The Tories: An anatomy

Issue: 131

Richard Seymour

After 13 years of exile the Conservative Party has returned to office, but weaker than ever and dependent on a coalition with the Liberals. Amid a global crisis, with a weak incumbent and against a widely disliked government, the Tories only managed to add 3 percentage points to their 2005 share of the vote, bringing them up to 36 percent. This took place amid the ongoing boycott of elections by millions of disappointed Labour voters. As Ed Miliband has acknowledged, most of the five million voters lost by Labour between 1997 and 2010 didn’t switch to other parties, but stayed at home. Still the Tories, under a “modernising” leadership which styled itself as socially liberal and distanced itself from the Thatcherite past, barely exceeded a third of the vote. What explains the Tories’ weakness?

Part of the answer, perhaps, is that the Tories “turned nasty” again following the 2008 recession, talking spending cuts and targeting welfare recipients in their election propaganda. But this raises further questions. Why did it take the Tories so long to adapt to the new terrain, adopt a “moderate” leadership and attempt to carve out a conservatism occupying much the same ground as New Labour had staked out since 1994? And why would it squander the fruits of this effort, which had seen the Tories restored to over 40 percent of popular support in polls for the first time since the early 1990s? Why are they determined now, governing with weak legitimacy, to impose widely unpopular policies such as privatisation in healthcare and tuition fee rises, which hurt parts of their electoral base? The answers must be sought in the Tories’ relationship to capitalism, its crisis, and their long-term decline.

A bourgeois party

To understand the Tories’ dilemma, it is necessary first to comprehend what the Conservative Party is. In the Marxist idiom, the Conservative Party is a bourgeois party—that is, one which exists to wage political struggles on behalf of the ruling class in the representative institutions of a capitalist democracy. Of course, the state is the strategic base for launching any major transformation or development in productive relations within a national territory, and the bourgeoisie will necessarily work hard to impregnate the state with its imperatives regardless of who is in office.1 However, political parties concentrate determinate social interests (classes and class fractions) in their composition and ideology, and provide moral and intellectual direction to those interests. In the Tories’ case, the party comprises a coalition between a ruling financial and business bloc, and a subordinate petty bourgeois layer. As such, the Conservative Party condenses within itself the strategic perspectives and wider social purview of these interests, and gives those a particular ideological articulation.

The Conservative Party became the dominant bourgeois party in British politics through a tortuous process of adaptation to the rising power of industrial capital in the 19th century. Initially a faction representing the landed interest, the Tories operated as the vanguard of counter-revolution during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They were, in the Duke of Wellington’s words, a party of “the Bishops and clergy, the great Aristocracy, the landed Interest, the Magistracy of the Country, the great Merchants and Bankers, in short the parti conservateur of the Country”. However, through the leadership of a pro Free Trade Peelite faction, the Tories were compelled to adapt to changes reflecting the interests of industry—the Great Reform Act of 1832, and the repeal of the Corn Laws, for instance. By the late 19th century they were known as the “brewers’ party” due to their alliance with the larger sectors of industry.2

However, there is no automatic translation between a determinate ruling class interest and Tory policy, since different ruling class fractions have conflicting interests. Even these fractions will divide over a variety of short and medium-term issues as well as the finer points of policy. Even if there were only one ruling class interest, there would be competition over which strategy would most effectively meet that interest. The Tories must therefore operate as a vehicle for ideological contestation, with rival factions competing to provide leadership to the ruling class as well as to society as a whole.

But the second element of the bourgeois party is that it must have a popular base in order to make its programme effective. The Tories have had to operate since 1867 in a parliamentary system numerically dominated by working class voters. They have therefore been compelled to seek a mass membership base, without ceding strategic control over the party’s decision making, while incorporating popular demands and themes into their policy platforms. This was pioneered in the “popular Toryism” of Benjamin Disraeli, which combined some social reform with an attempt to mobilise workers through imperialist and Unionist ideology. As the working class moved to the left in the early 20th century and the Labour Party emerged, the Tories decisively replaced the Liberals as the main bourgeois party and commandeered an anti-socialist political bloc that necessitated grudging concessions to popular interests combined with repression. Such concessions included the extension of the franchise to women during Stanley Baldwin’s administration, while repression included concerted efforts along with industry to smash post First World War strike waves. This paid dividends electorally, with the Tories’ share of the vote rising from the 1870s to the 1930s, during which decade it peaked at approximately 55 percent.3

The first major crisis of Tory dominance came in 1945, when social democracy finally emerged as a viable electoral bloc, and decisively altered the political terrain by introducing a strong welfare state, a sizeable public sector and a measure of economic “planning”. It also incorporated the trade unions into a new corporatist settlement, with incomes policies determined by union leaders, bosses and the government of the day. Reluctantly, the Tories accepted the new settlement, since it was the only way to maintain the support of popular constituencies—these, for the Tories, usually being the lower middle class and a segment of skilled workers. This model came to be known as “One Nation” conservatism.

But a crisis of the post-war system, beginning in the 1960s, threw that strand of Tory praxis into turmoil. Ted Heath’s 1970-4 government attempted to rule in the interests of capital, but it could not maintain popular consent in doing so. Enoch Powell, though his personal ascendancy was brief, worked as a pathfinder for a “New Right”, which was piloted into office by Margaret Thatcher. The novelty of this brand of conservatism was that it could mobilise a popular base without endorsing the welfare state, public spending or any of the traditional amelioration through which governments had sought consensus.4 Despite its enduring political successes Thatcherism’s moment passed, and the Tories have since had to contend with the continued secular decline in their popular base. If post-war Tory governments were usually elected with between 46 and 50 percent of the vote, Thatcher maintained support at between 40 and 44 percent of the electorate—but since 1992 support has tended to hover between 30 and 35 percent, a non-viable electoral coalition.5 This is one of the key problems which David Cameron’s triangulations are intended to overcome.

The Conservative Party today is facing long-term eclipse if it does not succeed in reviving British capitalism, and restoring its dominant position within that system partly by re-composing the electorate in favourable terms. The austerity project can be seen, in this light, as a strategy both to preserve ruling class dominance and to revive the Conservative Party. To understand how, it is necessary to understand the deep changes in British society wrought by Thatcherism, and its limited successes in staving off the forces undermining conservatism. The remainder of this article will look at the crisis of conservatism since the late 1960s, beginning with Heath and his ultimately failed attempt to re-orient British capitalism while retaining the broad lineaments of social democracy; proceeding through Thatcher’s attempt to articulate a new hegemonic project, which ultimately gave way to the further fragmenting and contraction of the Tory base under Major, and the long period of opposition; and finishing with a look at Cameron’s leadership.

Heath and the New Right

The Conservative Party under Ted Heath was one in the process of transformation. There was an emerging radical right in the party that sought to break with important elements of the post-war settlement. In the 1960s the first serious anxieties about Britain’s post-war economy began to emerge. British capitalism was declining relative to other advanced capitalist states, Fordist industries were suffering from stagnant profits, and corporatist remedies controlling incomes and prices seemed to offer no solution. In this context, a right wing opposition centred initially on figures such as Enoch Powell and Keith Joseph began to develop in the Conservative Party.

