Forty years on, Britain once again appears divided and ungovernable, hurtling toward another decisive moment in its history, just as it did at the dawn of the 1980s. But what should the party do now—on the cusp of Brexit ? Who is the enemy? And where is a new Thatcher?
Read: The Brexit catch-22 driving U.K. politics crazy
All around, the old certainties of the postwar era are crumbling: Russia is back, but changed and leading the fight against Western liberalism; China is everywhere, but as friend or foe it’s hard to tell; and even the United States, that once reliable pole, is now suddenly shaky, flirting with Vladimir Putin, bickering with Europe, and worryingly soft on NATO.
Maurice Saatchi, a Conservative peer and influential Thatcher acolyte, opened the conference by warning the audience that politics could never be a science: It is chaotic, messy, and subjective. Opinions and convictions are the currency. “In politics,” though, he said, “once you express opinions or beliefs, or attempt to offer explanations or descriptions or forecasts, then error, doubt, and uncertainty come to the fore.” It was a jarring message for the audience that had come to be retold the old certainties of 1979. Where had they gone?
Thatcher, who remained prime minister for 11 years, until 1990, continues to hang heavy over British politics, though in a very different fashion from her Cold War partner, Ronald Reagan, in the United States. Unlike Reagan, she remains a toxic presence in large swaths of the country where the economic revolution she ushered in has left deep scars that have never quite healed.
Under David Cameron’s 11-year leadership of the Conservative Party (including six years as prime minister) that ended in June 2016, after the Brexit vote, being a “Thatcherite” was not a badge of honor that many would choose to wear. It was too harsh, too divisive, too Tory. Thirteen years of Labour government had forced conservatism to change—to be more socially liberal and “compassionate,” in touch with Middle England’s perceived modern values.
It worked for a while, ushering in Cameron’s premiership. Yet his gamble to promise a referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union upended everything, leaving the Conservative Party—and the country—divided and directionless.
Read: The elusive Maggie Thatcher
While Thatcher has not been in vogue, she has remained ever present. Her negotiating success in the 1980s, winning an annual rebate on Britain’s EU membership fees, has become the benchmark no British prime minister has been able to meet. Cameron’s attempted renegotiation of Britain’s membership in the EU never met the bar the country demanded. When it came to Theresa May’s turn to negotiate an exit package, that too failed the Thatcher test: May, it was quickly decided, had been bullied by Europe in a way her female predecessor would never have stood for. A five-part BBC documentary on Thatcher’s legacy was aired to coincide with the anniversary of her rise to power, reinforcing her status as a giant, good or ill.