political problems.
3. The Ideologism of ‘Authoritarian Populism’
This ideological bias has three main sources. It is grounded in the intellectual origins of the AP approach, its preferred methodology, and its substantive research focus. Firstly, with its deep foundations in Gramsci’s analyses of hegemony and its initial articulation with the Althusserian Marxist thematic of relative autonomy, there was already a danger that the AP approach would move in a politicist or ideologist direction. Hall subsequently moved away from Althusserian Marxism to a more ‘discourse-theoretical’ approach. Whereas the former involved a formal insistence on economic determination in the last instance, the latter tends to treat the effectivity of language and discourse as sui generis and autonomous. This reinforces the danger of ideologism—especially when it is coupled with a vehement opposition to ‘economism’ and ‘class reductionism’.
Secondly, as his analysis of ‘authoritarian populism’ has developed, Hall has drawn increasingly on discourse theory. He examines hegemony in terms of the formation of social subjects and considers how Thatcherism articulates the relations between people and state. Thus ‘authoritarian populism’ is seen as an attempt radically to deconstruct the social democratic hegemonic framework involved in the post-war settlement and to construct a new ‘common sense’ and a new ‘hegemonic project’. Hall now sees Thatcherism in terms of its mobilization of popular support through a chain of equivalences of the kind: market = free choice = freedom and liberty = anti-statism = put an end to creeping collectivism. In emphasizing the specific discursive strategies involved in Thatcherism, AP risks ignoring other elements. In particular, it could neglect the structural underpinnings of Thatcherism in the economic and state systems and its specific economic and political bases of support among both people and power bloc. Thirdly, in focusing on one area of social life (the media and politics as centres of ideological struggle), the AP approach treats it as a paradigm for other spheres of society. This generates an excessive concern with the mass media and ideological production at the expense of political and economic organization and the concrete reception of political ideologies within determinant conditions. There is barely any reference to the material rewards accruing to those sections of society, within and without the power bloc, who have supported the Thatcherite camp.
4. Thatcherism as Monstrous Monolith
Although Hall and others have raised the question of the audience’s reception of ideologies, the danger remains of assuming that the ‘message’ as emitted is identical to the message as received and understood. The AP approach correctly notes that the Tories provided appealing explanations for the failure of Keynesianism, offered a means to express resistance to the defects of bureaucratic welfarism, legitimated the individuating experience of work in modern capitalism, etc. But it does not establish which of these messages, if any, were accepted and by whom. Thus the AP approach tends to homogenize the impact and universalize the appeal of Thatcherism.
The AP approach focuses on the ideological message of Thatcherism and thereby endows it with an excessively unified image. It sometimes implies that all sections of society support Thatcherism for the same (ideologically induced) reasons. This neglects possible internal cleavages within the social basis of Thatcherism. One wonders whether the 24 per cent of the unemployed and the 55 per cent of professional middle-class men who voted Conservative in 1933 really did so for the same reasons.
If we are to begin such an analysis, we must consider the appeal of Thatcher to individuals across a broad spectrum of social locations. Which aspects, if any, of the Thatcherite project appeal to small business owners, middle-aged workers, black people, the long-term unemployed, and full-time housewives? Is the impact of authoritarian populism, as mediated through a national press, nationwide radio and network television, uniform across the country? Or are there marked regional differences between North and South, between England and the Celtic Fringes? If the impact is not uniform, what accounts for this? How do we explain the marked volatility of support for Conservatives, Labour, and Alliance between 1979 and 1983? Why was there a massive haemorrhage of skilled working-class votes from Conservative to Labour, then from Labour to SDP, then from SDP back to the Conservatives in the wake of the Falklands, and finally (but for how long?) a lesser swing back to Labour since the election of Kinnock to the leadership. What does it mean for Conservative support that the tax burden has risen for all but the top bracket of tax payers, that unemployment has increased, and that there is still widespread support for the Beveridge system of social security and the NHs? Are anti-statist themes as resonant in the Conservative assault on the health service as in the attack on nationalized industries? In short, if we deconstruct Thatcherism, what follows for its popular impact? And, equally, what follows for socialist strategy?
Thatcherism must be seen less as a monolithic monstrosity and more as an alliance of disparate forces around a self-contradictory programme. We need to analyse the specific mechanisms by which specific groups were mobilized behind the general campaigning themes of ‘resolute government’, the ‘national interest’, patriotism, union bashing, etc., rather than concentrate on those empty (or over-full?) phrases themselves. This would indicate the potential ruptures in the Thatcherite alliance. It would also reveal potential strengths in the Thatcherite project where support for Thatcherism might be widened and deepened as a result of Tory policies.
II. The Political Economy of Thatcherism
The AP approach concentrates on ideological outputs and thereby fails to challenge the new right’s account of the current situation. Thus it tends to accept Mrs Thatcher’s rewriting of post-war history, in which 1979 marks a decisive break. This is implied in its confused account of the historical background to Thatcherism as the crisis of the post-war, social democratic settlement; and in its ambiguities concerning whether there is a new, popular consensus around authoritarian populism. Both implications must be challenged.
1. The Post-war Settlement
Firstly, the AP approach exaggerates the unity of the Keynesian Welfare State (hereafter KWS) and its social democratic character. It thereby tends to explain the failures of the KWS, the drift into a ‘law-and-order society’, and the eventual rise of ‘authoritarian populism’ in terms of the self-contradictory character of the Labour Party as the principal vehicle of the KWS. It chiefly focuses on the organizational and ideological repercussions of the contradiction between Labour’s role as the party of the working class and its role as a government presiding over the nation. It is only in this context that the ‘great moving right show’ gets on the road and exploits the popular resentments against the social democratic and Statist KWS system. This approach connects neatly with a critique of the Labour Party for Labourism, parliamentarism, etc., but it also neglects other problems with the KWS. In particular it ignores the initial lack of socialist hegemony in the KWS, the self-contradictory character of the KWS system as established in Britain, and the absence of favourable economic and political conditions for the subsequent pursuit of a social democratic KWS. Thus, in privileging social democratic responsibility for the current crisis, the AP concedes too much to the Thatcherite critique of the post-war settlement as a manifestation of ‘creeping socialism’ and overweening statism.
It can certainly be accepted that the commitments to full employment and the creation and expansion of the welfare state were major elements in the post-war settlement. But these co-existed with support for the international reserve and transaction roles of sterling and for a military establishment and defence tasks which were incompatible with an effective KWS system. In turn this reveals the hybrid and contradictory character of the post-war settlement and the limits of social democratic hegemony therein. There is an obvious genetic fallacy in arguing that, because Labour presided over the establishment of the welfare state and the commitment to full employment, these must have been socialist in political and ideological character. This argument not only ignores the pre-history of the ‘road to 1945’ (especially the role of Liberals and ‘One Nation Tories’ and the general character of the wartime coalition government) but also neglects the significance of ‘Butskellism’ and ‘MacWilsonism’ in the 1950s and 1960s.
Anthony Barnett has recently suggested that the distinctive cross-class and inter-party consensus that emerged from the coalition government (which he terms ‘Churchillism’) inhibited both the development of a vigorous, right-wing bourgeois party such as the Gaullist movement and the development of a nationally hegemonic Brandt/Schmidt type of social democracy. This underlines the weakness of social democracy in Britain. Castles has likewise emphasized that the dynamic of the KWS under working-class hegemony in Scandinavia stands in marked contrast with the dynamic of the KWS in countries where bourgeois parties and/or the bourgeois class have retained political and ideological hegemony. Similarly Ian Gilmour, in rejecting right-wing Conservative charges that his own, Tory Party had been marching in a socialist direction since the Labour landslide in 1945, comments that the post-war consensus was ‘founded upon making capitalism work . . . (and) was rather more of a Tory than a Socialist consensus.’