When Ted Heath held a press conference in 1970 at the Selsdon Park hotel, announcing that an incoming Tory government would be tough on crime, union reform, and immigration, it was heralded as the arrival of a neo-reactionary “Selsdon Man”. Yet Heath did not attempt to break fully from the post-war settlement. He took as read the idea that government policy should seek to create relatively full employment and maintain a strong welfare state. His main strategy upon being elected was to orient British capitalism more towards Europe and away from the US, and to introduce tougher market conditions and weaker unions to reduce wages and improve competitiveness.6

Among the most pressing concerns for the incoming Heath government in 1970 was to combat shop steward militancy. Labour had attempted its own measure with Barbara Castle’s “In Place of Strife” White Paper, but this had foundered on successful union opposition. Heath’s Industrial Relations Bill was essentially the same kind of remedy—a corporatist device that would regulate and limit trade union activity, while still conceding that unions and collective bargaining were vital to the conduct of economic policy. By taming the unions, Heath believed, it would no longer be necessary to maintain an incomes policy. By freeing industry from the burdens of intervention, the government could dispense with expansionist nostrums such as the Ministry of Technology headed by Tony Benn under Wilson. But it was all to come to nought. The bill was broken on a wave of unprecedented militancy, on a scale arguably greater than 1926, and much more successful. 1972, the year in which the Industrial Relations Act was left dead in the water, was on the whole the most mortifying year in Conservative Party history. Heath returned to expansionism even earlier, forced to nationalise Rolls Royce in 1971, before increasing public spending in 1972, awarding sweeping powers to the secretary of state for industry, with the Industry Act of 1972, and imposing a statutory incomes policy in defiance of his previous commitments.7

In addition to defeats inflicted on Heath by the labour movement, the administration was blind-sided by the 1973 oil shock and by the global recession of 1974. By the mid-1970s British capitalism was on the precipice. Heath’s promised reforms could not secure consent, while social democratic planning and corporatist instruments were proving incapable of reversing Britain’s relative economic decline, or of reversing the long-term decline in profit rates which had began to manifest itself in the late 1960s. Nor could they contain working class militancy, or restore to managers lost authority with respect to shop stewards. This was the “crisis of authority” presciently diagnosed by Stuart Hall. In Gramsci’s terms, a “crisis of authority” is the inability of the ruling class to operationalise public consent for its goals. It is a crisis of hegemony, radiating through every dominant institution, through every aspect of productive and ideological relations, and notably through the parliamentary political field itself.8 In such circumstances, opportunities arose for a right wing opposition.

Enoch Powell was the first to show how a minority “free market” agenda could become an election winner. Powell’s journey from High Tory imperialist to low racist demagogue needs little elaboration here. It is sufficient to note that, at some point after he lost the 1965 leadership contest to Edward Heath, Powell decided that immigrants to whom he had expressed no hostility before were suddenly a pressingly urgent political problem. He maintained that their problem was not the inferiority of the immigrants’ “race”, but with the inability of people of different cultures to integrate into the white British mainstream. Pioneering what was later dubbed the “new racism”, Powell gained popularity and proved that it was possible to challenge the entire basis of the post-war compromise by mobilising anxiety over Britain’s declining global status and the perceived laxities that made this possible. One could appeal to the working class not on the basis of immediate bread and butter issues, but on the basis of nationalism. In this outlook, trade union power, criminality, welfare largesse and immigration were weakening Britain’s competitiveness and the authority of its sovereign state.9

Powell, though he had his admirers in the party, including Margaret Thatcher, was hung out to dry by Ted Heath and ended up traversing the unpromising terrain of Ulster Unionist politics. Nevertheless, the racist authoritarianism which he pioneered energised the right, and a series of racialised moral panics about “mugging” fed into a wider right wing dissatisfaction with disobedience among the lower orders. By the early 1970s the right’s new dynamism seemed to be influencing the leadership of the Conservative Party. Beyond Powell, the patriarch of the Tory right was Keith Joseph, a baronet and son of a finance-capitalist whose free market ideology had contributed much to the policies announced at Selsdon. Joseph, derided by his opponents as “The Mad Monk”, had been a member of the “One Nation” group in his early years, in which he expressed his support for the welfare state. In his ministerial roles had made free use of the state he was to belittle in later years. As minister of housing, he had been responsible for building 400,000 new council homes. Yet he always hankered for the restoration of free market rule, and voted for pro-market legislation where he could.10

Together with Margaret Thatcher, Joseph articulated the critique of the post-war settlement that had long been propagated by the middle class right, and in think-tanks such as the Institute for Economic Affairs. They also set out to create new vectors for ideological dissemination, creating the Centre for Policy Studies to provide an alternative source of policy to that of the Conservative Research Department. With the political philosophy of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman’s monetarist ideas, and the new ideology of “public choice” economics, they developed an intellectual basis for the restoration of markets not merely as the chief way in which social relations were mediated, but as a positive good, an alternative to the failings of the consensus.

The rise of Thatcherism

In February 1974, amid renewed strike action by the mine workers, Heath went to the country to ask whether it should be run by the Tories or the miners. Labour won a slight plurality in parliament on a manifesto containing elements of the Alternative Economic Strategy devised by Tony Benn and his allies. But this would not have been sufficient to give them office had the Ulster Unionists not refused to take the Conservative whip. Notwithstanding the Heath administration’s role in breaking the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement with the massacres of “Bloody Sunday”, the Tories’ long standing ties to Unionism had been severed by Heath’s imposition of direct rule on Stormont, usurping the power of the gerrymandered Unionist rulers. The Liberals were also unwilling to enter into coalition with the Conservatives. Under Jeremy Thorpe, they were positioning themselves as a left of centre party defending the consensus that underpinned British politics in the post-war era. The Tories, allied to producers, could not control prices; Labour, beholden to unions, could not control wages; the Liberals alone, as a non-class party, could keep the system afloat.11 Such was the political basis of the later Liberal-SDP alliance resulting from the right wing breakaway from Labourism in 1981.

Having taken office, and won a second election with a clearer mandate in October 1974, Labour—with more alacrity than usual—began to break every single promise on which they had been elected. Using the institutions of corporatism to contain wage rises and union militancy more effectively than the Tories had, they also commenced a programme of deep public spending cuts, and under chancellor Denis Healey were the first to implement monetarist policies. This was not merely a betrayal. It was a logical and inevitable result of their commitment to a programme of ambitious reform that gave no consideration to the inevitable resistance of capital, and the state apparatus itself.12 The Labour government was also susceptible to pressure from business, which was increasingly involved in direct political activism. In the post-war system there had been a steady growth in class-wide business cohesion, which enabled them to face down unwanted Labour reforms such as the Bullock Report advocating the piecemeal extension of industrial democracy in some enterprises. A member of the Confederation of British Industry group established to defeat the measure described how, after their victory, “CBI members woke up to the fact that they have greater strength than they realised”.13

The decisive moment that broke the government, however, was the “winter of discontent”. This is the period from 1978-9 in which the “social contract” between the government and the union bureaucracy, holding wage increases at well below the rate of inflation, broke down. In September 1978 both the TUC and the Labour Party voted to oppose a new pay increase norm of 5 percent, and strikes broke out in a number of industries, with secondary picketing compounding the disruption. However, Labour enjoyed more success than the Tories in blunting militancy, particularly that of the shop stewards. A 1968 report on shop steward militancy had recommended drawing shop stewards into the full-time union apparatus to distance them from the shop floor, and imposing productivity deals that would sidestep the stewards’ role in negotiating wage rates. Under the Wilson-Callaghan government this process was accelerated, with the effect of encouraging sectionalism and scabbing. In addition, the government used troops to break strikes. For all its militancy, the organised working class had not broken with Labour, and the participation of “their” government in smashing their struggles was a shattering experience that broke the loyalty of many union members for good. At the end of this dismal period of government, with a rightward moving Labour shored up by a pact with the Liberals, business decisively swung behind the Tories, the electorate moved to the right and the Labourist coalition was fatally undermined.14

