Thatcherism and Blairism

Thatcherism was a term first brought into debate by Stuart Hall writing in Marxism Today in January 1979. In his article, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, he analysed some of the main elements of the major shift to the right that was taking place at that time; he discussed the reconfiguration of the right that was taking place as a new political formation – Thatcherism.1 Hall’s article was also notable for the way in which he drew on Gramsci for his analysis. For example, he discussed the shift to the right as a response to an ‘organic phenomenon’ – a process of long-term deep structural changes and contradictions in economy and society – and argued that, in such circumstances political forces in favour of the status quo attempt to intervene in order to create a new balance of forces – a new ‘historic block’ – in order to maintain their power.2 Thatcherism was thus seen as a particular political response to longer-term trends in Britain. As Hall argued: ‘these new elements do not “emerge”; they have to be constructed. Political and ideological work is required to disarticulate old formations, and to rework their elements into new ones. The “swing to the right” is not a reflection of the crisis: it is itself a response to the crisis’ (p23, Politics of Thatcherism).

The political terrain on which Thatcherism operated was shaped by the collapse/exhaustion of the postwar consensus, largely social democratic (of course Thatcherism also contributed massively to this collapse).3 Thatcherism represented a break with this consensus, not only within society as a whole but also within the Conservative Party, which had gone along with many of its elements (support for the welfare state, corporate bargaining between the state, business and unions, full employment, etc). In defeating the former Tory leader Edward Heath, Thatcher defeated the trend within the Tory Party that broadly went along with this consensus.

Instead she substituted a new consensus, based on monetarism, support for the market, the idea that individuals should look after themselves, and a virulently anti-state rhetoric. Her major political achievement, as Hall writes, was that she succeeded in translating the economics of Hayek and Friedman into: ‘the language of experience, moral imperative and common sense, thus providing a “philosophy” in the broader sense – an alternative ethic to that of the “caring society”’. Hall describes this as a ‘translation of a theoretical ideology into a popular idiom’ (p28, Politics of Thatcherism). Thatcherism articulated a new populist politics that succeeded in enlisting large sections of the working class into support for the right. She was able to do this partly through drawing attention to the weaknesses of social democracy and the welfare state (e.g. its paternalism, the poor performance of many state bodies and nationalised industries), partly through addressing people as consumers rather than producers, and partly through winning support based on an authoritarian appeal on issues such as law and order, the ‘British way of life’, traditional standards.4 In fact her politics was based on a weak state vis-à-vis business regulation, taxation and collective provision, but a strong state vis-à-vis militarism, law enforcement and the policing of borders. Stuart Hall has described this constellation of elements as ‘authoritarian populism’.

Once Thatcherism became entrenched in government, its radical nature became ever more apparent. Thatcher governments transformed many of the institutions that had sustained social democracy: state-owned enterprises were privatised; ordinary people were subsequently encouraged to buy shares, and, with the massive sell-off of council housing, to buy their homes, in the interests of creating a ‘property-owning democracy’; trade unions were drastically weakened (most notably in the defeat of the miners in 1984-5, and in a swathe of anti-union legislation); and across the public services there were cuts, the compulsory contracting-out to private contractors, and a general effort to import market values. In short, most of the gains of the postwar period were reversed, the free market was once more enshrined, and the left was marginalised. By and large, Thatcherism managed to secure sufficient popular consent for this programme through her populist appeal and ability to tap into people’s social and cultural aspirations.

New times and neoliberalism
During the long period of Thatcherite domination of British politics, Marxism Today played a key role in its analysis.5 Even before the wide-ranging discussion of Thatcherism which it promoted, there had been another important set of arguments about the decline of the traditional working class and the labour movement – ‘the forward march of labour’ debate, initiated by Eric Hobsbawm.6 This decline was clearly a major factor in the collapse of the old social democratic world. A further major theme that developed during the period of Thatcherism was the discussion of ‘new times’. The articles on this theme were an attempt to get to grips with the nature of the changes that were taking place in society, culturally, politically and economically.7 Some people understood the debate to be an endorsement of ‘new times’, a perhaps understandable mistake given the magazine’s strong support for the modernisation of the left (something to which we will return). However, the ‘new times’ debate was aimed at trying to understand the changes taking place, and to map out the ways in which Thatcherism articulated these changes into its own hegemonic political project. The aim for the left would be to articulate a different kind of politics for new times.