The post-war consensus around the KWS was limited by the post-war consensus on Atlanticist foreign policy and City financial policy and was conducted not under the hegemony of the Labour Party and/or the working class, or even of the industrial bourgeoisie, but under the dominance of financial capital. This must qualify any argument that there has been a radical break between a social democratic era and the present Thatcherite ascendancy. This holds in two senses. Firstly, there are some significant areas of continuity in such areas as foreign and diplomatic policy, subordination to US policy, policies on law and order, ‘home affairs’ more generally, Treasury dominance, etc. And, secondly, crucial ruptures associated with Thatcherism were actually initiated during the period of so-called social democratic consensus: abandonment of full employment, public expenditure cuts, and privileging the fight against inflation. This suggests that Thatcherism has simply provided an ideological gloss to these tendencies and thereby reinforced them.
If the AP approach is right to argue that there can be no return to the Keynesian Welfare State status quo ante, this is not simply because Thatcherism has redefined the terrain of struggle and the political agenda. It is also because the KWS itself was fatally flawed ab initio for two reasons. It was articulated into a conservative rather than social democratic political and ideological consensus; and pursued under constraints imposed by the economic dominance of City and international capitalist interests.
2. The Post-war Settlement in Crisis
The KWS became increasingly crisis-prone as the long wave of global capital accumulation was exhausted in the seventies and Britain’s structural weaknesses became more severe. The contradictory framework of the KWS means that there has always been a political cycle in its development. This is seen in the politically mediated ‘stop-go’ cycle and a succession of liberal and corporatist political strategies. But this dynamic became more marked in the seventies. The growing crisis of the KWS witnessed a trade-unionist and corporatist offensive by the labour movement (from the 1972 miners’ strike through the 1974 elections and the early days of the Social Contract to the referendum on continued membership of the EEC in 1975). This produced significant economic-corporate gains but no fundamental reorganization of capital, the state system, or the power bloc to the long-term advantage of labour. Beneath the conjunctural fluctuations of economic and political power, the political and ideological hegemony of capital was only temporarily threatened and its economic dominance (especially that of the City and international capital) was not checked. After the exhaustion of the labour movement’s offensive, there came a period of relative stabilization. The Labour Government presided over this, but the real action occurred in civil society. Class forces were not so much in a state of paralysis as re-grouping for the next round of struggle. Thus, whereas the Labour movement outside Parliament was going on the retreat and moving even further into an economistic and defensive war of manoeuvre (symbolized, par excellence, in the ‘Winter of Discontent’), the right was preparing for an offensive in which a political and ideological war of position was given priority and the roll-back of the earlier economic-corporate gains of the labour movement was also placed on the political agenda.
Thatcherism is significant here because it provided the focal point around which the counter-offensive mobilized. This was all the more urgent because the international recession and the death-throes of the already flawed KWS made it impossible to return to the KWS status quo ante and demanded forward movement merely to stabilize the political system. This was also recognized on the left; but only the right engaged in the necessary war of political and ideological position.
In this sense Thatcherism does represent a break with the post-war settlement. But this must be carefully specified. It has neither produced a new, national-popular consensus nor created a new, organic power bloc. To establish these claims we consider first the popular appeal and impact of Thatcherism and then the initial backing it received from sections of the old power bloc.
3. Rupture or Continuity?
The AP approach sometimes implies that Thatcherism has hegemonized the people with a new and unified programme. Yet it is also recognized that many elements of Thatcherism have a long history in the electoral ideologies and perspectives of the Tory Party; and that, ‘though Thatcherism has proved to be an effective, populist force, it continues to be a minority one.’ This leaves serious ambiguities as to the real nature of the rupture produced by Thatcherism even on the ideological level. Our own view is that, if there is a novelty in Thatcherism, it lies in two areas. Firstly, Thatcherism has closed the gap between the AP and ‘neo-liberal’ electoral ideologies of grassroots Tories and the political perspectives of the Tory leadership—dislodging the old ‘One Nation’ and ‘Right-progressive’ Tories from control. And, secondly, in linking ‘authoritarian populism’ and ‘neo-liberalism’ to a new productivist ideology, Thatcherism justifies an implicit ‘Two Nations’ strategy. But even here Mrs Thatcher has not yet articulated a full-blooded neo-liberal approach to the welfare state—instead she advocates a social market economy and has moved cautiously in tackling key elements in the welfare state.
It would be quite wrong to underestimate the pragmatism of Mrs Thatcher’s strategy simply because she proclaims herself a conviction politician and appears to be ideologically motivated. From the moment she stood against Heath for the party leadership, the vehemence of the oppositional elements in her electoral perspectives has not been matched by an equally clear-cut programme of action for government. Style should not be confused with substance. Thatcherism changes continually in the light of circumstances. The AP approach demonstrates how Thatcherism has attempted to establish a chain of equivalences among themes such as monetarism, the strong state, law and order, the family, etc. But it also tends to reify these linkages and to ignore their changing emphases and contexts.
The AP approach also seems to imply that working-class Conservatism is motivated by authoritarian populism as a new national-popular project. Yet Engels complained to Marx over a century ago that ‘once again, the proletariat has discredited itself terribly’, and there has always been a sizeable working-class Conservative vote. This reflects the dual appeal of the Conservative Party as it mobilized two kinds of working-class support—deferential voters inspired by the ‘traditional emotions’ and secular, self-seeking voters. This suggests that the support for Thatcherism should not be reduced to ‘authoritarian populism’ (which largely continues the appeal to the ‘traditional emotions’ in changed circumstances) but should also be related to more pragmatic interests in lower direct taxation, council house sales, rising living standards for those still in private sector employment, lower inflation, and so forth.
Continuity rather than rupture is also seen in the Conservatives’ failure to organize the working class politically (as opposed to receiving its votes). They made several attempts to do so after 1867 and failed— recruiting few activists and party officials (let alone MPs) among manual workers and having at best a marginal conservative trade union movement, etc. This problem is still significant today. For Thatcherite organizations are largely confined to the ideological sphere (Institute of Economic Affairs, National Viewers and Listeners Association, Festival of Light, Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, etc.) and are only loosely connected with the Conservative Party. Moreover, even if there is considerable popular support for Thatcherism, it is not reflected in the economic and/or political organizations of the working class or the new middle class. This confirms that Thatcherism involves a passive revolution rather than mass mobilization—let alone a fascist mass mobilization. Where are the Thatcherite ‘new model’ unions, the Tebbit Labour Front, the Thatcherite Youth, the women’s movement, Thatcherite sports leagues, rambling clubs, etc., which might consolidate and fix a mobilized working class? They do not exist and this highlights a certain vulnerability for the Thatcherite project.
We are clearly not arguing that Thatcherism could only survive if all its support from the working class (and other social forces) was motivated by ‘authoritarian populism’ and/or if the working class (and other social forces) were mobilized in Thatcherite organizations. We are merely pointing out that there is no single ideological or organizational basis of Thatcherism and that its success depends on other factors—including luck. It has certainly been fortunate in the disintegration of the Labour Party over issues such as industrial relations, the EEC, incomes policy, defence policy, etc., the formation of the SPD, and the electoral impact of the SPD-Liberal Alliance. Three areas of struggle will prove crucial in future. Firstly, the Thatcherite definition of the political agenda must be imposed and a Thatcherite commonsense consolidated. Secondly, there must be continued success in the war of manoeuvre to disorganize the opposition to Thatcherism. And, thirdly, the Thatcher government must continue to deliver material concessions to at least some significant groups of electors.