The humiliation of the Heath government, meanwhile, had galvanised the Tory right. Heath had won a mere 36 percent of the vote in October 1974 and there was growing pressure for him to step down. In February 1975 Thatcher challenged for the leadership, and won the backing of much of the right wing press in doing so. Thatcher had become the right’s candidate after Keith Joseph dropped out, following a blunt speech sounding a eugenic alarm over the rise of the “underclass”. Having made few enemies as yet, she channelled dissatisfaction with Heath as much as outright reactionary sentiment. Partly because of this, Thatcher still had to spend many years winning the Tories to her agenda before she could properly implement it. Even an ousted and weakened Heath could galvanise dissent when he chose to attack the new leadership and its policies in public. Yet the solutions of the Thatcherites had obvious advantages for a party in danger, as fellow New Rightist John Biffen complained, of being a “middle class party of the shires”. If recessionary pressures intensified the drift towards corporatism, then Labour would benefit as it had the advantage of its relations with the trade union leadership. If the Tories could not keep union consent, they could not deliver in such circumstances. Breaking with corporatism and attacking union militancy should provide a route out of this impasse.15

The Hayekian doctrines guiding the Conservative leadership under Thatcher had long been the cri de coeur of the middle class. However, they also contained a serious analysis of, and remedy for, the “British disease”. If Powell had shown that it was possible for the Tories to build a mass base without accepting social democracy, it would be no good doing so if the Tories could not by these self-same means effectively restore British capitalism and act as the main bourgeois party. Since this ability was already in question, the Tory leadership was prepared to take a gamble on a radical new policy mix. Thatcher knew that the corporatist state depended on healthy revenue streams, but that its ability to intervene and generate those revenue streams was by then seriously weakened. Higher public spending did not reduce unemployment. It just added to inflation. Price controls were ineffectual, and the “winter of discontent” of 1978-9 would later show that wage controls were just as ineffectual. In their place, capitalist freedom would be restored. Collective bargaining was out; incomes policies and price controls were out; demand management and job-creation were out.16

In the new neoliberal statecraft, the government would spend less, and such money as was spent would be channelled through market-based delivery mechanisms and undemocratic bodies such as quangos. Just as the 18th century conservative thinker Edmund Burke argued that the aristocracy was the reasoning executive of the social body, so the Thatcherites seem to have believed that there was no area of expertise that businessmen could not turn their hand to. This meant that the bosses of Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer were as good as anyone to write a report which led to the introduction of internal markets in the NHS, inflating administrative overheads dramatically.17 Businessmen had always been brought in to assist in the management of nationalised industries and the public sector, but generally this was in areas where they already had expertise. Under the rubric of public choice theory, however, the government believed that no matter what the institution it could be made more efficient by being refashioned in the image of business.18

Thatcher might be known chiefly as a failure had she not maintained a plurality in the 1983 general election. Her first term was characterised by tremendous social conflict and soaring rates of unemployment in the context of a global recession. The government’s remedy depended on freeing up capital, creating a stable currency, removing exchange controls and privatising public assets. But perversely—so it seemed then—this entailed the Thatcher government insisting on austerity in a time of economic weakness. So VAT was increased, interest rates were pushed up and public spending was slashed, ostensibly in order to balance the budget and cut inflation. However, the soaring value of the pound reduced the competitiveness of British exports and contributed to the deepening severity of the recession.

This meant that even the dramatic split in the Labour Party, with a liberal, right wing section taking off to form the Social Democratic Party, did not benefit the Conservative Party. On the contrary, the Liberal-SDP Alliance became a primary beneficiary of disaffection with the Tories, and even took seats from them. Moreover, if the government was supposed to help business by curtailing union militancy, its early reforms in this direction were relatively mild. It would have seemed as if a doctrinaire Tory party was governing in ways contrary to the interests even of its narrow business base.19 Yet by mid-1982 the polls had reversed, and Thatcher was riding high. She won re-election the following year with 42 percent of the vote. In effect, the Tories had succeeded in escalating the crisis, policing it and riding it out.

It is commonplace to attribute the reversal to the effect of the Falklands conflict. In April 1982 the forces of the Argentinian dictator General Galtieri took control of territories in the South Atlantic known to Argentina as the Malvinas, and to Britain as the Falkland Islands. Until this point the Thatcher government had shown little interest in the islands, which were hardly of great strategic significance to British capitalism. Yet Thatcher embarked on a war to re-conquer the islands, carefully avoiding diplomatic exits, and appeared to have soared by some 15 percentage points in the polls while the war was taking place. Much of the left was convinced that this constituted the revival of, in Tom Nairn’s words, “semi-permanent reaction”.

Indeed, it is striking just how enduring and deep this strand of left opinion expected the Falklands legacy to be. Polling evidence suggests, however, that the impact of this war on the electorate was hugely over-stated by these analyses. Thatcher’s popularity had already been recovering in the light of rapidly improving economic fortunes, as a global recovery got under way in early 1982, combined with a budget stimulus implemented by the Tories in the same period. The “Falklands factor” added about 3 percentage points to the Tories’ lead, and the effect faded after the capture of Port Stanley. The humiliating defeat for Labour in 1983 was far more the result of the historic split in the Labourist coalition, as well as a recovery in the economic fortunes of potential Alliance voters, than it was the result of jingoism. What does seem to be the case is that the Falklands conflict consolidated Thatcher’s position within the Conservative Party, and enabled her to briefly enjoy a relationship with the public that spoke over the heads of more staid bourgeois opinion.20

It was only after Thatcher’s 1983 success, which further consolidated her dominant position in her party, that her government began to embark on major conflict with the unions. The chief macroeconomic objective of government was to control inflation by suppressing wage claims. That was to be achieved primarily through the acceptance of high
unemployment—with right wing economists such as Milton Friedman arguing that there was a “natural” rate of unemployment and that any government action to push unemployment below that level would only increase the rate of
inflation—and a coordinated attack on the bargaining power of labour.

Defeating the unions through a series of set-piece battles laid out in a strategy by Nicholas Ridley achieved this latter objective. This involved taking on weaker unions first and defeating them, while making concessions to more powerful unions to prevent them from joining in the struggles. Having notched up a string of successes and demoralised its opponents, only then should the government proceed to attack the big battalions. In the case of the miners, this meant building up a state capable of out-flanking one of the best organised and combative groups of workers before provoking a conflict. As Huw Beynon and Peter McNylor pointed out, it was the spectre of the 1972 miners’ strike, and the closure of the Saltley coke depot by tens of thousands of NUM “flying pickets” out-manoeuvring fewer than a thousand police, that provided the animus for this retooling. The Tories’ success in defeating the miners also had the intended effect of devastating the social forces best placed to resist Thatcher’s agenda and obstruct social democracy’s adaptation to the new order. After the calamitous defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985 the right wing within the trade unions and Labour imposed a “new realism” based on non-confrontation, sweetheart deals with employers and support for free markets. One recent account of the miners’ strike notes that before the strike an anti-union Labour leader, such as Blair was, would have been “a contradiction in terms”.21

The attack on wages and the long-term crisis of profitability in industry required a remedy to sustain both. The government found its remedy in the revival of the rentier and the replacement of cheap money with “sound money”—a strong currency sustained through low inflation. The City’s speculative activities would drive capitalist investment by increasing the rewards of such investment, while integrating a section of the working class by allowing them to borrow against their property which, owing to rationing in the provision of housing after 1983, would perpetually increase in value. Owner occupation increased to 72 percent. Enough people would feel wealthy enough to form a viable political constituency in favour of the new settlement. This constituency did not have to comprise a majority.

