Thatcherism – The Impasse Broken? Martin Jacques (1979)

Some thoughts on the characteristics of early Thatcherism and the ‘law and order’ agenda

For a long time I have been searching for an online version of this article from October 1979 by Martin Jacques, editor of Marxism Today and CPGB Executive Committee member. The Marxism Today  archive, for some reason, does not have the Oct 79 issue available online. But I think that this article by Jacques, written in the months after Thatcher’s electoral breakthrough, is a very concise piece that demonstrates the ‘new’ thinking by Jacques, Hall and other ‘Euros’ on the challenge that Thatcherism presented, and I believe that it is very good companion piece to Hall’s ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, which featured in the same magazine the previous January. I have now found the article here as part of the UNZ online archive of magazines and journals (most of the rest of the stuff in the collection are from the US).

There is one section that I used to quote in my lectures on Thatcherism:

The precise character of Thatcherism is complex. Two clear elements, however, can be pinpointed. Firstly, there is a strong emphasis on a more traditional arguably petty-bourgeois ideology – the virtues of the market, competition, elitism, individual initiative, the iniquities of state intervention and bureaucracy… Secondly, Thatcherism has successfully attempted the organise the diverse forces of the ‘backlash’ – reacting against trade union militancy, national aspirations, permissiveness, women’s liberation – in favour of an essentially regressive and conservative solution embracing such themes as authority, law and order, patriotism, national unity, the family and individual freedom…

Thatcherism thus combines a right laissez-faire economic strategy with reactionary and authoritarian populism. (p. 10)

It is also reminiscent of another superb quote from Stuart Hall on the characteristics of Thatcherism: ‘Make no mistake about it: under this regime, the market is to be Free; the people are to be Disciplined’ (Drifting into a Law and Order Society, Cobden Trust, Amersham, 1980, p. 5)

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On the other hand, one can get carried away with the idea of Thatcherism (especially the ‘law and order’ part of it) as something new and novel in 1979. The politics of confrontation, as seen with the 1981 riots and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, was not just something adopted by the Conservatives upon Thatcher’s assumption of the leadership position and as several scholars have noted, the basis for the shift to the right attributed to Thatcherism had actually existed since the late 1960s. The view that Britain was on the verge of collapse had existed since the industrial militancy and cultural radicalism of the late 1960s and had been exacerbated by the economic crisis of the mid-1970s. Thatcherism was a response to this anxiety about the collapse of British society and was now openly willing to challenge the elements that were seen as ‘threats’ to Britain’s economic recovery and the ‘British way of life’.

It should also be noted that Thatcher could not have implemented any of these confrontational actions without sharing a considerable amount of consensus with the British population. The seminal 1978 work by Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson and others, Policing the Crisis, demonstrated how the issues of crime and policing were utilised by the right to present strict criminal justice measures as the effective antidote to the crises of the 1970s. As the economic crisis of the 1970s continued, the police were increasingly used to deal with ‘subversive’ elements of British society, dissatisfied with Labour’s ineffective policies. The perceived lack of initiative of the Labour Government on the economic crisis and the issues of law and order allowed the Conservatives to sway traditional Labour voters with the populist notions of a ‘strong state’ to deal with the trade unions, crime, illegal immigrants and other ‘subversive’ elements. This populist appeal was part of the reason why around a third of trade unionists voted for the Conservatives in the May 1979 General Election, as Hobsbawm stated here (p. 265).

However these populist notions and the result of a more restrictive police presence were not merely creations of Thatcher herself. Paul Gilroy and Joe Sim wrote in 1985 (here) that ‘as far as law and order, policing and criminal justice matters are concerned, the Thatcher governments do not represent a decisive break with patterns in preceding years’, with the elements for a confrontational and politicised police force being present in the ‘fudged social democracy of the Wilson, Heath and Callaghan years’ (p. 18).  But under Thatcher, I think you can see a difference, as the police and other repressive institutions of the criminal justice system were explicitly used against certain demonised parts of society and there was increasing consent for this use amongst large sections of the British public. It is not until the late 1980s, particularly in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster and the police reaction to the anti-Poll Tax movement, that the Thatcherite supporter base become dissatisfied with the excesses of Thatcher’s law and order agenda – before this, those who were on the receiving end of it were often elements that the Tories had calculatedly excised from ‘British society’, but by the end of her reign, the consent of her traditional supporter base had also evaporated.

As we look back over the Thatcher years, I think that it is worth revisiting the early analysis of Thatcherism presented by Hall and Jacques in Marxism Today (and now we can more easily access Jacques’ 1979 piece). As Richard Seymour, of Lenin’s Tomb blog fame, wrote last year on the prescience of ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ for Jacobin:

He understood Thatcherism as not just a type of politics or statecraft, but a popular cultural phenomenon, a moral idiom, a common sense touching on the lived experience of polyglot social layers – somehow, Thatcherism was not just a doctrine of reaction but a hegemonic project, which managed to bind the abstruse dogma of neoliberalism to concrete, deeply felt experience.  And the ground work for this cultural advance had, as he and numerous co-authors at the Centre for Cultural Studies had shown in Policing the Crisis, been conducted since the late 1960s by a ‘New Right’ personated first in Powell then in Thatcher.  It had worked through a series of racial moral panics about crime, to connotatively link the experience of unemployment and depression to a wider narrative of British decline, the breakdown of law and order, the loss of imperial omnipotence, and so on.  The role of nationalism, and ‘Britishness’ in particular, was central to the Right’s appeal.

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