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This lady's not for turning

12 October 2017

Charlie Parnell - Partner, Investment Manager

It is, remarkably, nearly 40 years since Margaret Thatcher delivered one of her best-known speeches of not only her premiership but arguably her entire political career. Just over a year into the job, Britain's first female Prime Minister was under pressure but with characteristic defiance, she rounded on her critics with the infamous riposte: "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning!"

Seven years later, fresh from a third straight crushing defeat of all-comers at the '87 General Election, she was perhaps at the apogee of her power. She enjoyed a massive parliamentary majority against a backdrop of almost total vindication of her tough economic policies; the country was once again a major player on the international stage; her personal position within the Conservative Party was beyond unassailable. At the Party conference that year, the tone of her speech was understandably more self-satisfied than confrontational as she prepared to lead the nation into the '90s and even beyond.

Three years later, of course, Thatcher had resigned after the infamous skewering by Geoffrey Howe over her obstructive attitude to Europe. The post-Cold War world was being told that not only was there was "no such thing as society" we had also reached "the end of history". Thatcher's triumphalism of the late-80s, with the benefit of hindsight, looks like a salutary lesson in hubris.

Three decades on, the country is now enduring a curious political symmetry, albeit perhaps one that has been distorted by several sets of circus mirrors. Once again, we have a female Prime Minister at the head of a Tory government, Europe is high on the agenda, the Queen is still the Queen and society is as fractured as any time in the previous thirty-plus years. But alas, there the similarities end rather abruptly.

Far from presiding over a 100+ seat Commons majority and the personal mandate that goes with it, Mrs May has been subject to much criticism, branded solely responsible for a poor election campaign and with reduced support. She faces daily requests for her resignation as PM and her position is, at best, precarious. Would-be successors are doubtless lining up, but are perhaps carefully contemplating the old saying "be careful what you wish for".

Across the House, things appear even more curious – in 1980 Mrs Thatcher observed that the corresponding Labour Party Conference saw significant support for Britain's withdrawal from both NATO and the then EEC. Much like Thatcher's observation, Mrs May's opposition is led by a gentleman who himself has been a life-long Eurosceptic and on that matter finds uncomfortable common ground with many of an unashamed right-wing disposition.

Moreover, this is the same leader who has survived two votes of no confidence by the Parliamentary Labour Party ("PLP") and yet has been swept to "power" by a wave of populist support from the grassroots of the Party. If we cast our minds back to 1975 when Maggie became Tory Party leader, Britain was by general consensus anything but united. There is little doubt that Thatcher's economic revolution changed the country, politically and culturally, enabling her to quip that her greatest achievement was Tony Blair. By the time he won his own landslide victory in 1997, the 'old' Labour Party of the left, the working classes and Michael Foot had been supplanted by Mondeo Man's champion in a country where everyone was suddenly middle class and 'peak Thatcher' had been attainted.

Things continued on their generally improving path for another seven or so years, but Blair's 'new' Labour never truly capitalised on the hope of the apparent new dawn of that first electoral triumph. He too went on to win a further two elections by large margins against an opposition that was in disarray, but a legacy blighted by little achievement of note domestically and a series of foreign interventions that look very silly today, supporting the notion of a year-2000 peak.

Since Blair left office, the world has been plunged into the worst financial crisis since the 1930s and western capitalism as we know it stared into the abyss, leading us to today's state of post-nationalism around the world. Even polling outcomes that look like they are driven by nationalistic motivation are perhaps more a function of a much more primitive tribalism – Brexit, Catalonia, Germany, France etc.

So, when it comes to symmetry, where does it lead us? If we take our starting point as 1973 when Britain joined the EEC, and work on the assumption that history has not in fact finished, then the conclusion might be that we are in for a stinker. Heath's government fell after an election in 1974 and left a hung parliament where he was unable to form a coalition with the Liberal Party. Harold Wilson formed a Labour minority, before securing a tiny majority in a second election that year. Heath eventually lost the leadership to Thatcher possibly as a result of being seen as a liability by many Conservative MPs, party activists and newspaper editors. His personality was often portrayed as cold and aloof.

Wind forward to 2017 and the only thing we can say with any degree of certainty is that the world no longer tolerates governments who are not caring about wider society. For some time now, Westminster politics has seemingly been entirely out of touch with the mood of the wider public, something Mrs Thatcher could not be accused of in her successful election campaigns. It can only be hoped that the leaders of today might be able to marry her single-minded pursuit of national improvement with a more caring, socially inclusive agenda fit for the 21st century.