Until 1989 Thatcherism could command between 42 and 44 percent of the vote, a recovery from Ted Heath’s 1974 low of 36 percent, but still well below not only the peaks of Conservative success under Baldwin, but also the average post-war performance—in fact, votes on the Thatcher scale would have resulted in defeats in the 1950s and 1960s. And had the global economy not recovered in 1982, the Thatcher government might well have gone down as the unpopular and short-lived pathology that Labour figures hoped it would be. At every step the government was taking risks, and things could have worked out very differently.22

Thatcher did not command universal support for her project among capitalists either. Initially she was suspect because her agenda was seen as pandering to a middle class protest vote, not dissimilar to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) today. Why back an “extremist” option, many business leaders reasoned, when Labour was delivering, with the support of the trade union bureaucracy, higher levels of unemployment and deeper wage cuts than any government in the post-war era? It was only when the “winter of discontent” proved that the corporatist instruments refined over the last two decades could not contain working class militancy that they turned to Thatcher’s remedy. Even then they tended to swallow unpalatable measures such as the destruction of manufacturing largely due to their greater fear of Labour taking power and turning to the left.23

Class struggle and hegemony

The great bulk of literature on the British Conservative Party concerns the perplexing phenomenon of Thatcherism and its considerable successes. Thatcherism has, in some senses, enjoyed what Stuart Hall refers to as “a long historical occupancy of power”.24 To adapt an old phrase, it might be said that “whoever is in office, the Thatcherites are in power”. The forms of statecraft practised by all governing parties today follow the neoliberal logic institutionalised by Thatcher, and the current coalition is operating firmly within its radius. It has sometimes been argued by Tory “wets”,25 such as Ian Gilmour, that Thatcherism was an “ideological” deviation from the “pragmatic” traditions of British conservatism, a “retreat behind the privet hedge into a world of narrow class interests and selfish concerns”.26 The novelty of Thatcherism, though genuine, can be overstated. What was distinctive about Thatcherism in ideological terms was the new articulation it gave to the “individualistic, laissez-faire, anti socialist, and nationalist strains always present in 20th-century conservatism”.27 It would be difficult to account for Thatcher’s successes if it were merely an “ideological” retreat from “pragmatism”. Condensed in Thatcherism was a set of answers to the British experience of capitalist crisis, interpreted in the ideologically charged language of “British decline”.

During the 1980s a number of powerful, competing left wing interpretations of Thatcherism were pioneered. The most well known of these were Eric Hobsbawm, Andrew Gamble and Stuart Hall, though distinctive contributions also emerged from Bob Jessop, Anthony Barnett and, in the SWP tradition, Tony Cliff.28 The first three of these theorists were concerned, in different ways, with Thatcherism’s hegemonic operations, its ability to change the terms of popular discourse, and its way of winning over a segment of workers to conservatism.

Stuart Hall, associated with the Marxism Today magazine, characterised Thatcherism, adapting a coinage from Nicos Poulantzas, as a form of “Authoritarian Populism”. Poulantzas had argued that capitalism in the late 1970s was shifting from consensual to more coercive forms of rule. Though still operating in the terrain of democratic class politics, the state was accumulating more repressive power—a form of government he called “Authoritarian Statism”. But for Hall, Thatcherism was distinguished by its ability to mobilise popular elements of discontent with the state as a basis for its authoritarian remodelling of society. In the magisterial book, Policing the Crisis, Hall outlined the way in which British capitalism had experienced a “crisis of authority” affecting all of its dominant institutions since the 1960s. In response to this, the forces of “law and order” had developed a number of discourses to allow a reassertion of authority with a popular mandate. This came centrally in the form of a moral panic about “mugging”, criminalising young black males and mandating a racist crackdown, but it tied into a wider theme concerning British decline and the perception that this was a result of a lax moral and economic climate. The social democratic state, it was held, had corrupted a previously robust, entrepreneurial nation, spending beyond its means, subsidising poor industry and allowing a slackening of the moral fibre through ill discipline.

Thatcherism, operating on many of the same ideological vertices as Powellism, thus summoned a degree of support for an attack on the welfare state, corporatist public spending projects and the trade unions. This won the backing not only of the petty bourgeois rightist bedrock, and not only of big business—which, as we have seen, was partial and hesitant—but also of sections of the working class. This was possible, Hall argued, because certain of the petty bourgeois ideological themes of Thatcherism could resonate with popular ideas, and more particularly because the Thatcherite critique of social democracy built on real points of discontent with a system that was experienced by large numbers of people as repressive rather than benevolent. With racism articulating these contradictory ideological elements, Thatcher embarked on an authoritarian transformation of British capitalism—using Gramsci’s term, Hall described this as a “passive revolution”—with a measure of popular support.29

Hall’s work was controversial because of its narrow focus on ideology, its often pessimistic conclusions, wherein he exaggerated the degree of popular support enjoyed by Thatcherism, and the problematic use of the concept of “passive revolution” to describe Thatcher’s reign, which was more akin to a war of attrition.30 Andrew Gamble, writing for Socialist Register, placed much more emphasis on political economy in his explanation. He coined the phrase “the free economy and the strong state” to describe what Thatcherism represented. While the Thatcherites ostensibly set out to “roll back the frontiers of the state”,31 what was actually involved was a rolling back of the state’s involvement in welfare and the economy, coterminous with a rolling forward of the state’s coercive power. This was a political-economic response to a crisis of British capitalism, and particularly of the social democratic settlement that had reigned since 1945. Modernisation through public spending projects had turned out a series of lame ducks, and the productive capacity of British capitalism could no longer sustain a strong welfare state while maintaining a healthy rate of profit.

This movement was articulated in a politics of “the nation”, in which British decline could ostensibly be reversed on multiple fronts through a restoration of market discipline and law and order. For Gamble, however, the Thatcherites were riven by antagonisms, with relatively liberal and conservative wings vying for influence. The former, influenced by the neoliberal political economy of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, were less motivated by the restoration of authority, and far more so by the institutionalisation of sound money policies, public spending restraints and supply-side economics. The latter, by contrast, were social authoritarians driven by hostility to “enemies” within and without—the USSR, the IRA, “strikers, criminals, demonstrators and vandals”. These tendencies, which one analyst has dubbed “mods” and “rockers” of Thatcherism,32 could be seen loosely as representing, respectively, the bourgeois and petty bourgeois elements of the Thatcherite coalition. These antagonisms aside, Thatcherism successfully “disrupted the old commonsense of social democracy and established a new commonsense in its place” with the market “reconstituted as a major ideological force, and crucial distinctions between the productive and unproductive, private and public, wealth creating and wealth consuming” forming the new “yardsticks for judging policy”.33