4. The Economic Interests behind Thatcherism
‘Authoritarian populist’ themes certainly appealed to grassroots Tories and others among the electorate. But this does not mean that AP directly influenced the economic policies pursued by Thatcherism and/or motivated their support among different class forces. The interesting question is how rhetoric for the Party faithful was translated into substantive programmes and policies. Popular support for AP arguments does not explain how powerful interests came to accept such stale nostrums. The answer must be sought in three areas: firstly, in the sphere of economic power; secondly, in the sphere of state structures and the dual crisis of the state; and, thirdly, in the circumstances of ‘relative stabilization’ and right-wing offensive surrounding Mrs Thatcher’s election to the party leadership.
The economic interests behind Thatcherism cannot be reduced to those of the City and the multinationals. Rather Thatcherism is based upon an uneasy and potentially unstable alliance of interests. Firstly, the large increase in the size and mobility of market funds during the 1970s made it increasingly difficult for the authorities to use open market operations to control interest and exchange rates. The government was therefore faced with the alternatives of tighter controls or the promotion of laissez-faire in the financial markets to allow them to determine interest and exchange rates. The City was strongly opposed to the former but could happily support the latter insofar as control of the money supply was achieved by a deflationary fiscal policy. These City interests received political and ideological expression through Sir Keith Joseph’s ‘conversion’ to monetarism and anti-statism and through the role of leading City commentators and financial journalists as the organic intellectuals of a new economic strategy.
Secondly, the moves towards monetarist targeting in the US Federal Reserve Bank and the IMF stimulated changes in the Bank of England’s view (and in the City more generally) and this contributed to the Callaghan-Healey administration’s adoption of ‘technical monetarism’ under pressure from the IMF. Thirdly, although the Treasury was sceptical about the mechanism and costs of monetarism per se, it welcomed this ideological shift as helpful to its traditional campaign to limit public expenditure and tame the fiscal crisis.
Fourthly, on the industrial front, few anticipated the depth of the coming recession, and the CBI welcomed the promises of lower inflation and tax cuts for businessmen. There was also a widespread desire to use the recession to ‘re-impose managerial authority’. Furthermore, the City and neo-liberal Conservatives hoped the recession would force the industrial restructuring which corporatism had failed to deliver. Finally, the unions were to be excluded from the policy-making process, and this also appealed to the City and key industrial sectors (see below).
5. The Dual Crisis of the British State
This coalition of interests provided the Thatcher Government with the initial economic authority to implement radically new policies just as its electoral mandate provided political authority and AP provided ideological legitimacy. But these relatively conjunctural factors were reinforced by the ‘dual crisis’ of parliamentarism and corporatism in the post-war British state. For there are simultaneous, albeit unevenly developed, crises in the spheres of parliamentary representation and corporatist (or functional) representation. The development of the KWS and other forms of intervention in post-war Britain has undermined the role of parliamentarism, but no effective alternative (such as corporatism) has been evolved. Yet, without suitable forms of ‘democratic’ consultation and/or regulation corresponding to different spheres and forms of state intervention, the effectiveness of state policies is undermined and their legitimacy is questioned. This was increasingly true of Britain in the sixties and seventies.
The combination of parliamentary and corporatist modes of interest intermediation, and their specialization in different political and economic tasks, are supposed to enhance the adaptive capacities of the political system. But in Britain neither mode of political representation can function in the appropriate manner. Each is subject to a complex crisis affecting its institutional form, representational ties, and its economic and political rationality. In turn this is overdetermined by the dynamic of class (and non-class) relations and the economic and political strategies pursued by different social forces. The combination of these crises intensifies the effects of each. This aggravates the problems of the British state in securing its operational unity, economic and political efficacy, and overall legitimacy.
This is reflected in the increased decisional autonomy of the state elite. But is also associated with the declining economic and political efficacy of state intervention through rational-legal administration of measures in accord with the substantive rule of law and/or through corporatist means. These crises created the opening for the enhanced decisional autonomy of the Thatcher government to pursue its programme in the face of a crisis-prone party system and an unstable and ineffective corporatism.
In particular the trade union movement and business associations remain so decentralized and fragmented that they cannot play any efficient (as opposed to ‘dignified’) long-term role in the formulation, coordination, and implementation of an effective incomes policy or an active structural policy. This is reinforced in the British case by the separation of the industrial and political wings of the Labour movement and the dominance of the City and multinational corporate interests within the Conservative Party. In both cases this has complicated the problem of coordinating functional representation and parliamentary representation.
Given the continuing structural crisis of the British economy and the failure of Keynesianism and post-Keynesian techniques, it is not really surprising that monetarism found increasing favour in some quarters. For it allegedly cut through the knotty problem of how to regenerate the British economy when tripartism and state intervention had failed. In future it would be unnecessary to consult trade unions and to make them concessions in return for non-binding and undeliverable sacrifices. It would also be unnecessary to establish elaborate bureaucracies for discriminatory state intervention, whose attempts to use taxpayers’ money and ad hoc rules to promote economic growth were throwing good money after bad and destroying business confidence in the stability of its decision-making environment. At the same time monetarism could be sold to the electorate in terms of its purported tax cuts, reduced inflation, increased incentives, etc., and its homely connotations of sound housekeeping and restored responsibilities for the family at the expense of the ‘governess state’.
To the crisis of corporatism must be added the crisis of the parliamentary and party systems. Three aspects are particularly important here. The growing difficulties facing KWS economic strategy are reflected in the breakdown of the inter-party consensus on accumulation (leading to divergent economic strategies) and the exacerbation of intra-party conflicts (notably within the Labour Party but also between an emergent ‘new Right’ and the disorganized ‘right progressive’ or ‘One Nation’ tendency in the Conservative Party). The third aspect is the conjoint impact of the crisis of the KWS and inter- and intra-party conflicts upon the social bases of the political party system and its capacities to integrate diverse social and economic groups into the capitalist order. This is reflected in the growing volatility of electoral support for the established parties (and, judging by recent evidence, the Liberal-SDP Alliance) and the development of significant marginal groups whose interests and/or demands find no channels of representation within the established parliamentary and party systems. Together these three aspects call into question the capacities of the prevailing system to perform their integrative, legitimatory, and accumulation functions.
Given the crisis of the Conservative Party, there was a space for the resurgence of petty-bourgeois ressentiment and its increasing influence in the counsels of the Conservative Party. At the same time the crisis of representation within the Labour Party and the more general process of partisan dealignment meant that there was an increasing mass of potentially floating voters. This encouraged a growing resort to populism, i.e., direct appeals to the ‘people’ over the heads of their representatives in competing parties and Parliament. This ‘populism’ is of a quite specific kind. It is not concerned with an active populist mobilization—which would be threatening to the decisional autonomy of Thatcherism. Instead it is concerned to outflank organized opposition from government backbenchers (especially the so-called ‘wets’) as well as from the labour movement. For, if Thatcher represents the people directly, opposition can be presented as undemocratic. In this sense Thatcherite populism is indeed predominantly plebiscitary and ventriloquist in character: Thatcher speaks in the name of the people against all sectional interests, including those in her own party.
