In light of the ongoing UK Conservative leadership race, a lot has been said about the legacy of Margaret Thatcher.

In particular, one of the candidates Liz Truss often invokes the image of Thatcher to appeal to party members. This suggests that Thatcherism remains an influencial school of thinking within the UK Conservatives, potentially enough to propel the next Prime Minister into office.

I'm really struck by how UK Conservatives keep looping back to that particular period throughout the premiership of Cameron, May, and Johnson. It seems to suggest that whatever came after Thatcher was somehow failing to tap into the zeitgeist of UK Conservatives, so much so that they are still talking about her after Brexit.

It's not clear to me what exactly is driving the appeal and nostalgia of Thatcherism within UK Conservatives. Can someone explain it in a way that is understandable to people who may not be particularly enthusiastic about Thatcher's policies?


4 Answers 4


Success! Margaret Thatcher was exceptionally successful, winning 3 General Elections with large majorities, and perhaps more importantly, never losing a general election. Partisans love a winner.

Conviction politics. Margaret Thatcher was not a "let's try to keep everyone happy" politician. She broke the post-war consensus, established the political identity of the modern Conservative party. Partisans love strong opinions.

Generational timing. The current crop of leadership contenders, and many party members, would have been in their teens or at university while Thatcher was PM. At that time when they were forming political opinions, she was the leader.

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    And nostalgia. With time you forget about the bad aspects more and just keep a general good vibe about the good old past. Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 8:17
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    If we follow this answer, is it reasonable to say that the most saliant legacy of Thatcherism is about style over policy? Technically "conviction" and "success" are policy-neutral characteristics. I get that Thatcher was usually associated with tax cuts, but even her tax cuts were policies grounded in issues of her time. I sense that the current Conservative leadership candidates are assuming they can replicate Thatcher's success by replicating her style, but without necessarily formulating policies grounded in current time. Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 8:57
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    One can argue that sucess isnt policy neutral. Sucess should be the result of good policy. And "conviction" implies a clear and consistent set of policies to follow. It means following those policies even if they are unsuccessful. So successful conviction politicians are rather rare and special. It's less surprising that they become the focus of nostalgia.#
    – James K
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 9:30
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    @JamesK None of those really affected those who are Conservative members and they compare those to Heath Major et al where there were worse things affecting them.
    – mmmmmm
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 18:34
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    For the last point, Sunak was born in 1980, which makes him too young to have an at-the-time attachment to Thatcher. Truss is just about old enough, but she was a committed Lib Dem in her youth, which again suggests that she's mostly seeing Thatcher historically. Perhaps with the party membership, though, enough wets have died off that Thatcher has become uncontroversial, or something like that.
    – mudri
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 21:47

While success at the ballot box is definitely a factor, my personal experience from speaking to Conservative party members, as well as a couple of MPs, is that Thatcher's legacy is remembered with such fondness by a large proportion of the party because of her transformation of the country's fortunes after the 'dark days' of the 70s. I think it's necessary to go into a bit more detail with regards the state of the country before Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister to fully explain the feeling of nostalgia felt, especially by older members who personally remember her premiership.

James K mentions her breaking of the post-war consensus - in brief, the idea that everyone in the labour force should have full employment, unions should be empowered, the state should own and run the utilities & other national organisations such as the railways and British Airways, an expanded welfare state, and so on. This had been in place since 1945, and had had a lot of success - the establishment of the National Health Service, low unemployment, wage rises. It lead to massive increases in quality of life, but these came at a cost.

The consensus had its downsides. The powerful unions were able to prevent modernisation and mechanisation, and industry profits were not balanced between wage rises and investment, which led to ever-increasing inefficiency. Industries, particularly the coal industry, were only kept afloat by massive state subsidies. As the 1970s rolled around, things began to come to a head. Money started getting low. The inflation rate, already high in 1970 at around 6%, peaked in 1975 at over 24%. The top rate of tax was at 90%, investment was not rewarded and there was a brain drain to America and elsewhere. The UK was known as the 'sick man of Europe' for much of the 60s and 70s. Unions began to strike, particularly the mining and railway unions, leading to the introduction of the three-day week by Conservative PM Edward Heath.

Heath called an election in 1974 to try and consolidate power and receive a mandate to deal with the unions, but was unsuccessful and Labour's Callaghan took over as Prime Minister. Callaghan tried to keep pay increases for affected sectors at 5%, but swiftly had to abandon this in the face of pressure from the unions. When the government could no longer afford to pay, it had to go cap in hand to the IMF for a bailout like some tinpot dictatorship. The winter of 1978-79 was known as the Winter of Discontent. Strikes took place across practically all public industries, refuse collectors left rubbish strewn in the streets, corpses remained unburied due to gravedigger strikes, power-cuts were common.

When Thatcher came to power in May 1979, she began to raise interest rates and focused on indirect taxation such as VAT, rather than direct taxation through income tax to encourage investment and tackle inflation. In the short-term, inflation increased, but within a few years this fiscal policy resulted in inflation receeding to manageable levels. She tackled the unions which had held the country to ransom in the 70s by refusing to increase subsidies, leading famously to the miner's strike in 1984-85. The dominance of the unions was eroded through the privatisation of vast amounts of nationalised industry, which decimated certain areas of the country, particularly coal mining areas in the North.

Many Conservative party members argue that the ends justified the means - Britain was transformed from a nation which could barely make ends meet, plagued by power cuts, low productivity, and skyrocketing inflation. The Conservative party membership tends to be older, around the mid 50s, and predominantly lives in the south of the country, which explains the lack of generational mistrust experienced by those in the north.