From the Communist Party right, Eric Hobsbawm argued that Thatcherism had enjoyed such considerable success because class consciousness was on the decline. He maintained that Marxists had underestimated the difference in consciousness between white collar and blue collar workers. The result of the expansion of white collar employment was that “the class on which our movement was built has shrunk”, and the forward march of labour had been halted. Thatcherism was thus taking the opportunity to “eliminate the entire labour movement, the Labour Party, and the entire left as a serious factor in politics”. Moreover, in response to the Falklands crisis, Hobsbawm argued that patriotism was a genuinely popular reflex in some parts of the working class, and not entirely incompatible with political radicalism. If the left did not find a way to relate productively to this, then the right would monopolise patriotism with jingoistic and xenophobic strains. The clear implication of Hobsbawm’s argument and language was that there was something almost fascistic about Thatcherism—indeed, he flirted with the terminology, hesitating “only just” to describe Thatcherism as “semifascist”, something like but just shy of “fascism of the old kind”. The consequence of this analysis was that the left should follow the trend established by Eurocommunism and relegate class as an organising principle in place of a strategy of Popular Frontism, organising a “coalition of all democrats” around the “mass parties of the left”.34

Thatcher did not succeed in wiping out the labour movement, or the Labour Party, or indeed the entire left—but did it succeed in creating a hegemonic formation? And if Thatcherism was not fascist, did it not nonetheless fundamentally alter the mode of domination, as suggested by the formula of “authoritarian populism”? To answer this, it is first necessary to understand what is meant by “hegemony”. In a conventional interpretation of Gramsci, relevant here, hegemony refers to the construction of consent for a social group’s dominance, which operates in the sphere of civil society, through ideology and persuasion rather than repression.35

In fact, while Thatcher took the ideological battle very seriously indeed, and had some successes in this respect—this is the strongest part of Hall’s analysis—the key questions were not settled through consent, but through open class struggle. Public attitudes on the key issues of public spending, redistribution and welfare remained stolidly reformist, and on a number of central questions the public moved to the left during Thatcher’s three successive administrations. As the historian Tim Bale put it, “Thatcher didn’t win elections because she converted a majority of citizens to her cause (she didn’t) or because she was personally popular (she wasn’t).” Her successes were owed to the weakness of the opposition and, in part, to her governments’ successful macroeconomic manipulations leaving a sufficient number of people feeling wealthy for long enough at election times. If Thatcher successfully imposed a new neoliberal commonsense, this was largely because she compelled social democracy to adapt to it by defeating opposed social forces in struggle. In fact, the evidence is that New Labour has done much more to move public attitudes to the right on public spending and welfare than the Tories did.36

And this is suggestive of the answer to the second question, viz, that while Thatcherism was a novel political formation, the form of state that it commandeered was not. Thatcher’s strategy was not to destroy the labour movement, as Hobsbawm suggested, but to eradicate its militancy while maintaining the bureaucracy as an apparatus for securing the acquiescence of the working class through negotiation; not to destroy the Labour Party, but to destroy its left wing—a point that is worth bearing in mind today as the Tories seek to co-opt the trade union leadership into the cuts process, and the Labour right seeks to resist mobilising against austerity.37

What of the argument that the Tories were the beneficiaries of a decline in class conscious voting? In a manner similar to Hobsbawm, some psephologists argued that the 1980s were witnessing a trend of “electoral dealignment” in which voters ceased to vote on a class basis and became more like consumers, shopping around for parties based on value preferences. This, it was argued, was because many workers had become better off, and thus tended to favour Tory policies such as tax cuts. The evidence for this is based on an outmoded index of “class voting” known as the “Alford Index”, which depicts the working class exclusively in the terms of manual labour, and in such a way as to include in the category self-employed traders, small businessmen and “foremen and technicians”, social groups who would properly belong to the middle class. More sophisticated studies of social attitudes and class find that class continues to strongly determine ideological outlook on core political issues such as privatisation, welfare and big business. If many working class voters broke with Labourism in the early 1980s, this was at least in part to do with Labour’s failures in office, and particularly its use of corporatist instruments to break working class militancy and impose reduced living standards on the majority.38

The unstable formation that underpinned Thatcherism was already fragmenting by the time the legislation introducing the Community Charge, to replace local rates, was passed in 1988. The combination of Thatcher’s increasingly “Eurosceptic” policies which was seen as pandering to petty bourgeois nationalism, the public disorder arising from the imposition of the poll tax, and the Tories’ slump in the polls as the 1980s drew to a close led a faction of the Conservative leadership to move against her and try to rescue the party from what seemed to be a likely thumping in the next general election.

Divisions over Europe had started to come to the fore in the late 1980s over the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) and moves towards a single currency, which Nigel Lawson, Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe supported, and which Thatcher opposed. The pro-Europeans favoured closer integration, pegging the pound to the German mark, in order to help overcome the destabilising factors introduced into the economy through financialisation. Thatcher argued that this would be too deflationary and would constrain British growth. Howe and Lawson had secretly threatened to resign over Thatcher’s intransigence and Eurosceptic speeches in Brussels, with the chancellor operating a de facto ERM policy by pegging the pound to the mark. Thatcher’s attack on Delors’s plan for economic and monetary union, published in 1989, further exacerbated splits in the Tory leadership, which contributed to a poor showing in the European elections that year. It was Howe’s resignation from the cabinet in 1990 over Thatcher’s anti-EU speech at a European Council meeting in Rome, signalling that Britain would never join a European single currency, that helped precipitate Michael Heseltine’s challenge for the leadership, and Thatcher’s downfall.39

Decline and fall: from Thatcher to Major

On 22 November 1990 Margaret Thatcher announced her resignation from the leadership of the Conservative Party. In effect, she was compelled to leave office because she had clearly lost the confidence of a significant section of her cabinet, illustrated by Michael Heseltine’s decision to stand against her. In that year Labour’s lead in opinion polls had reached 20 percent. Thatcher’s personal popularity ratings were lower than for any prime minister since polling began. The underlying issues were the poll tax, which Tory backbenchers feared would cost them re-election, and Europe, on which a section of the Tory leadership considered her too dogmatically anti-European. John Major was Thatcher’s nominated successor, chosen mainly because he was a centrist on Europe, and he was backed by a majority of MPs. Major, though, had already persuaded the cabinet, as chancellor, to join the ERM, a decision that was to weigh heavily on his premiership.

Major was not a Thatcherite. He was explicitly a “One Nation” Tory favouring consensus politics rather than the fights of the 1980s. His first order of business was to conduct a retreat over the issue of the poll tax. Initially he sought to deal with the issue by subsidising it, and thus reducing the burden on those paying it, but—faced with further protests and the possibility of a “no confidence” vote over the issue—he withdrew the tax and replaced it with the less regressive Council Tax.40 This was an effective move, deflating Labour’s lead by removing a polarising issue and allowing centrist voters to return to the Liberals. Following the leadership election, the Tories’ poll numbers began to recover somewhat, and the Tories closed ranks around the new leader to stem further losses. Major was also assisted by the fact that his victory was followed by a traditional opportunity to demonstrate the virtues of “strong” leadership through an alliance with Bush the Elder in Operation Desert Storm against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Labour opposition weakened their own position by declining to voice any opposition to the war. As a result, throughout the conflict Major enjoyed a majority in the polls.

The scale of Major’s subsequent election victory, with the Tories enjoying a 7.6 percent lead over Labour, was a stunning coup. Major had kept the Tory coalition together with 42 percent of the vote. Labour’s leadership looked round for people to blame and settled on the unions. However, there is little evidence that the union relationship played any significant role in the outcome of the election. Nor was there much evidence for the widely repeated claim that the Sun’s attacks on Kinnock “won it” for the Tories. Polling evidence at the time demonstrated that the result represented the continuation of a historic split in Labourism in the period from 1979 to 1983 which had not been reversed.41 Arguably, had the Tories continued in a Thatcherite vein, they would have succeeded in reuniting the divided anti-Tory majority.