Thus we disagree with Keith Middlemas, who argued shortly after the 1983 general election that Mrs Thatcher had restored the primacy of party over the system of corporate bias in British politics. For, whilst Thatcherism has systematically demoted the role of functional representation in political and economic crisis-management, it has not presided over a reassertion of parliamentary control mediated through the political party system. The Conservatives certainly won a landslide victory in 1983, which enhances their capacities to control the Commons; but this control is very much one that is orchestrated from above, by a small Prime Ministerial clique within (but not necessarily of) the Cabinet together with Mrs Thatcher’s official and irregular advisers. In the last five years the concentration and centralization of power in the state administration has accelerated at the expense of parliament and parties. Britain is moving towards a presidential system: government legitimacy is dependent upon the popular prestige of the Prime Minister and her ability to appeal directly to the people. Moreover, alongside the resort to populism, there is an increasing appeal to raison d’état to justify decisions. Populism and prerogative powers further enhance the decisional autonomy of government. But, as the series of policy errors and political embarrassments—the so-called ‘banana skins’—since the general election indicates, decisional autonomy does not guarantee good government. In this respect the crisis of parliamentarism and the party system continues and the formulation and implementation of policy (including economic strategy) lacks the necessary democratic regulation from the party system as well as from functional representation.
This affects monetarism as well as other areas of government policy. For, although monetarism appears to offer a way out of the impasse of economic policy created by the dual crisis of the state, it does so only by divorcing economic policy-making from any effective anchorage in formal political and economic representation. This has certainly enhanced Thatcherism’s room for manoeuvre in pursuing its monetarist strategy in the face of rising unemployment, continued de-industrialization, rising levels of taxation, increasing proportions of state spending in GDP, deterioration in the non-oil balance of trade, and so forth. It remains to be seen whether this has also made the strategy more coherent and capitalistically rational through the increased relative autonomy which it offers Britain’s ‘Bonaparte in petticoats’.
III. Economic Failure, Political Success
The formation and implementation of Thatcherite policy and its implications for hegemony are less concerned with popular mobilization than with the complex relations among the dominant classes and the structural crisis in the state. Even Thatcher’s populism must be located in relation to these aspects of the power bloc and the state. ‘Authoritarian populism’ explains little here, compared with its power in explaining how policies are legitimated and accepted. For Thatcherism does offer justifications for public expenditure cuts and the loading of costs onto the weakest or the unionized—something Labour could never do. But many fundamental shifts in commonsense, such as the priority to reduce inflation and the need to weaken the unions, do not derive directly from authoritarian populism. Thatcherism has certainly diminished the credibility of alternative economic approaches and has also convinced many people that future benefits will follow from present suffering. Dissatisfaction with present policies has been contained within manageable bounds. These bounds could burst open, however, if the benefits are too long coming. It is here that the weakest link in Thatcher’s hegemonic chain of office can be found.
Indeed, once we examine her political programme, we discover significant sources of opposition as well as possible bases of support. Whilst there are some policies and programmes which might seem to deliver material concessions and/or disorganize the forces opposed to Thatcherism, there are others which would seem to threaten Thatcherism’s social bases of support and to provide a basis for unified resistance. Moreover, if the policies do not succeed, Thatcherite commonsense would also be undermined.
1. Mrs Thatcher’s Economic Experiment
If monetarism means that the rate of growth of the money supply is closely controlled in order to affect the price level, then Mrs Thatcher has failed to be monetarist. Instead inflation has dropped as a result of lower commodity prices in the world recession, massive unemployment, capital’s inability to raise prices as competition intensified, and the huge collapse in economic activity as Britain was hastened into recession at least a year ahead of other nations. Anti-inflation policy remains central but it has been achieved through generalized deflation rather than effective control of the money supply. This has obvious strategic implications as workers’ power is devastated and the senile areas of British industry suffer involuntary euthanasia. But there is a basic contradiction at the heart of this strategy—there is no real means of ensuring productive restructuring, investment, and innovation to secure sustained recovery and growth. Meanwhile the strong State acts to sort out the unions and liberate the entrepreneurs. This involves a leap of faith. For there is little evidence that, once unions have been shackled and entrepreneurs liberated, markets will autonomously generate domestic expansion without any substantial governmental direction or coordination. Diminishing the state’s economic role and abolishing inflation are supposed to create the climate for recovery. Yet the means to that end is a constant dampening of economic activity through the Medium Term Financial Strategy and panic cuts to sustain both the MTFS and the confidence of financial markets. All the while the life blood of productive investment haemorrhages abroad and public capital spending collapses at home.
Thus stagflation is replaced by simple stagnation as disinflation and reduced budget deficits displace direct efforts to secure profitable accumulation. Piecemeal facilitative subsidy and intervention still thrive, but there is no semblance of an industrial policy and little acknowledgement of the need for a propitious combination of a strong domestic market (not overwhelmed by import penetration) and government purchasing to allow even ‘sunrise’ industries to flourish. There is no guarantee that the slump wipes out only the backward and dying firms. A role is also played by contingent factors such as debt ratios, dependence on public works, sensitivity to exchange rates and import penetration. Open markets, sound money, and free capital movements may well be a recipe for City profits (and perhaps for the multinationals as well), but they also store up a long-term crisis for expansion and employment. So, having preached a combination of monetarism and laissez-faire, unified by the dominance of disinflationary policy, the government has nowhere to go and nothing to do once inflation falls and stagnation continues.
This outlook entails that the fiscal crisis generated by the recession policies will be met by increased pressure on ‘current account’ costs in social security and unemployment benefit. It is these costs, together with youth ‘training’, nuclear ‘defence’, and ‘policing the crisis’, which generate fiscal pressures—not the allegedly excessive demands imposed by rampant pressure-group democracy. Capital investment has been sacrificed to such costs since 1974. Even where cuts have involved restructuring or privatization, these have not been coordinated for a rational pursuit of efficiency or service. The cuts have a direct public impact and their supposed benefits recede even further.
2. The Declining Tory Vote
We now turn to the political impact of the Thatcherite project. This must be considered on three levels: the politics of support, the recasting of the institutional forms of political domination, and the recomposition of the power bloc. One of the most significant areas of the politics of support is the partisan alignment of the electorate. Here the picture is very mixed.
The Tory vote has been in decline since 1931, the Labour vote has been eroded steadily since 1951, and the Liberals have been gaining more votes for the last three decades; the big cities have been moving against the Tories from 1959, the South-East against Labour since 1966; the North-South divide has been deepening since 1945. Together these trends mean that, in the North, Labour was largely fighting the Alliance in 1983 and, in the South, the Tories were largely fighting the Alliance. The Tories have also been losing support in the ‘Celtic fringes’ since the mid-fifties and have already lost their Unionist base in Northern Ireland. In addition the Conservatives’ traditional relative advantage among the professional middle class and among white-collar workers has been steadily eroded. Likewise women and black voters have increasingly moved away from the Tories.
The need to reconstitute the electoral base of the Conservative Party was clear after the Heath administration’s failures between 1970 and 1974. Mrs Thatcher promised to break with ‘One Nation’ consensus politics and to develop a new appeal. Indeed, despite its rhetoric of the common good and of healing the division in society, Thatcherism is clearly engendering new cleavages and polarizing society. The ‘traditional emotions’ are significant here but so is the pragmatic appeal to those linked to the productive sectors of the economy. The promise of greater material rewards and lower taxes played a key role in the recomposition of the Conservative vote. Thus ‘the fact that the Tory Party actually increased its vote among skilled manual workers means that the relative Conservative unpopularity here had almost disappeared by 1983. Thatcher’s unique success with skilled workers enabled her to arrest—even to reverse in the short-term—the structural decline in Tory support.’ At the same time it is the skilled working-class vote which has proved most volatile, and as a result the Conservative Party remains vulnerable. In this sense we agree with Hall and Jacques when they write that ‘Thatcherism’s strength reflects the labour movement’s weaknesses.’
