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Conservatives Should Know the Limits of Becoming Thatcher's Imitators

22/04/2013 13:19 BST | Updated 19/06/2013 10:12 BST

Courage, integrity, conviction, tunnel vision, strong-will. Plenty of political qualities have been flying around over the past fortnight as commentators, politicians and friends of Margaret Thatcher have paid tribute to the Iron Lady in light of her passing. Divisive though of course she was, as St. Paul's returns to normality and the media-storm begins to quieten, no one can be left in any doubt as to whether or not she mattered.

In contrast, today it is all too easy to conclude that our political leaders are the polar opposite; opinion-followers more so than opinion-formers, reactive rather than proactive and motivated by focus groups and surveys over personal conviction and philosophy. Falling turnout is blamed on a system where by occupying the hallowed 'centre-ground' the main parties appear to be separated by less than a cigarette paper. Whereas radicalism once polarised society between left and right, perhaps it is now apathy which polarises a society from its political class. Boris Johnson's comment that Mrs Thatcher will endure long beyond 'the grey suits of today's politics' both paid tribute to the electric personality of the Iron Lady, but also scowled at the perceived blandness of her modern day successors. That her critics "felt so strongly about her", said close confident Conor Burns MP, "was a tribute that she had actually done something in politics". To her, the most damning reaction towards a politician would have been one of indifference.

Much of the rhetoric and dialogue in British politics today is no doubt far more diplomatic. One would find it hard to imagine David Cameron leaning forward and dismissing the Europeans as "weak, feeble" or bellowing that "only a Frenchman would do that!". Instead our political class is constantly fearful of causing offense. Perhaps this is simply a mark of our times; 24-hour rolling news coverage and intense media scrutiny ensures politically correct, but often bland and sometimes dishonest political discourse.

In terms of a record, on the face of it the current Coalition government seems to be plodding along at pedestrian pace. At best, the deficit has fallen by a third, at worst, according to Robert Chote of the Office of Budget Responsibility, deficit reduction "appears to have stalled". The national debt is set to double over the course of this parliament. GDP remains stagnant, and despite rhetoric of austerity, public spending continues to rise. The ringfenced Health and International Aid departments have been dismissed as no-go areas; as have pensions and universal benefits to the elderly which take up a large proportion of the welfare budget.

However this government is by no means without a purpose. Nick Clegg highlighting that Mrs Thatcher will be remembered for the "strength of her character and the radicalism of her politics" was particularly interesting, and although the men at the helm of the Coalition might lack the strength in character of the Iron Lady, their government is not entirely lacking in radicalism.

Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms introducing a benefit cap of £26,000 are underlined by a fundamentally ideological belief that the state dependency should not be a career path, and that work should always pay. Supporters and critics alike do not doubt their significance; the government describes them as the 'biggest reforms for 60 years' in contrast to The Guardian's Polly Toynbee who says we should prepare for an 'earthquake of social destruction'. In education, Mrs Thatcher would no doubt be impressed by the personal mission Michael Gove has to restore academic rigour in our schools, and the way in which he seems undeterred by the resistant teaching Unions of which he has referred to as 'obstructive ideologues'. Although ironically welfare and education were two areas that avoided much of the Thatcherite medicine, his battle appears to be very much one the Iron Lady would relish.

In other areas, the popular vote on AV in 2011 pushed aside the debate on voting reform for a generation; the referendum on Scottish independence in September next year will hopefully have the same effect. Furthermore, David Cameron has by no means mixed his words in defending the principled right of the Falkland Islanders to their own self-determination, and if he finds himself with the keys to Number 10 after next general election then it is likely the British public will be able to have their say on whether they want to remain a part of the political European project for the first time since 1975. Consulting the public through such referenda seems the antithesis to Thatcher's style, but these are significant political moments nonetheless.

Last Monday, that Sir John Major said Thatcher was 'absolutely the right prime minister for that particular time' suggested not that she is irrelevant today, far from it, but rather that her free market cure was particularly suitable to the problems of the day. Hugo Young, on the eve of Mrs Thatcher's departure from Number 10, was correct in writing that 'all reformers need circumstance to coincide with destiny'. No doubt, however, the world is now a remarkably different place. As the problems as different, so are the solutions. David Cameron has less room to convince the skeptics in his own party that he is a 'true', free market Conservative. Reducing the top rate of income tax and increasing the personal allowance should be welcomed, but the medicines that Margaret Thatcher used to heal the British economy are largely unavailable today; ludicrously high income tax rates of 98% or tight exchange controls simply no longer exist, nor is Cameron able to unleash competition by selling off previously state-owned industries or create a house-owning revolution by providing tenants with the opportunity to buy their own homes.

Thatcher won the economic argument, but now there are different political battles to be fought. It took the wisdom of the Iron Lady herself to suggest that her greatest achievement was Tony Blair and his market-embracing New Labour. The Conservative historian Tim Bale notes that as Labour 'shed it's rhetorical commitment to socialism' the Conservatives are 'unlikely to face such an easy target again'. The lesson from the period in which the Conservative Party has not won a general election since 1992? That falling back onto comfortable Thatcherite ground was largely unsuccessful; the Conservatives might have won the long-term ideological war, but in the short-term is was losing political battles. Conservatives should therefore know the limits of becoming Thatcher's imitators. It took Cameron's modernisation project to acknowledge 'the nasty party' had to prove it was compassionate, cared about the public services, and had interests beyond tax and Europe. Had the financial crisis of 2008 not thrown a spanner into the works, David Cameron might have been able to govern outright today; instead, voters became fearful that his 'Big Society' was simply a cover for traditional Tory cuts.

The outpouring of tributes, criticism and analysis towards Margaret Thatcher proves that the Conservative Party is indeed 'dwarfed by her giant shadow'. But her remarkable contribution has also brought with it a substantial burden; as the benchmark by which those who follow are compared, the Conservative Party has not admired its leader ever since. Yes, the party should rediscover a clearer sense of what it stands for. Yes, it should take lessons from the lady in how to reconnect with the ordinary man. Of course, it must realise that solving the country's problems will win over far more voters than any rebranding exercise. But it also must realise how times have changed and that it must continue to move forward. As the nation acknowledges the strength and conviction of a political giant, it should be accepted that hers will be an impossible act to follow.