As it was, the returning Tory administration was weak. After mass disobedience over the poll tax, the Tories were no longer in a position to maintain the bellicose posture of the 1980s. The capitalist class, too, learned that there were limits to the strategy of confrontation with the unions. The last major confrontation that industry and the Tories engaged in with the trade unions was the signal workers’ dispute in 1994. There was a concerted class-wide attempt on the part of capital to break the RMT, which was demanding a pay claim well above the government’s public service pay limit. The Institute of Directors and the CBI pooled their resources with the management of the recently privatised British Rail, spending hundreds of millions to break the strike. The operation depended on breaking up the cohesion of the railway workers and persuading significant numbers to scab. When that didn’t happen, Michael Portillo raised the spectre of further “union reform” including a ban on strikes in key services, a longstanding Tory nostrum which Boris Johnson would like to impose today. In the end, management was defeated and the Portillo never proceeded with his plans. Industrial relations, he argued, were “very good”, so confrontation was no longer necessary.42

The Tories were also increasingly embroiled in their factiousness. While the poll tax had been a setback for the Tories’ ability to fight for business interests, the issue of Europe was an unprecedented crisis at the heart of Conservatism. Ted Heath had infuriated some Tory right wingers by allying with Labour centrists to draw Britain into the EEC, but the majority of Conservatives were resigned to its necessity. Under Thatcher, simmering unease over Europe was partially suppressed by the need for (Western) European unity in the context of the Cold War. But with the collapse of the USSR in 1989, the Tory right was no longer prepared to keep mum.

The outlook of the “sceptics” was not simply narrow and xenophobic, though the propaganda often was. It was just that they were allied with those sectors of capital who either looked further afield for profits than the European markets, or who still looked for Britain to punch above its weight in the world, or who resented new labour protections and restrictions that might come with monetary union, or who didn’t fancy their chances of competing effectively with French and German capital in an enlarged single market. Small businesses in particular, the Tory backbone throughout the Thatcher era, were repelled by the idea that “Eurocrats” might set rules on wages, safety laws, or even taxation, that they could ill afford. Lending spurious coherence to these diverse gripes and grievances was the Tory fetish of the nation-state, whose organic evolution over centuries seemed to set it in far better standing than a bureaucratic, rationalist imposition like the EU (dubbed, in some reactionary polemic, the EUSSR).43

Major demonstrated his commitment to Atlanticists by joining with George Bush senior in mauling Iraq during Desert Storm, but also wanted to take his party into the Maastricht Treaty, which would draw Britain into a unified European political and economic structure. To make it more palatable to the sceptics, he negotiated opt-outs from the single currency and from the provisions of the “social chapter”. But this wasn’t enough, and the party whips had to work overtime to avoid embarrassing defeats, some of which nevertheless came. The fact that the rebels were able to repeatedly bloody the government’s nose, with a Labour opposition opportunistically backing them up, showed that the MPs were unafraid for their careers because they knew themselves to be far from isolated either in the parliamentary party or among the constituency party members, or among the base.

Not only that, but they blamed the Europhiles for leading Britain into the disastrous Exchange Rate Mechanism, with the resulting losses of “Black Wednesday” destroying the Tories for at least the next election. On 16 September 1992 the Tories were forced to withdraw the pound from the ERM. Under the terms of the ERM, the government pegged the pound to the value of the Deutsche Mark, and was obliged to intervene if the value of the currency fluctuated too widely. In the middle of a recession the British currency was weak and had to be sustained through high interest rates. Currency speculators began to sell off the pound, forcing the government to spend billions buying it up—but this could not stop the currency plummeting. Chancellor Norman Lamont was finally forced to withdraw from the ERM at a cost of £3.3 billion. Following this debacle, and despite the fact that Labour had supported participation in the ERM, the next election was settled, “pushing Conservative support into a new long-term equilibrium”.44

The issue of Europe for the Tory right also tied into a wider set of dissatisfactions, such as over immigration, crime, the cautious pace of privatisation under Major, and Britain’s defence posture in the post Cold War world. Even after Labour’s 1997 landslide, they were confident that it would fall to them to save the Tories from electoral oblivion. Yet they were deluded. Research showed that the breakdown of the Tory base had been taking place beneath the surface throughout the Thatcher era, that the party apparatus was eroding throughout the 1980s with membership declining and new members less and less active. The Thatcherites’ long domination of the parliamentary party had not been based on the conversion of a majority of Tory supporters or MPs to doctrinaire Thatcherism, but on the latter’s ability to win elections. That ability had long since been ceded.45

The 1997 election wipe-out saw the Tories reduced to 30 percent of the popular vote, with cabinet ministers and senior MPs losing formerly secure seats. Their share was even smaller among workers. Only a quarter of skilled workers and “white collar” workers supported the Tories, while approximately a fifth of “unskilled” and unemployed workers, and 13 percent of council tenants, did so. Only among managers and professionals (the “AB” vote) did the Tories retain a plurality (41 percent). Polling conducted for the BBC indicates that had the economy not been in a relatively strong state at that point, the Tories’ annihilation would have been more complete.46 Following the 1992 election the Tories’ popular base had resumed its fragmentation, more rapidly than before. But because Thatcherism had seemingly saved the party once before, the party’s right remained convinced that it would do so again. It took the Tories three successive defeats, in which they barely exceeded 30 percent of the vote, and almost a decade of pound-saving to disabuse themselves of that idea.

Cameron’s solution

Part of the problem for the Conservatives under Blair was of how to distinguish themselves from the government. On many of New Labour’s key policies, such as privatisation and participation in the “war on terror”, the Tories did not fundamentally disagree with Blair. Indeed, a layer of Thatcherite “mods” began to admire Blair for his willingness to defy the unions, and the majority of Labour voters, over such issues. Under successive leaders—William Hague, Ian Duncan-Smith, and Michael Howard, they differentiated themselves by adopting and espousing hard right social policies, bound to a standard Tory appeal to nationalism. This was the path pursued until David Cameron became party leader in 2005, and it never mustered more than 33 percent of the vote.

Cameron took the leadership with a promise to “modernise” the party, heeding the advice of Tory donor Lord Ashcroft to “wake up and smell the coffee”. Though he himself had a standard Thatcherite voting record, he understood that this was no longer a saleable electoral formula. Since 1992 the Tories had lost votes among two key groups: the professional middle class and skilled workers. These voters were “secular” in motivation, having no attachment to the nationalist and socially authoritarian politics of Conservatism. They voted with their wallet, and on that front there had been nothing the Tories could offer that New Labour couldn’t do better. Therefore, with the assistance of Ian Duncan-Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, Cameron set about trying to expunge the Tory brand of the toxic Thatcherite associations.

In contrast to the provincial, lower middle class base of Thatcherism, with its emphasis on “moral economy” and social authority, Cameron espoused social liberalism. Cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism predominated over nationalism. The new Tory leader was mocked for the “aristocratic” trappings in his background, notably his Eton education and his royal connections. For the first time since 1965, when the Etonian Alec Douglas-Home was replaced by Ted Heath, the son of a small businessman, the Tories had chosen a member of the ruling class to lead them. But Cameron is the son of a successful finance-capitalist, and made his living for a time as an average salaried businessman in a PR firm. His shadow cabinet was similarly integrated with private capital, with William Hague, Ken Clarke, Oliver Letwin, Frances Maude, Eric Pickles and Andrew Lansley all earning tidy sums from various non-executive directorships and advisory roles. In 2008, of 29 shadow cabinet members, 19 were millionaires.47 What was distinctive about the Cameron leadership, then, was not that it was a clique of “toffs” but that the big business leadership had wrested decisive control from the lower middle class base.