3. Recasting the State
When she was first elected to office, Mrs Thatcher was obliged to engage in various compromises and concessions to consolidate political support. This helps to explain the inconsistencies in Thatcherite policies during her first phase in power. But the Falklands Crisis was a fundamental factor in entrenching her personal position and the policies with which she is identified. She has also proceeded apace with restructuring the state, so that the impact of these policies is reinforced and institutionalized. In turn this would make it more difficult to reverse Thatcherism should Labour return to power. In particular the state has been Thatcherized through civil service reorganization and politically motivated promotion to key official posts; through the enhancement of Treasury control over all areas of government; through a much reinforced policing apparatus and redefinition of ‘subversion’; through the radical centralization of government power and the assault on local government; through a programme of denationalization and competition which would be difficult to reverse; through privatization in the welfare state—thereby constructing new interests around private provision both among clients and within the professions and supply industries; through the radical restructuring of education and the expansion of the Manpower Services Commission (MSC); and so forth. The extent to which these new forms, areas, and patterns of state activity are reversible varies; but each constitutes at least a short-term obstacle to an alternative economic and political strategy. This has important implications for the development of the political struggle.
IV. Mrs Thatcher’s ‘Two Nations’
Government policies are having a complex and uneven impact on such societal cleavages as productive/parasitic, rich/poor, North/South, employed/unemployed, etc. This impact is often unintended or, at least, goes unarticulated. The Tory contributions to the 1984 budget debate, for example, rarely spoke of—let alone to—the unemployed. The nature of these cleavages has changed as Thatcherism has shifted its battle ground from opposition to the old consensus to construction of the new order. Increasingly Tory populism is taking the form of a unification of a privileged nation of ‘good citizens’ and ‘hard workers’ against a contained and subordinate nation which extends beyond the inner cities and their ethnic minorities to include much of the non-skilled working class outside the South-East. In this sense we believe that Thatcherism can fruitfully be seen as a ‘two nations’ project. We would highlight the following factors:
- Thatcherism has broken with the Conservative ‘one nation’ approach to the KWS. In both its social democratic and Tory ‘one nation’ versions the KWS was presented as an attempt to integrate the poor, deprived, and underprivileged into membership of the community through economic growth, full employment, and increasing, universal welfare benefits. This concern was heavily qualified, of course, by incompatible financial and military commitments (see above). Moreover, the KWS commitments were more honoured in the breach than in their successful fulfilment—a fact which became increasingly evident as private experiences became public knowledge in the sixties and seventies. But Thatcherism explicitly rejects these commitments: it is more concerned with managing the political repercussions of an ‘underclass’ whose existence is taken for granted rather than seen as a rebuke to society’s conscience. Indeed it is happy to expand this underclass of the unemployed and new waged poor to stimulate the purgative effects of economic crisis. It also intends to cut an allegedly overgrown welfare state and to construct a minimal, selective, ‘social security’ state akin to that in the United States.
- The KWS rested on an image of social divisions in terms of multiple, horizontal strata with more or less access to desired values. Sometimes these strata were identified in class terms, but no fundamental antagonism between the different classes was implied. All were actual or potential members of the ‘one nation’. In contrast Thatcherism presents an image of social divisions based on a single, vertical cleavage stretching from top to bottom of society which opposes the productive to the parasitic. This opposition between ‘two nations’ is seen as inherently antagonistic and cannot be transcended through the collectivism of the KWS. In general the productive sector is held to comprise those who produce goods and services that can be profitably marketed without the need for state subsidies. The parasitic include not only the various pauper classes (the unemployed, pensioners, the disabled, etc.) but also those whose economic activities in the public or private sectors are unprofitable in terms of capitalist forms of accounting. Only those state employees are excluded whose activities are essential to the minimal night-watchman role of the state—the police, armed forces, tax gatherers, etc. This is not to suggest that Thatcherism reduces all social antagonisms to the ‘productive/parasitic’ cleavage in some sort of discourse of equivalence. Other dichotomies are also deployed in Thatcherism, e.g., individual freedom vs. state coercion, East vs West, etc. But the ‘productive/parasitic’ distinction does provide a most useful insight into the dynamic of Thatcherism.
- In terms of the politics of support, the ‘two-nations’ approach requires that the productive be rewarded through the market for their contribution to production (or at least to the provision of profitable marketed goods and services); conversely the parasitic must suffer for their failure to contribute adequately (if at all) to the market (with little regard to the question of whether they are ‘deserving’ or otherwise). In this way Thatcherism hopes to recompose the conservative working class in a secular, instrumentalist, privatized direction, to bring about a more productivist orientation in the trade union movement, and to encourage greater investment and risk-taking, etc. At the same time the declining revenues and deteriorating conditions affecting the parasitic will eventually force them back into the market or, at least, minimize their burden on the taxpayer and productive elements in society.
- In terms of the politics of power, the ‘two-nations’ approach requires both administrative recommodification and further state intervention to create the conditions favourable to greater production. And, insofar as this hurts marginal or marginalizable groups, it also requires increased repression and police measures. There is an authoritarian element in the Thatcherite programme. But it is much better interpreted in terms of the problems of economic and political crisis-management, in a context of recommodification and retrenchment, than in terms of a generalized authoritarian populism.
The Limits of ‘Two Nations’
The further pursuit of this emergent ‘two-nations’ strategy could powerfully consolidate Thatcherism and leave Labour to defend the weak and marginal sections of society. Thus the fundamental political choice could become one between a new, ‘two-nation’ Toryism and a ‘one nation’ right-wing social democracy from the Alliance. Fortunately there are some powerful counter-tendencies to this:
(a) Popular support for the welfare state, and especially the health service, remained strong during the election and the Tories were obliged to commit themselves to a ‘no cuts’ policy. This support is reinforced by the opposition of public sector unions to further reductions in this area. Despite the fact that in the short term Lawson has forced through the public spending cuts required by the MFTS, the dilemma between raising taxes or cutting public services—given expanding commitments to defence and law and order—cannot be avoided in the medium term (1985/6).
(b) At present the ‘second nation’ is highly fragmented but there are multiple sites of resistance—especially at the local level. There is increasing evidence of politicization and a broadening of perspectives within the new social movements (especially the feminist movement and CND) and at the level of local trades’ councils and local government. It may yet prove possible to move ‘beyond the fragments’ if the Labour Party only plays a more constructive role here on the national level.
(c) The Government’s strategy towards local government, and the metropolitan councils in particular, has already produced considerable opposition going well beyond Labour Party circles. Indeed, it has already generated major conflicts in the Conservative Party in Parliament and the country at large.
(d) The combined effects of Conservative legislation and mass unemployment have not yet tamed the unions. The precise outcome of the current miners’ strike will have major implications for both government and unions. Should the miners inflict a defeat on the government, this will force a new ‘realism’ upon it; while if not, the interrupted movement towards a new ‘realism’ within the unions may regain strength.
(e) The law and order issue is highly complex. Recent policies have provoked civil libertarian and professional opposition, as well as working-class resistance to new forms of ‘policing’ the economic crisis, ranging from the 1981 riots to the miners’ strike itself.
