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The Legacy of Baroness Thatcher

21/06/2013 12:17 BST | Updated 20/08/2013 10:12 BST

Over recent months Baroness Thatcher's legacy has been thoroughly re-examined with emotive passion from both advocates and opponents of her policies. Opponents argue that she divided Britain by design, whilst supporters emphasise her transformative conviction for neoliberal economics that dynamically transformed Britain's economy. Both points have validity, and almost certainly have empirical evidence to support them.

She inherited a party in 1975 that was uncertain of her credibility. She was 'only' a woman, and so could not be expected to win general elections. She also represented a fringe in the Tory Party that had been partly discredited by Heath's failures in government. Would it be wise to re-embrace the ideology that led to a turbulent period in government, the three day week, power cuts, and the Miner's Strike? With Labour doing well in repairing the damage caused by Heath at the time of her election as leader, surely the case to go back was vastly unclear? Of course, Labour's record declined with the Winter of Discontent, the rhetorical impact of the IMF loan, and disunity at the top... Britain was calling out for a change. What Britain got was not only the change of government, but a firm abandonment of consensus politics. Yet it would be a mistake to suggest Thatcher was simply an ideologue.

Her pragmatism came from the understanding that she could only change Britain slowly. The revolution would need to be undertaken one step at a time. Dealing with the Unions, the Big Bang, social policy, education reform would only be achieved by one reform at a time. Thus, the battle with the Miners was well prepared for, the Big Bang came late in the day, and social policy reform was piecemeal at best. She knew that to try all at once would break the camel's back. Indeed, she embraced an art of war by refraining from fighting on more than one front. By doing so, she did not expend too many resources fighting large transformative battles in the way Cameron is attempting and, as a result she was able to transform Britain slowly but continually.

The Labour Party had no option but to recognise this transformative effect. Thatcher wasn't just reforming, she was remoulding Britain and that any return to the pre-1983 order was unlikely. As a result Labour would need to reform its own offering to make it more attractive to an electorate that was no longer likely to accept state-led incomes policies or state ownership of the utilities. Thus, Labour's opposition to Thatcher became more about protecting the poor and alleviating social inequalities rather than redefining economic policy based on class. The changes in the Labour Party indicate an acceptance of economic neoliberalism, but still emphasising the need to protect those in need. This underscored the Third Way; 'Thatcherism with a conscience'.

Today, the post-Thatcher Conservative Party remains economically Thatcherite. It does, however recognise that conviction may be problematic with an electorate that has accepted New Labour's compassionate argument. Those centrists in the electorate would be open to vote Conservative, provided they softened their tone. As such, environment, education, social reform through the Big Society came into focus, whilst those essentially Thatcherite economic tenets remained under the table. Thus, in both the Labour and Conservative Party, neoliberalism has been accepted as a 'one vision polity' whilst the debates revolve around how to take it forward. But does that make them Thatcher's children?

Thatcherism's victory comes in the absence of a credible alternative. Socialism is no longer taken seriously, whilst its advocates - Dennis Skinner, George Galloway, Tony Benn - are seen as romantic figures from a bygone age. Indeed, during the final debate on whether the House should meet for PMQs on the date of the funeral, both of the current Parliamentarians gave powerful speeches to the assembled Tories who did not shy away from showing their enjoyment. It was, effectively, the remnants of the old Left performing for the amusement of the Tory grandees. An alternative to Socialism and neoliberalism is, broadly speaking, currently lacking from the debate. Although new ideas are emerging from political commentators, these are essentially about maintaining the neoliberal model but with an acceptance that the market needs some regulating. The weakness of the Labour opposition comes in its hesitation to challenge Thatcherism because, at heart, their embrace is genuine. The Conservatives are totally committed to Thatcherism, seen by its retention during the modernisation process. Even the Liberal Democrats have come around to Thatcherism by embracing the Orange Book and relegating social democracy to the backbench.

As a result, Thatcher's personal impact on British politics is immense. She didn't just fight her ideological corner, she transformed her enemies. Granted, the children of Thatcher may not like what she did or how she did it, but it is not a requirement to like one's parents.