Yet the base could not be completely ignored, and Cameron was forced to triangulate on a number of controversial issues such as the EU and immigration. While the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors, and lobbies such as “Business for Sterling” were among the leading campaigners against the single currency, the pro-euro “Britain in Europe” group, backed by Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and Charles Kennedy, has enjoyed the support of such major firms as BA, Nestle, BAe, Dyson, Ford, BT, Kellogs, Reuters, Unilever and others. Polls showed that the CBI overwhelmingly favoured EU expansion and—at least in the past—single currency membership, with only 15 percent of members disagreeing. Cameron had to find a way to unite small businesses and the lower middle classes hostile to the EU with more pro-European big capital, while seeing off the rising threat of the UKIP. Thus he allied with the hard right in Europe and promised a “cast iron guarantee” of a referendum on the EU Treaty, before capitulating on the treaty as soon as it was signed. On immigration, he could not promise to stop EU migration, but did instead offer a cap on migration from non-EU states.48

Yet the Tories were determined not to appear too right wing, and began to search for a new ideological articulation for their policies. Beginning with the idea of a “broken society”, which recycled age-old moral panics about the feckless poor and dressed them up in compassionate language, they came to develop an idea of the “Big Society”. Philip Blond, purveyor of “Red Toryism”—in truth, nothing but reheated “distributism” taken over from the inter-war radical right—also provided some alarmingly opaque soundbites to convey this message.49 In practice, little was changed at the level of policy. The Tories simply laundered policies from past manifestos—policies which, in fact, differed little in substance from those of New Labour. But the new ideological keywords of the Conservative were, remarkably, poverty, inequality, compassion and society. And in a number of election campaigns the Tories outflanked Labour to the left on key issues such as immigration and Post Office closures.50

As regards public spending, until the recession beginning in 2008, Cameron’s policy was to match the government’s spending totals and then hit them on their priorities within that framework. This commitment was partially responsible for the Tories’ recovery in the polls. At the time of the pre-budget report in 2008, however, the Tories performed a volte-face, declaring that public spending would have to fall.51 This was a well-timed turn. Prior to 2008 the Tories could not have expected to make any headway with attacking high government spending, but they successfully utilised the crisis and the leveraging of the state in the context of bailing out the banks, to support such an attack afterwards.

Importantly, however, this reversion to form did not come with an aggressive spiel about the value of market discipline, an idea that has been in acute crisis since 2007 and which would jar with the Big Society panacea. It was pitched almost purely in terms of crisis management—a stance enabled by the complicity of the Labour leadership, which also argued for cuts within its working class base. Indeed, only after the recession did Cameron admit that he was seeking to make permanent cuts rather than temporary adjustments to pay off creditors. The same can be said for the reforms of the NHS. Rather than attack the underlying popular common sense about the NHS, Cameron has claimed that market-driven reforms are necessary for efficiency savings in order to protect the core service from cutbacks.52 While Thatcher was able to come to office with a coherent and distinctive ideology that tapped into aspects of deep-seated discontent with social democracy, Cameron has attempted to be every bit as ill-defined, slippery and impossible to pin down as the condom-sheathed caricature of him that appears in Steve Bell’s cartoons.

The Coalition

Cameron’s extensive PR efforts were insufficient for the Tories to win in 2010. That they could only muster just over a third of the popular vote with millions of Labour voters in semi-permanent abstention and a fatally weakened opponent, is indicative of just how bad things have become for the Tories, and how urgently they need to repair them. Cameron, failing to command a sufficient plurality of the vote to take office, has instead been the beneficiary of a civil service fix to ensure that a coalition government would be quickly lashed up in the event of a hung parliament. This produced a government which no one voted for, based on a programme that no one was canvassed about. It is, as David Marquand put it, “the least legitimate peacetime British government of modern times”.53

This is not to say that Cameron did not enjoy any successes. First of all, the alliance with the Liberals gave Cameron a degree of independence from the petty bourgeois base of the Conservative Party. His embrace of a degree of social liberalism in opposition had proved deeply controversial with these elements, whose concerns were vocalised by their traditional Thatcherite tribunes such as Lord Tebbit. Writing in the right wing Spectator magazine, Tebbit claimed the “present Conservative strategy is eroding its ultra-loyalist bedrock vote” and giving the strong impression that “respectable working and lower middle class supporters in the suburbs, country towns and villages are not quite good enough for the new ‘A’ list, Notting Hill party”. He was joined in this chorus by other Tory grandees such as Lord Saatchi, who urged him to embrace a more “ideological” approach.54 In coalition, Cameron was at greater liberty to ignore such voices. A certain pro-business liberalism could dominate, uniting the financial and business elites concentrated in the Tory leadership with the progressive middle classes that make up the Liberal bedrock. The millionaires continued to dominate as, in addition to well-padded Tory capitalists, the Liberal entrants to the new cabinet included millionaire property owners Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne. Of 29 cabinet members, only six were not millionaires.55

The shaky alliance with the Liberals reinforced the Cameronites and temporarily detoxified the Tory brand, and partially enabled the Tories to carry the argument on some aspects of their austerity agenda, at least as far as the polls were concerned. One of the aspects of austerity that resonated with a majority of people after 13 years of New Labour was the view that welfare recipients were a drain on the public purse. As a consequence, when Osborne swung the axe heavily in the direction of welfare, polls found that a majority supported the policy. But even here they found it necessary to frame their cuts in terms of an attack on “middle class” benefits, and to pretend that their overall cuts package was “progressive”.56 This makes the coalition highly unstable and fragile.

Further, the Tories are not merely engaging in cuts, but in a risky project of radical social engineering. The cuts in public spending will be coupled with “free schools” and the de facto privatisation of the NHS—policies that will inescapably produce deep social polarisation and conflict. Already one plank of the government’s reforms, raising tuition fees and scrapping the Education Maintenance Allowance, has produced a stunning student revolt, notable above all for its militancy. Why, having so assiduously courted a reputation for “niceness”, which had previously included a promise to match Labour spending totals, has the Tory leader “turned nasty”?

The Tory leadership appears to be gambling on its ability to ride out and police the crisis, just as the Thatcher administration did, reaping the reward for subsequent growth that picks up in the private sector. Conservative austerity would then be, much like the Thatcher reforms, an attempt to reorganise British capitalism and the Tories’ role within it, creating another round of neoliberal growth and engineering a more conservative electorate. But this administration lacks many of the advantages that the Thatcherites benefited from. The latter came to battle far more prepared. Policing the crisis entails, at a minimum, preparing the state to cope with deep and protracted social conflicts. Yet, as in the Comprehensive Spending Review, the Tories planned to severely reduce spending on police. Further, the last time the Conservative Party was engaged in a concerted fight with the unions was during the 1994 signal workers’ strike, which they did not win. This is partly why they have attempted to secure the consent of the trade union bureaucracy rather than being ready for outright conflict. Thatcher could rely on a robust Tory majority in the House of Commons to push her measures through, while Cameron depends upon a Liberal ally that is under incredible pressure because its appeal has in the past been based on the moderately social democratic liberalism defended by Jeremy Thorpe and Charles Kennedy. His ally could collapse or split under the application of serious pressure, leaving him isolated and facing a sudden general election. And lastly, there is no guarantee that a global recovery and a new phase of capital accumulation of the kind that began in 1982 will save Cameron.