It is clear from this brief survey that Tory hegemony is by no means consolidated. The Labour movement is still deeply divided over its response to Thatcherism but remains defensively strong. Moreover, although the middle classes are unlikely to form the hard core of a future socialist movement (as opposed to its Alliance opposition), some sections are hostile to Thatcherism and could open cleavages advantageous to the Left. Two further weaknesses should be noted. Firstly, since the main redistributional effects of state services are across the life-cycle, many of the privileged ‘good citizens’ will feel the direct consequences of any cuts during child-rearing and retirement—this represents a major obstacle to the ‘two nations’ strategy. Secondly, insofar as rapid inflation has been the basis for the creation of an inchoate populist category of ‘consumers’, whose interests in the moderation of inflation have been mobilized to justify public spending cuts, then the reduction of inflation may undermine the argument for further cuts—most people prefer better public services to further tax cuts.
V. A Thatcherite Power Bloc?
We now consider the politics of power and Thatcherism’s support within the dominant classes. Unfortunately the AP approach diverts attention from the power bloc in Britain and the shifting relations within this so-called Establishment. There are also weaknesses in Thatcher’s project here.
The coalition of interests whereby Thatcher achieved a ‘warrant of autonomy’ for her policies—a ‘mandate to impose transitional costs’— has already been described. To what extent does this ‘warrant’ continue? And has Thatcher consolidated a power bloc? The role of the state in organizing a power bloc has long been recognized, and there can be little doubt that Thatcherism has already had major repercussions on the state. But the state does not constitute the power bloc simply through some act of will or through some automatic political mechanism. Currently the reorganization of the power bloc seems limited by Mrs Thatcher’s distaste for the concessions involved in building a power bloc and by the contradictions in the sources of support for Thatcherism. In turn these must be related to the more general structural contradictions in the nature and location of British capital. But to complement our analysis of the popular support for Thatcherism, we still need to consider the prospects for a new power bloc in Britain.
1. The City was pleased with the move to laissez-faire in the financial markets, but a powerful current also bemoaned the ensuing volatility in the exchange and interest rates. This current favoured a stabilization policy by the Government—the conflict between the Government and the City was reflected in the sacking of the Governor of the Central Bank. The City would undoubtedly like to see further public spending cuts to contain the PSBR, but we should not forget that the City can continue to prosper on the basis of an upturn in the global economy— hence its concern with high US interest rates—even if the relative decline of the UK economy continues apace.
2. Industry in general has welcomed the reduction in inflation and the opportunity to ‘re-impose managerial authority’. But neither of these gains could be guaranteed during a prolonged recovery. The reported increase in productivity appears to have been largely the result of a one-off shake-out of labour and an epidemic of bankruptcies. Meanwhile industry is still unhappy with high interest rates, the level of the national insurance surcharge, the failure to reduce taxation, the level of local property taxes (rates), and the worsening imbalance between public expenditure on the capital and current accounts. In addition some industrialists regret the absence of a concerted industrial policy.
3. Most crucially the perennial problem of restructuring remains. As John Ross has demonstrated, ‘essentially, the experience of British capital under Thatcher breaks down into three categories.
First, certain economic sectors underwent rapid growth almost throughout the recession … oil, agriculture, communications, finance and electrical engineering. … Second, a series of sectors of the economy underwent no major decrease in output at all … food, drink, and tobacco manufacturing, mining, and retailing. Third, the sectors which underwent massive decline under Thatcher were general manufacturing and construction.’
In a period of rapid structural change, profits are not necessarily made by the firms which want new plant and machinery. Thus financial intermediaries become crucial. But the commercial nature and overseas orientation of the City mean that—in the absence of a concerted industrial policy by the state—the key role will devolve to the clearing banks. This hardly augurs well for industrial regeneration.
4. The current policy of privatization could serve several purposes here. It could create new sources of support for a Thatcherite power bloc and also bail out the PSBR, thereby sustaining Thatcherite economic strategy. Whatever the long-term economic rationale behind these policies, their short-term impact on the power bloc should not be ignored.
5. The unions, notwithstanding the NEDC, the MSC, etc., remain excluded from the policy-making process and are in a weak position vis-à-vis capital. They have been forced into taking a largely reactive role with respect to government policy. Nor has there been any resolution of the crisis of Labour Party-union relations.
6. Finally we would note Thatcherism has done little to solve the dual crisis of representation as an essential preliminary to a political reconstitution of the power bloc. It is precisely because the crisis of the state persists that Thatcherism retains its warrant of autonomy. During the first Thatcher government the maintenance of political domination depended on a series of short-term tactical shifts rather than a coherent long-term policy. However, the Falklands War marked the end of the first phase of Thatcherism and the beginnings of its stabilization. Following the election victory of 1983 and the Budget of 1984 there appears to be a more coherent, long-term strategy at work. This is more directly concerned with the needs of economic regeneration and political reconstruction for the next long wave of capitalist expansion. Whether it succeeds in reconstituting the power bloc remains to be seen.
In conclusion, Thatcher’s warrant persists with general support from the City, mixed blessings from industry, and divided opposition from organized labour. The City can continue to prosper independently of the fortunes of the domestic economy; but with respect to industry, the problem remains. Nevertheless the traditional weakness of the CBI as a peak organization of capital, the power of the small business ideology of economic liberalism, the European connections of the multinationals, and the absence of an alternative (they could hardly support the Left’s AES!), mean that industry still goes largely unrepresented and remains passive. Can Thatcher consolidate a ‘two-nations’ strategy based on the ‘sunrise industries’ and the South-East while the rest of British capital, especially manufacturing industry, experiences continued decline? There are many obstacles to such a strategy, some of which we have already described, but other factors seem more propitious.
VI. Concluding Remarks
Above all, Mrs Thatcher’s room for manoeuvre will depend on the left’s capacity to develop a coherent and unified response. Even in relation to Thatcher’s economic strategy, this response involves more than the labour movement and should be extended to other social forces. When we consider the more general social restructuring which Thatcherism is attempting, the role of new social movements would become even more significant in fracturing Thatcher’s populist appeal. In turn this must obviously be linked with tactics to intensify divisions in the Thatcherite coalition and to develop an ‘alternative vision of the future’. In the meantime her enhanced decisional autonomy continues to rest upon an uneasy coalition of interests—she lacks both the active support of the whole of British capital and any support from organized labour.
1. The Proper Scope of ‘Authoritarian Populism’ as an Interpretation
In reviewing interpretations of Thatcherism as ‘authoritarian populism’, we have argued that they are incoherent, mystifying, celebratory, homogenizing, and so forth. Does this mean that the notion of AP should be rejected out of hand? We would argue that there is a rational kernel in these interpretations and that it is important to safeguard it. The problem with AP is that the concept has been overused in discussing Thatcherism. In the following remarks we summarize our own view of the proper scope for this interpretation.
(a) Common Sense: AP could refer to a new common sense, practical morality, philosophy, and ethic. Insofar as it is a new commonsense (or a rearticulation of older common-sensical themes), it would have no necessary class or partisan belonging but would inform the attitudes, activities, and loyalties of people from various classes and partisan constituencies. AP is suggestive here and could be further explored.
(c) Hegemonic Project: AP could also refer to a definite hegemonic project which articulates an alternative vision of the national-popular interest with the specific policies necessary to secure its realization. These projects may well vary across parties even though the background assumptions of common-sense and political agenda remain the same; or the same party could formulate successive hegemonic projects to meet changing circumstances within the same framework. Despite some consensus on an AP agenda, the major parties are far from sharing the same vision of the national-popular interest. Likewise the Conservative Party itself has not always given the same weight to AP elements in its own national-popular project.
(d) Accumulation Strategy: AP could refer to a specific strategy for economic regeneration and expansion. This is most unlikely. Perhaps this is why many critics have defined Thatcherism as ‘neo-liberalism’ plus ‘authoritarian populism’ or as ‘a social market economy’ plus ‘the strong state’—that is, as an accumulation strategy articulated with an AP orientation. Although an anti-statist rhetoric of freedom and responsibility has been deployed in defence of Thatcher’s accumulation strategy, the notion of AP is particularly unhelpful in grasping its specificities.