Here Stuart Hall’s contributions were again crucial. In his October 1988 article, ‘The Meaning of New Times’, he once more took inspiration from Gramsci. He argued that Gramsci’s essay ‘Americanism and Fordism’ was a good starting place for analysis of ‘new times’.8 In this essay Gramsci was trying to analyse a new epoch – Fordism – and to assess the prospects for the left at that time (also a time of defeat). As Hall points out, in his analysis Gramsci considers a surprisingly broad range of issues. These include new forms of capitalist accumulation and industrial production, but also a very wide range of cultural issues, and a discussion about the kind of person this epoch might produce. Hall takes this as an example of an approach that attempts to deal with the complexity and over-determined nature of any given historical conjuncture (i.e. the conjuncture is the present result of a large number of processes and contradictions). This of course indicates the need for complexity of analysis. Hall argues that this is how we should look at ‘new times’, as a time of transition from one historical form of organisation of capital to another, with all the cultural and social changes that implies. But he also cautions against looking for any close correspondence between the economic and the political. As he argues, the role of culture in these changes is also crucial.

Writing much later, in 2005, Hall acknowledges in hindsight that the earlier analyses of Thatcherism did not fully realise that Thatcher could be understood as a local (and early) instance of what was in fact a global phenomenon.9 We might today see ‘new times’ as a way of describing the contours of a renewed neoliberalism. Thatcherism can be seen as the particular British articulation of the resurgence of neoliberalism across the world, after the limited successes of social democrats and national liberation movements in constraining the power of capital in the postwar period.

Tony Blair was a follower of debates in Marxism Today, and a keen supporter of the modernisation of the left. His solution for the Labour Party was predicated on the need to recognise the changes in society more widely, and in the party’s working-class base in particular, and to adapt its politics to meet the new times. But he was also responding more than anything to the overwhelming sense of defeat in the Labour Party. His recipe for modernisation therefore jettisoned large parts of the party’s traditional approach, symbolised in the dropping of Clause IV (the bit of the party’s constitution that, among other things, argued for common ownership of the means of production). The Labour Party were apparently so grateful for his leadership’s securing of electoral victory in 1997 that they went on to swallow ever more deletions from the party’s social democratic repertoire. Thus much of the politics that can be broadly described as Blairism represents a move to the right within the Labour Party. (This has been much more uncomfortable for the Labour Party than the similar move within the Tory Party by Thatcher – since it represents a move away from their traditional heartlands, whereas Thatcher’s more actively hegemonic project secured non-traditional consent through its radicalism, while also keeping its traditional supporters happy.)

Blair’s politics are predicated on (at least) two false assumptions. Firstly, they don’t take account of the fact that the 1997 landslide victory for Labour represented a popular rejection of Thatcherism. Blairism remains in many ways a politics of defeat: the Blairites still see middle England as their key constituency, and still feel afraid of overt redistribution of any kind. Secondly, Blair has a habit (which he shares with other early New Labour ideologues influenced – in a bad way – by Marxism Today, such as Charlie Leadbeater and Geoff Mulgan) of seeing ‘new times’ as a ready-made set of circumstances spontaneously arising from changes in the economy.10 He therefore frequently justifies his policies by arguing that we must adapt to the new times, which always seems to involve adapting to the needs of global capital. This was a very different move from what was intended in the majority of MT articles. Blair represents one possible ‘modernisation’ of the left, one possible way of adapting to ‘new times’.

It is clear from all this that Blairism shares many characteristics with Thatcherism. The main similarity is that both can be seen as a politics actively articulated to the global resurgence of neoliberalism. Furthermore both Blair and Thatcher represent major shifts within their own political cultures. However, there are also a number of differences. One general difference is that Thatcherism represented a break from a previously existing general consensus, and the beginnings of the articulation of a new kind of politics in a new epoch. As such it can be seen as in some ways more radical than Blairism. Indeed much of the novelty of Blairism arises from the fact that he appears to be trying to develop a social democratic variant of neo-liberalism. Many would argue that this is by definition impossible – hence the need for continual double shuffles (see below). This means that Blairism is in many ways more significant for the changes it has brought about in the Labour Party and left culture more broadly, than for major changes within society – here he can be generally seen as furthering the move to a market-dominated world, a move he did not initiate himself.