The beginnings of resistance have manifested themselves not only in the student movement, but in the trade union “March for the Alternative” which drew half a million workers. The social depth of the turn-out, representing the potential power of organised labour, demonstrated what could be achieved in strike action. A poll taken by Yougov on the eve of the march showed that a majority of people agreed with its aims—proving that if workers fight back, they can carry opinion with them.57 However, the Tories are in this for the long haul. It is prudent to assume that if they’re embarking on a project this ambitious, they are prepared for prolonged confrontations which can only be defeated with superior organisation and combativity on the part of the organised working class.


1: On the question of the ruling class and the capitalist state, see Therborn, 2008.

2: The landed interest in the Tory party continued to be important, however, at least in part because that was that was where the greatest concentrations of wealth were to be found, well into the 19th century. See Scott, 1982, pp34-42; Ross, 1983, pp32-33 and 46; Wellington quoted in Ramsden, 1998, p29. On Peel and the Tories, see Evans, 1991; on the Tories and the Corn Laws, see Ramsden, 1998, pp50-76

3: On the Tories and the enfranchisement of workers, see Cowling, 2005. On Disraeli’s appeal to empire sentiment, see O’Gorman, 1986, pp146-147; on “popular Toryism”, see Lee, 1979; Pugh, 1988; Cornford, 1963; on Baldwin’s patrician Toryism, see Seldon, 1994.

4: On the Tories’ often grudging adaptation to social democracy, see Harris, 1972; Seawright, 2005; Zweiniger-Bargielowska, 1994

5: On post-war Tory results, compared with Thatcher’s, see Ross, 1983, pp5-9.

6: For the best analysis of the Heath administration’s programme, see Blackburn, 1971.

7: Gamble, 1994, pp82-88; Darlington and Lyddon, 2001; Dorey, 1995, pp65-91.

8: Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, and Roberts, 1978, pp218-72; see also Gramsci, 1971.

9: Gamble, 1994, pp77-81; Seymour, 2010.

10: Denham & Garnett, 2001, pp97-106; Jessop, Bonnet, Bromley, & Ling, 1984.

11: On the Liberals’ articulation of consensus politics in 1974, see Dale, 2000, pp145-182.

12: Gamble, 1994, p83; Coates, 2003, pp137-154; Seldon and Hickson, 2004, pp207-208.

13: Partially this enhanced class cohesion was assured by the development of what the sociologist Michael Useem calls an “interlocking directorate”, in which the largest companies developed the practice of accepting non-executive directors on their boards while sending their own favoured managers onto the boards of other companies. This enabled them to get a “scan” of the business environment, and created ties between financial and non-financial corporations, allowing the former to acquire better information and act as “nerve centres” of capital accumulation. But it also created networks of solidarity when business interests were threatened-Useem, 1984, pp38-58; 157-159; on growing links between financial and non-financial corporations in the same period, see Scott, 1979, pp75-104.

14: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1996, pp328-31 and 343-344; Grant, 1980.

15: Joseph, 1974; Gamble, 1994, pp90-104.

16: Gamble, 1994, pp88-138; Grant, 1980.

17: Mayston, 1996, p11.

18: Atkinson and Wilks-Heeg, 2000, pp58 and 72; Evans, 2004, pp53-64 .

19: Gamble, 1994, pp105-9.

20: Nairn, 1983; Sanders, Ward, Marsh & Fletcher, 1987.

21: Thompson, 1986, pp70 and 98; Saville, 1985; Cliff and Gluckstein, 1996, pp374-378; Beynon and McNylor, 1985, p71; Beckett and Hencke, 2009, p249.

22: Coates, 2005, p8; Mullard, 1993, p222; Wallop, 2010; Wilenius, 2004.

23: Grant, 1980; Kavanagh, 1987, pp118-119.

24: Hall, 1987.

25: A Thatcherite idiom for the Tory “left”.

26: Evans, 2004, pp4-5, 14.

27: Sofer, 2009, p290.

28: The best synthetic analysis of these positions can be found in Blackledge, 2002.

29: Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke and Roberts, 1978; see also Hall, 1983; Hall, 1985; and Poulantzas, 2000.

30: On these criticisms, see Blackledge, 2002.

31: Green, 2004, p216.

32: Driver, 2009, p84.

33: Gamble, 1979; Gamble, 1994.

34: Hobsbawm, 1989, pp9-22, 57-61, 80-81, 103-118 and 192; see also Birchall and Carlin, 1983.

35: In fact, this is a misleading interpretation of Gramsci’s concept, which includes coercion towards subordinate social groups, alongside the securing of consent among allied groups. See Thomas, 2009, pp159-197.

36: Bale, 2010, p23. On social attitudes after Thatcher, see Cliff and Gluckstein, 1996, pp379-381; on New Labour’s impact, see Asthana, 2010.

37: Such was the contemporary analysis of this journal. See Callinicos, 1985; these and other counterpoints to Hall, Hobsbawm and others are summarised in Blackledge, 2002.

38: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1996, pp376-378; Crewe, 1983; Heath, Jowell and Curtice, 1985; Harman, 1989; Evans, 1993; Van der Waal, Achterberg & Houtman, 2007; Andersen and Heath, 2002; Evans, 2000.

39: Garry, 1995; Riddell, 1987.

40: Alderman and Carter, 1991; Taylor, 2006, pp49-50.

41: See Heath, Jowell and Curtice, 1994.

42: Cliff, 1995; Undy, 1996, p148; Dorey, 1995, p124.

43: A survey of Tory MP’s opinions carried out in 1991 for the Economic and Social Research Council can help explain why this issue can be so crippling for the Conservatives. It found that while the overwhelming majority, some 95 percent, favoured further privatisation in some form, the parliamentary party divided almost evenly into pro-EC and anti-EC camps. There was a strong correlation between social and economic conservatism, and hostility to the EC. The most virulently free market hyperglobalisers, such as Peter Lilley, Michael Howard and Michael Portillo, were the most hostile to Europe-Baker, Gamble and Seawright, 2002.

44: Garry, 1995; Sowemimo, 1996; Baker, Gamble and Seawright, 2002; Whiteley, 1997.

45: Cox, 1995; Norton, 1990.

46: Kellner, 1997. A more granulated breakdown shows that non-unionised, non-manual workers in the private sector also voted slightly more for the Tories (32.4 percent) than for Labour (31 percent): Johnston, Pattie, Dorling, MacAllister, Tunstall and Rossiter, 2001.

47: Peev, 2009; Kirby and Clarke, 2008

48: See “Britain in Europe” website:; BBC News, 1999; Grice, 2002; Lynch, 2009, pp187-207.

49: Distributism is the doctrine that capital should be distributed as widely as possible in society in order to maintain traditional, small-scale social relationships typical of pre-capitalist societies. As the Catholic writer G K Chesterton put it, “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.”

50: Driver, 2009, pp80-96; Bentley, 2007; Coates, 2005, pp116-117. For a comparison of the 2010 Tory manifesto with its predecessors, see Morris, 2010; for the Tories wafer-thin critique of New Labour’s handling of the civil service, see Maude, 2010; Editorial, 2008.

51: Lee and Beech, 2009, pp13 & 21-22.

52: Watt, 2011.

53: Marquand, 2011.

54: Dorey, 2007.

55:, 2010.

56: Hennessy and Kite, 2010; O’Grady, 2010.

57: TUC, 2011.


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