(e) Electoral Ideologies: AP could refer to the electoral ideology of a political party, i.e., the themes that are articulated among party activists and its committed voters. AP provides a useful insight into the electoral ideology of Tory supporters, especially in the constituency organizations; but there is nothing particularly novel here, because some form of AP has long been a major element in conservatism. Whether AP now figures in other parties’ electoral ideologies is debatable.
(f) Electoral Perspectives: We agree with Andrew Gamble in distinguishing electoral perspectives from electoral ideologies. Perspectives refer to the way in which party leaders reconcile the electoral ideologies of rank-and-file activists and the views of the mass electorate as a precondition of winning office. There was certainly a significant shift in the Tory Party from the Butskellite period (but also a return to the themes stressed in the Edwardian and inter-war periods) insofar as the Conservatives placed much greater stress on AP in their mass electoral appeal under Mrs Thatcher. This was particularly clear in the ‘realigning election’ of 1979 but less obvious in 1983. In both cases, however, AP elements were articulated with other themes, such as neo-liberalism, egoism, nationalism, etc.
(g) Government Programmes: AP might also refer to the specific ‘politics of power’ pursued by the Conservative Government. Policies such as privatization, industrial relations reform, public spending cuts, higher defence spending, support for information technology, the activities of the MSC, the attack on local government autonomy, etc., may sometimes receive an AP justification for presentational purposes. But their real motive force is often located elsewhere—including short-term expediency, political miscalculation, neo-liberal commitments, the ‘special relationship’ with the USA, directives from the EEC, etc. Governmental programmes cannot just be read off from electoral ideologies and/or perspectives.
(h) Electoral Recomposition: AP has sometimes been invoked to explain the recomposition of the electorate along party lines. But there has always been a strong AP element in the electorate, which went unvoiced in the electoral perspectives and appeals of the Butskellite era (the so-called ‘silent majority’); equally, the swing to the Conservatives could have as much to do with instrumental calculation, secular concerns more generally, electoral volatility, negative voting, etc., as with AP.
(i) Power Bloc Decomposition: Significant shifts in the domain of the power bloc do seem to have occurred—although a new, organic bloc has not yet emerged. It is important to analyse the internal decomposition of the power bloc in terms other than those of AP—although it might have encouraged this decomposition through the development of a populist rupture. We are also unconvinced that AP is the key element enabling the crisis-torn power bloc to win a partial, provisional, and unstable hegemony over the people.
(j) Reorganization of the State: The restructuring of the state under Thatcherism can be illuminated by AP. The emphasis on law and order, the strengthening of the state apparatus, the concentration and centralization of power, the increased central state influence over education, youth training, welfare, etc., do seem to be linked to AP and problems of crisis-management. But it is still necessary to distinguish between the structural problems and/or ideological crisis that have provoked such reorganization and the justifications offered for it.
(k) Changes in the Ideological Field: The concept of AP is particularly useful in understanding the changing role of the mass media, especially the popular press, in the ideological struggle. But we should not overgeneralize from the media to other sites of ideological contestation.
2. From Ideologism to Politicism?
So far we have concentrated on a critique of the AP approach to Thatcherism but retained crucial elements from it; and have presented our own, more political and institutional analysis. Thus we would seem open to the recent criticism that
it is not serious to suggest, as is sometimes done, that the relation of companies to the Conservative Party, or a phenomenon such as Thatcherism, is simply based on “ideology” or “purely political” considerations … there is also a very clear economic dimension. Certain sections of the capitalist class have gained enormously from the Conservative Party in general and Thatcherism in particular and continue to finance the Tory Party to a high degree. Other economic sectors have ceased to gain as much as before and are withdrawing their level of funding.
Since we have ourselves dwelt on political and ideological motivations, does this mean that our analysis is not serious?
Firstly, Ross does not deny that ideology and politics are important but he does want to emphasize the direct economic motivations involved in business support for Thatcherism. We also discuss the economic dimensions of Thatcherism and the economic interests mobilized behind it. Moreover, whilst taking ‘ideology’ and ‘politics’ seriously, we deny that AP is directly relevant to the origins of Tory economic policies or the motives of those economic interests which initially backed Thatcherism. Indeed we find Ross’s statistics impressive.
But we cannot agree with an analysis which virtually reduces Thatcherism to its benefits to specific branches of the British economy, as reflected in their declared rates of profit. For Ross does not specify the precise mechanisms through which this correlation is realized. Instead he implies that it is through the dominance of these interests in the counsels of the Conservative Party and/or through the spontaneous, post hoc gratitude of specific interests to the Party which has advanced their profits. This is a crudely instrumentalist view which ignores the relative autonomy of the state and the complexities of political struggle. It gives no real explanation of the shift in economic strategy in Britain from Keynesianism to monetarism since it emphasizes the continuity of policy throughout the period of Conservative hegemony. Nor does it capture the political significance of the shift in strategy—in terms either of its political background or of its political repercussions. Thus we would argue for a more complex analysis of the political conjuncture and the discursive strategies whose effect is to benefit some companies more than others.
Ross also fails to address another crucial problem. The political and ideological context of Thatcherism is the revolt of the petty bourgeoisie, small and medium capital, and even sections of the working class against the economic and social impact of the Keynesian welfare state. It also operates in the context of the ‘dual crisis’. Both factors mean that the policies of Thatcherism are far from unambiguously favourable to the City, international capital, and those sectors concerned with the working-class market. The social basis of Thatcherism in the petty bourgeoisie and small capital means the Tories must make compromises and concessions to these groups; and the logic of electoral competition requires concessions to significant sections of the working class. An overemphasis on economic funding could involve dismissing this distinctive political and ideological context as insignificant and inessential. It could lead to a denial that politics and ideology affect the real dynamic of Thatcher’s policies or their likely tensions and contradictions. And this would lead to as many mistakes in strategy as a purely ideologist approach.
3. Strategic Conclusions
The main danger of the AP approach is that it generates inadequate strategic conclusions. At the level of Left strategy such an appraisal leads to deep pessimism (‘battening down the hatches’) or to calls for a long-term construction of an ‘alternative vision’. Both responses leave the way open to purely defensive, short-term, and uncoordinated resistance to Thatcherism at the expense of any coherent, positive, medium-term economic and political strategy. Let us grant, for the moment, that some elements of a Thatcherite hegemony have been consolidated and that this constitutes a danger for the Left. This would not alter the fact that there is, as Raymond Williams has reminded us, ‘at least an equal danger from acquiescence by the Left in an interpretation which, as it were, would blame the majority of the British people for not accepting a socialist analysis’. In sum, insofar as it focuses on the electoral ideology of Thatcherite politics, the AP approach commits two errors. It misrecognizes the fluidity of the current political situation, ignores the opportunities thereby created, and therefore produces inadequate strategic recommendations.
Although AP is fruitful in certain areas of analysis, it misses important contradictions and tensions in Thatcherism. It focuses mainly on the politics of electoral support (its mobilization, its mediation through the press, the electoral impact of AP, etc.) and thereby ignores the politics of governmental power and the recomposition of the power bloc. In contrast the concept of ‘two nations’ allows us to examine the links between the politics of electoral support and the politics of power and to consider the contradictions and tensions between them. By focusing on the productive/parasitic distinction, we can relate Thatcherite discourse to the nature and limits of her economic strategy. For this approach suggests that future support depends on the effectiveness of the government’s accumulation strategy and political programme. In turn this points us toward the international constraints on Thatcherism and qualifies the tendency for an AP approach to focus exclusively on the domestic ideological struggle. The ability to predict certain crucial ruptures or breakpoints in the economic development of Thatcherism will help the Left in formulating an adequate response.