Having said that, the fact that Blairism is lodged within the Labour Party means that it has to deploy a different repertoire from the Tories. Blair retains the address to the consumer and choice, but also appeals to a notion of community and inclusion, and sees an active role for the state in managing the country. These are the two main elements that can be seen as coming from a different political tradition from Thatcherism (Thatcher famously stated her belief that there was no such thing as society, and believed in rolling back the state). However, these social democratic elements within Blairism are continually subordinated to the dominant strand; this is the process that was described by Hall as a double shuffle (see footnote 9 for reference). Thus Blair’s appeals to a notion of community tend to be linked to concerns about behaviour within the community, and with the community as a unit of discipline. His notion of social inclusion, which has largely replaced the idea of redistribution or equality,11 is predicated increasingly on the idea that people must work hard to include themselves; those that are excluded are often deemed to have excluded themselves through irresponsible behaviour. And the state’s management of the economy increasingly concerns itself with managing citizens to fit themselves for the economy (as opposed to the social democratic idea of managing the economy to fit the needs of the people).12

Many commentators have noted that since 1997 Blairism can be increasingly seen as a faction within the Labour Party, and that its influence in the party can be seen as involving a gradual move to the right over the period since 1997.13 For example the Macpherson Report into the death of Stephen Lawrence was widely welcomed by anti-racists, but this has now been sidelined and Labour’s main contribution in this field is its rhetoric of control of asylum seekers; in Northern Ireland the Good Friday agreement was a major breakthrough, but the Unionists now seem once more to be the favoured negotiating partner; Robin Cook, Blair’s first Foreign Secretary, aspired to an ethical foreign policy, while today the government’s main focus is the ‘war on terrorism’.

Such changes show that any political formation has to work continually to respond to and intervene in a changing world, and that no situation is entirely stable. Thatcherism in the end became unpopular and was defeated both within the electorate and inside the Tory party. Blairism is perceived by many as having already peaked. The key thing is to try to understand these formations as complex responses to long-term structural change. Having said that, both Thatcherism and Blairism can be understood as political accommodations to long-term changes in the economy as it continues to move towards the deepening of global neoliberalism. The left has yet to articulate a politics that is capable of offering an alternative to these longer-term processes.

Sally Davison July 2006


1. Stuart Hall, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, Marxism Today, January 1979. Reprinted in Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques (eds), The Politics of Thatcherism, Lawrence & Wishart 1983.
2. For a discussion of Gramscian terms such as ‘historic block’, see David Forgacs (ed), The Gramsci Reader, Lawrence & Wishart 1988, which also explains many other Gramscian terms useful to understanding these debates.
3. For a discussion of the key importance of the collapse of the social democratic settlement in the 1970s, see Pat Devine, ‘The 1970s and After: The Crisis of Social democracy’, Soundings 32.
4. For more discussion on authoritarian populism, see Stuart Hall et al, Policing the Crisis, Mugging, the State and Law and Order, Macmillan 1979.
5. See Martin Jacques’s introduction to Marxism Today on this website.
6. These debates are brought together in Martin Jacques and Francis Mulhern (eds), The Forward March of Labour Halted, Verso 1981.
7. See in particular the October 1988 issue of Marxism Today, available on this website.
8. Antonio Gramsci, ‘Americanism and Fordism’, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, pp 277-318, Lawrence & Wishart 1971.
9. Stuart Hall, ‘New Labour’s Double Shuffle, Soundings 24, 2003.
10. For more on this, see Alan Finlayson, Making Sense of New Labour, Lawrence & Wishart 2003.
11. For the shift from equality to social inclusion, and New Labour’s general move away from a politics of equality, see Ruth Levitas, ‘Shuffling back to equality’, Soundings 26.
12. Alan Finlayson is also very good on this aspect of New Labour.
13. This is well documented in Richard Johnson and Deborah Lynn Steinberg (eds), Blairism and the War of Persuasion, Lawrence & Wishart 2004.