Other factors affecting the rose-tinted spectacles include a certain amount of jingoism relating to her response to the Falklands War, as well as the Housing Act 1980 which gave council house tenants the right to buy their social housing. This had the effect of allowing an entire generation of those less-well-off to get onto the housing ladder, while reducing the stock of council houses for future generations. Many Conservative party members are of the age that they or their parents benefitted personally from this policy.

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    Thanks for the detailed answer. I learned a lot of historical context that people don't often mention. Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 16:34
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    As someone born in 1995, I've never really known a world where trade unions are particularly strong in most parts of the world. The situation described before Thatcher is almost foreign to me. But knowing the context more, I can see the economic tension between industries and labor unions, and the need for balance between the two. Seems to me that it's impossible to understand Thatcher-nostalgia without understanding what issues her policies were meant to be responding to. Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 16:49
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    @QuantumWalnut For examples of how it is possible to cooperate with, rather than savage, trade unions and achieve prosperity, see the Polder Model in the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian economies. Japan is also an interesting, if complex, case study in how cooperation with trade unions can lead to significant productivity gains. Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 18:17
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    "As the 1970s rolled around, things began to come to a head." Eventually, you run out of other people's money?
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 20:25
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    It should be pointed out that some of this is more the perception of conservatives, rather than the reality. For example, UK productivity growth has actually been lower post-Thatcher than pre-Thatcher.
    – ajd138
    Commented Jul 22, 2022 at 1:28

I'm not sure it's nostalgia for Mrs Thatcher rather than distaste for the current UK Conservative "leadership".

Someone pointed out that those in their middle years now were young during the Thatcher years and their life viewpoints were largely formed then - against a backdrop of a determined woman dealing with ridiculously overpowered unions, overpaid workers, gross inefficiencies throughout industry and the public services and strikes at the drop of a hat.

That may be a valid viewpoint for some. But I don't think that most people have allowed their political mindset to be crystallized by the 1980s zeitgeist. Blair was in power just as long as Thatcher and little in UK domestic life bears his stamp today. His legacy was tainted by the Second Iraq War and the humbug about WMD.

To me nostalgia for life as it was under Thatcher rests on two factors:

  1. A much simpler world - no China superpower, a USSR on its honkers and screaming for a decent way back, no global warming, no strict regulation on financial markets, no mass migration of economic refugees from poor states and no prospect of mass unemployment in a few short years due to software technology.

  2. Nostalgia itself - the longing for a warmer, securer and more predictable place - as we all feel it once into our middle years.

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    Conservative nostalgia for Thatcher has been there since about a year after she left. It did not begin with the current shower. Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 15:45
  • Yes. It was a most unusual coalition of old goats like Du Cann from the 1922, market economy ideologues like Joseph, profiteers and adventurers like Hezza and others who got behind an ambitious woman and drove her over the line against a lazy Heath. Thereafter she was theirs, barring her own quirky decisions and bullheadedness. She sorted out the sickening unions of the 70s. But made the mistake of punishing their communities by not investing in new industries to replace the traditional ones she wiped out.
    – Trunk
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 15:58
  • " little in UK domestic life bears [Blair's] stamp today." Unless you count half-baked Lords reform where legislators are appointed on the whim of the PM, half-baked devolution, unaffordable university fees, an NHS encumbered with off-balance-sheet PFI debt, ... Commented Mar 8 at 15:52
  • "no prospect of mass unemployment in a few short years due to software technology." That prospect has been with us since at least the 1960s. Commented Mar 8 at 15:54
  • @Michael Kay To whom was it a serious prospect though ? Sci-Fis like Asimov and Dick ? Software visionaries like Minsky, McCarthy and Codd ? Even in the latter arena these things were limited by CPU speed and memory size. So the prospect was a virtual one with no chance of immediate realization.
    – Trunk
    Commented Mar 8 at 16:15

She had such a large majority she was able to attack the common assets of the country and sell them all off, and the opposition could do nothing but complain. When she came into power the country had a national mining industry, steel industry, car industry, we owned our own water, electricity, gas supply, telecomms, trains, buses, and public housing. She basically closed down most of our common assets we had built up since the second world war, and gave it cheap to her mates who all got rich. That made her very popular with the people who made money out of it. This ensured the press barons painted a rosy picture of her forever, and no one is allowed to point out she robbed the country blind. Tory voters tend to believe things in certain newspapers.

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    This is an anti-Thatcher rant disguised as an answer. While I largely share your political opinion, I don't think it answers the question. The only part that's vaguely relevant is "That made her very popular with the people who made money out of it."; but the connection from there, to the press, to the current leadership candidates, is extremely tenuous.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 15:23
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    To be fair: she also sold off common assets to the poorer slice of society. Right to Buy was a massive transfer of wealth to mostly working class people. Pity it completely screwed the next generation. Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 15:44
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    To think British Leyland was an industry is a bit much. Yes, they made cars but the unions brought that industry to its knees. It took the Japanese entering the UK car market for the brits to realise, yes, you can have a car that gets you to work on time.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 18:47
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    "Tory voters tend to believe things in certain newspapers." says the person regurgitating tired low-info no-nuance talking points, sounding identical to every other corbynite. Whatever there is to be said about thatcher's legacy (don't care for her), "she's evil and conservatives love evil people" is probably not the answer to why conservatives like her.
    – eps
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 23:51
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    The ultimate problem with answers that talk about stuff like this is that the last 50 years have been a worldwide march of left wing parties losing the working class and becoming the parties of the highly educated middle - upper professional class. If it was just one country it could be written off as good propaganda but this is happening basically everywhere.
    – eps
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 23:59

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