Indeed, only by examining the government’s programme as well as its rhetoric, can we formulate an appropriate strategy. One problem with the AP approach is that it homogenizes Thatcherism not merely across different dimensions of social reality but also across time. It is important not to treat the Thatcherism of the last half of the 1980s as identical to that preceding the 1979 election. The election in 1983 was different from that in 1979: 1979 was a realigning election, 1983 consolidated the Thatcherite mould. The next election will be different again and the Left must recognize this. The Tories are already conducting a new war of position to justify an attack on the welfare state, and the Left should itself be seeking to go on the offensive with its own medium-term strategy by 1985/6.
A return to the KWS status quo ante, as proposed by Hobsbawm, is neither desirable nor, indeed, possible. For this would be to return to an incoherent and contradictory project and to affirm the hegemony of non-socialist forces. This means that we must develop an alternative strategic view. It requires both a reassessment of the Left’s immediate defensive priorities and the formulation of new offensive objectives. This should involve attention to the following areas: (1) The politics of support—what policies are open to the Left to recast an electoral majority? (2) The politics of power—what governmental programme is necessary/feasible to achieve such policies? (3) The restructuring of the state—given the dual crisis already referred to, what forms of representation/intervention can be constructed to aid the formation/ implementation of a domestically oriented socialist growth strategy? Notwithstanding our suggested criticisms of Stuart Hall in preceding pages, it is most important to pay tribute to his recent interventions. These have been a powerful force in rethinking traditional conceptions of the relations between economy and polity, class and party, structures and strategies. He has also been a central figure in bringing the importance of the political and ideological struggle for hegemony to the attention of the Left in Britain. In this way Hall raises the burning issue of how to respond to the erosion of the traditional working-class basis of British Labourism. Nevertheless, while Hall constantly proclaims the need for the Left to develop an ‘alternative vision’ and a new hegemonic strategy, we feel that his emphasis on the political and ideological level itself alone inhibits constructive strategic thinking. Thus, whilst the AP approach has been able to suggest certain necessary conditions for rethinking left strategy in Britain, it is far from establishing the sufficient conditions for a successful alternative strategy. We hope that our account of the dual crisis and of the ‘two nations’ strategy of Thatcherism will complement Hall’s own work on ‘authoritarian populism’ and thereby contribute to further discussion of the pressing strategic issues.
[*]The authors would like to acknowledge the initial inspiration and participation of Richard Drane in our discussions on this paper; the fruitful comments of our friends and colleagues at the University of Essex; and advice from the editorial board of New Left Review.
Stuart Hall et al., Policing the Crisis (PC), London 1978.
Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques, eds., The Politics of Thatcherism (PT), London 1983
For a review of the Birmingham Centre’s work, see Stuart Hall et al., Culture, Media, and Language, London 1981.
Hall et al., PC
See Stuart Hall, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, PT, pp. 19–39 (originally Marxism Today, January 1979).
See Hall et al., PC, pp. 218–323; cf. Martin Jacques, ‘Thatcherism: Breaking out of the Impasse’, in PT, pp. 40–62.
PT, p. 9.
See Stuart Hall, ‘Moving Right Show’, PT, pp. 22–3; PC, pp. 278, 304, 320; and ‘Popular-Democratic versus Authoritarian Populism’, in Alan Hunt, ed., Marxism and Democracy, London 1980
See, respectively, Hall, ‘Popular-Democratic’, p. 161, and PT, pp. 30–31; PT, p. 34; ‘The Battle for Socialist Ideas in the 1980s’, Socialist Register 1982, London 1982, p. 15 and PT, pp. 29, 35, 37.
See, respectively, Hall, ‘Popular-Democratic’, p. 161, and PT, pp. 30–31; PT, p. 34; ‘The Battle for Socialist Ideas in the 1980s’, Socialist Register 1982, London 1982, p. 15 and PT, pp. 29, 35, 37.
See respectively, Stuart Hall, ‘Moving Right Show’; ‘Introduction’, in PT, p. 11; and ‘The Little Caesars of Social Democracy’, in PT, pp. 302–21.
Battle for Socialist Ideas’, p. 13; cf. ‘The Culture Gap’, Marxism Today, January 1984, p. 22.
See PC, pp. 218–9, 227–38, 261, 264–72, 309–17; ‘Moving Right Show’, pp. 24–7, 33–4.
This is recognized in Jacques, ‘Thatcherism’, in PT, p. 41. 39
Anthony Barnett, ‘Iron Britannia’, New Left Review, 134, p. 46; and London (Allison and Busby) 1982.
Francis G. Castles, The Social Democratic Image of Society, London 1978.
Ian Gilmour, Inside Right, 2nd edn., London 1978, p. 20
Hall also notes this in ‘Moving Right Show’, in PT, p. 20
Hall, ‘Moving Right Show’, PT, pp. 29, 37
Hall and Jacques, ‘Introduction’, PT, p. 15.
Cf. Andrew Gamble, ‘Thatcherism and Conservative Politics’, in PT, p. 121.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, On Britain, 2nd edn, Moscow 1962, p. 345.
 E.g., Robert McKenzie and Alan Silver, Angels in Marble, London 1968
See Bo Särlvik and Ivor Crewe, Decade of Dealignment, London 1983, pp. 324–38; Ivor Crewe, ‘How Labour was Trounced All Round’, Guardian, 14 June 1983
 Hall also rejects the image of fascism, ‘Moving Right Show’, p. 22
This is also reminiscent of Conservative luck at the turn of the century in having a divided opposition—Gladstone’s Liberals splitting over Home Rule for Ireland and then being confronted with the emergence of the Labour Party—to be split in turn by the events of 1931
Cf. William Keegan, Mrs Thatcher’s Economic Experiment, London 1984.
Cf. Gerhard Lehmbruch, ‘Liberal Corporatism and Party Government’, in Philippe C. Schmitter and idem, eds., Trends toward Corporatist Intermediation, London 1980.
An institutional crisis occurs when the principles of representation are incongruent with the nature and scope of state intervention; a representational crisis occurs when there is a divorce between representatives and represented, such that the activities of representatives no longer reflect the interests and demands of those they represent and the latter’s support is lost or becomes volatile; and a crisis of ‘rationality’ occurs when forms of intervention become less effective (or ineffective) because the structural problems demanding regulation have changed and/or new forms of resistance have emerged.
Cf. Bob Jessop, ‘The Transformation of the State in Postwar Britain’, in Richard Scase, ed., The State in Western Europe, London 1980, passim
David Edgar has chronicled the rise of the popular new Right in New Socialist, Sept–Oct. 1983.
On ‘populist ventriloquism’, see Hall, in PT, pp. 29, 35, 37.
Keith Middlemas, ‘The Supremacy of Party’, New Statesman, 10 June 1983
For a useful summary of trends, see John Ross, Thatcher and Friends, London 1983.
Ross, p. 80
Hall and Jacques, p. 15.
Cf. Andrew Gamble, ‘This Lady’s Not for Turning: Thatcherism Mark III’, Marxism Today, June 1984.
Ross, p. 39.
Andrew Gamble, The Conservative Nation, London 1974, pp. 8–9.
Ross, p. 43.
‘Problems of the Coming Period’, New Left Review 140, 1983.
Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Labour’s Lost Millions’, Marxism Today, December 1983.