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Blair and Thatcher: What's the Difference?

15/04/2013 18:34 BST | Updated 15/06/2013 10:12 BST

While hardly of the same historical significance, it was somehow appropriate that Margaret Thatcher's death and Tony Blair's first major intervention into British politics since leaving office both occurred in the same week. When asked about her most important legacy, the former prime minister is alleged to have responded: 'New Labour'.

The degree to which Blair's time in office was merely a continuation of Thatcherism has long been hotly debated, and it is a subject that has been returned to often over the past week. Ed Miliband's frequent criticisms of the economic policies of 'the last 30 years' in speeches suggests that, in part, he agrees with those who believe that Labour's election in 1997 did not mark a decisive enough break with what came before.

As the Labour leader himself would no doubt acknowledge, however, the picture is rather more complicated. Yes, Blair did not roll back Thatcher's popular industrial relations reforms: how many rank-and-file trade unionists, after all, were clamouring in 1997 to lose their right to have a vote before they went on strike? Neither did Labour think that it was a priority that the state should once again own a telephone company, the national airline or, indeed, a travel firm. Nor did it seem a vote-winner to ask Labour activists to canvass council estates armed with a pledge to reverse the 'right to buy'.

Quite consciously, moreover, New Labour sought to differentiate itself from the party's recent past, a history in which Thatcher had comprehensively beaten it in three general election defeats. The pledge to 'enhance the dynamism of the market' which Labour made in its 1997 manifesto was undoubtedly shaped by the country that Britain had become after nearly two decades of Conservative rules - although even this promise was qualified by an attack on the 'Conservative right which is content to leave all to the market'.

But, as the former cabinet minister, Pat McFadden, argued on ProgressOnline last week, if the Blair government did not see its role as to 'press the rewind button on the previous 18 years', neither was it a continuation of Thatcherism. Take just a handful of examples. Thatcher would almost certainly not have been willing - for understandable reasons - to sit down with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to negotiate peace in Northern Ireland. The architect of section 28 would not have equalised the age of consent or introduced civil partnerships. The proceeds of the economic growth of the 1990s and early 2000s would almost certainly not have been invested in rebuilding the nation's public services, about which the Thatcher governments had precious little to say. Having seen poverty double during her time in office, Thatcher would undoubtedly not have pledged to eradicate it.

Even the question of industrial relations is not an open and shut case. While Labour kept in place the ban on the closed shop and secondary picketing, the symbolically important bar on trade unionists working at the government listening station at GCHQ (which perniciously suggested that being a member of a trade union and defending the nation's security were somehow incompatible) was lifted within days of it returning to power and, more substantively, for the first time ever people were given a right to demand trade union recognition in their workplace.

All this aside, there were some important political similarities between Thatcher and Blair, with lessons for today. Each began their terms in office in a curiously cautious manner; curious because both had come to office after elections in which their opponents had been clearly rejected in what appeared a decisive shift in the public mood. Each, too, faced an opposition which in no way resembled a plausible alternative government, having reacted to defeat by shifting further away from the centre-ground. Thatcher may have used her first term to break with the postwar consensus around the need to maintain full employment, but the level of public spending barely shifted during her early years in power. Privatisation did not really begin in earnest until the sale of BT after she was re-elected in 1983. And while confrontation with the unions would dominate her second term, it was largely backed away from in her first. Similarly, Blair's first term in office may have seen historic constitutional changes (again, not something that Thatcher was likely to have countenanced), but major investment in, and reform of, public services did not come until after he was re-elected in 2001. For both, later radicalism began with early reassurance.

This initial caution reflected the finely tuned political antennae which allowed both Thatcher and Blair to win the three consecutive elections which eluded all of their 20th century predecessors. Their political success did not simply rest on the weakness of their opponents, although this certainly helped. Rather more important was the fact that each were outsiders in their own parties: Thatcher, a woman from a lower middle-class, grammar school background; Blair, the privately educated scion of Scotland's version of Eton whose father once aspired to be a Conservative candidate.

This outsider status gave both Thatcher and Blair a keen understanding of the need to speak to those who were not traditional supporters of their own parties and, more importantly, the ability and language with which to do so. Thatcher held the Conservative party's middle-class base in place while reaching out to the working-class, aspirational voters who had been at the heart of Labour's electoral coalition for much of the postwar period. Her majorities were built in seats like the formerly solidly Labour 'new towns' of Harlow, Stevenage and Basildon. Under Blair, Labour rediscovered its ability to talk to such voters. But while recapturing such seats in 1997, he also mined rich seams of historically Tory support in places like Wimbledon, Shipley, Eastwood and, of course, Thatcher's own former seat of Finchley.

The 1997 election was a defeat so crushing as to consign the Tories to their longest spell out of office since the birth of the modern Conservative party in 1834. And, just as Thatcher's victories changed the Labour party, so Blair's have reshaped the Conservative party, too. Viewing the shift in the political centre-ground which had occurred during Labour's time in power, David Cameron felt compelled in opposition to promise that protecting the NHS would be his highest priority in government, apologised to the gay community for section 28, and endorsed Labour's pledge to meet the UN target on international development spending. Indeed, until the financial crisis hit, the Conservatives even promised to match Labour's public spending plans. Cameron's admission that the Conservatives had been wrong about Nelson Mandela and the ANC and recognition that "there is such a thing as society" marked early attempts by the new Tory leader to distance himself from Thatcher.

In office, while it is arguable that the coalition's NHS reforms undermine Cameron's pledge to protect the health service, the prime minister still feels the need to doggedly proclaim that he has protected spending on it. On that, his fight for gay marriage and defence of the aid budget, Cameron has been willing to risk the ire of the Conservative right as he desperately clings to the last remnants of the strategy to detoxify the Tory brand with which he began his leadership.

And here we come to the key difference between Thatcher and Blair in terms of the legacy each bequeathed to their party. Both were forced from office rather earlier than either wished after winning their third election victories (although while Thatcher had spoken publicly of going "on and on", Blair had made clear that he would not lead his party into a fourth general election). Thatcher's departure almost certainly enabled the Conservatives to pull off their unexpected win in 1992, while even some of those who had been close to Gordon Brown during the transition, like former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain, have suggested that Blair could 'still probably have got us to be the biggest party' in the 2010 election.

While Tory modernisers like Michael Gove have tempered their praise for Thatcher this week with a dose of political realism - 'I realise now that the Eighties were a much more complex and painful time than it seemed to me at the time,' the education secretary wrote this weekend - the keepers of the Thatcher flame seem determined to use their reading of her time in office to drag the Conservative party further to the right. But that strategy, attempted by William Hague in 2001 and Michael Howard in 2005, represents nothing less than an electoral cul-de-sac for the Tories. Indeed, it is no coincidence that, as the Conservatives have, at the Thatcherites' urging, inched further to the right over the past year - cutting the top rate of income tax and obsessing about Europe - so their standing in the opinion polls has plunged.

Labour's relationship with its former leader is more complicated. On becoming its leader in 2010, Miliband proclaimed "the era of New Labour is over", thus repudiating his predecessor-but-one in a way that the Tories have never done with Thatcher. But, as Alastair Campbell pointed out on his blog last week, 'there is a lesson for Labour in the broadly positive media and political response to [Thatcher's] death. Tories never tire of talking up their past. It is not an act of vanity, but strategy ... Labour, by contrast, has a habit of running down its own past and its own history. We have seen too much of that in recent years.' Perhaps most important, though, Blair's advice last week to Labour was not to abandon the centre-ground on which it won three elections. By contrast, Thatcher's admirers in the Tory party would have their party do just that.