The Conservative Party changed forever on 4 May 1979 when Margaret Thatcher became the UK’s first female Prime Minister. Her Conservative post-war predecessors, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, and Alec Douglas-Home, each accepted Clement Atlee’s post-war consensus, rekindling the spirit of Benjamin Disraeli’s ‘One Nation Conservatism’, and continued along the lines of nationalisation, corporatism, and welfare. The only exception was Edward Heath, who between June 1970 and March 1974 introduced a number of policies aimed at tackling the power of Trade Unions and privatising industry. His attempts ultimately failed but they would be reignited only a few years later (Marr, 2007).
Thatcher’s eleven years at the helm of the Conservative Party changed the UK’s economy beyond recognition; the rate of Gross Domestic Productivity (GDP) growing 23%. However, this increase did not come without consequence. The switch from a manufacturing to services economy greatly affected the British population, some for better, but many for worse. The Government’s desire to slash taxation and public spending, as well as regain control of inflation, teamed with the switch in economic focus led to record levels of unemployment, peaking at around 13% in 1986 (Trading Economics, 2013). Alongside privatisation of major British industries, this left over three million people out of work. During the same year, the British Stock Exchange was reopened for trading with around 300,000 people working in City jobs (Marr, 2007). The booming financial industry did much to tackle Britain’s deficit, but little to endear the Conservative government to those whom previously lived and worked in the industrial heartland. The seemingly growing divide between rich and poor continued throughout the 1980s as the ‘Yuppy’ image popularised by comedian Harry Enfield became a source of either admiration or hatred, dependant on socio-economic allegiances. William Green describes the legacy of Thatcher from a popular, Northern, working-class, point of view when he says she left in her wake “communities devastated, mass unemployment, huge social unrest and a generation condemned to poverty” (Green, 2009).
Thatcher’s hard line image was immediate, only a year after being elected and coming under increasing pressure from both political and media opposition; she addressed the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton and uttered the words:
“To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the 'U-turn', I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning."
The phrase would go on to encapsulate the spirit of Thatcherism and become her most famous soundbite as she battled against domestic and international unrest.
Domestically, huge rises in unemployment, the introduction of ‘Sus laws’- the ability to stop and search on the basis of “reasonable suspicion”, and a feeling of increasing racial division, led to the Race Riots of 1981. The eruption of violence across England spread through areas of London, Birmingham, Leeds, and Liverpool, and were the first example of great social unrest during Thatcher’s reign. 1981 also saw the death of ten IRA hunger strikers in the Maze Prison, Northern Ireland, as Thatcher refused to concede ground on the debate over their political status. Her conviction to remain unturned steadfast. The next great domestic fight would allow the Prime Minister to tackle one of her greatest enemies head on, the Trade Unions. In March 1984 the National Coal Board (NCB) proposed to close 20 of the 174 state ran mines, a proposal that would leave 20,000 miners out of work (BBC, 2013). The resulting strike, led by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) President Arthur Scargill, peaked with nearly 200,000 workmen downing their tools (Marr, 2007). The conflict roared for a year, with violence flaring between striking miners and those who crossed the picket line, as well as with the swollen ranks of police officers shipped in from across the country. Twelve months after the NCB’s announcement, and with the striking miners struggling to survive, the NUM conceded. Twenty five mines closed in 1985. The strike’s impact on the British economy had been enormous with a predicted loss of around £3 billion; however, once again Thatcher had saved face, the working classes defeated. Phil Wilson MP summarises the impact on mining communities when he says:
“She [Thatcher] left a lot of broken communities and that was the primary thing, but it was also the way she treated people who were unemployed…. there was nothing done to help them” (Green, 2009).
The final domestic uprisings initiated by Thatcher were the Poll Tax riots of 1990, the largest of which occurred in London on 31 March. The introduction of the ‘Community Tax’, otherwise known as ‘Poll Tax’, switched from a system of taxation related to the market value of a property, to one linked with the number of inhabitants. The change sparked an angry response from those on middle to low incomes and resulted in the violent scenes in and around Trafalgar Square (Kavanagh, 1987).
Internationally, Thatcher was held in a similar regard as to on her own shores. Her attitude towards the European Economic Community, which Edward Heath’s Conservative government took the United Kingdom into in 1973, was one of scepticism. In a 1988 speech in Bruges, she said:
“We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.” (BBC News, 2000)
Her attitude towards the Soviet Union and communism was similarly outspoken, having earned the nickname ‘The Iron Lady’ in 1976 before she was even Prime Minister. Thatcher’s relationship with President Reagan remained ‘special’ throughout the remaining years of the Cold War, and she welcomed the reformist policies of Mikhail Gorbachev. However, her foreign policy was set long before the collapse of the Soviet Union, outlined by a conflict on a number of remote islands in the South Atlantic Ocean. The Falklands War was fought out over 74 days between April and June 1982 and was a resounding military and PR success for Thatcher (Jackson & Saunders, 2012). The Great British public may not have liked Thatcher an awful lot, but along with the international community, they certainly respected her.
Thatcher’s image as a hard liner would supersede her own reputation and following her resignation in November 1990, would add to the issues surrounding the Conservative Party leading towards their landslide election defeat in 1997. It was in many regards her own bullishness which led to her downfall in government; the same bullishness much of the public refuse to forget.
John Major followed Thatcher in to Downing Street and set about the abolition of the unpopular Poll Tax and putting Britain “at the very heart of Europe”. Moving the party in a different direction to his predecessor briefly worked for the new Prime Minister as his handling of the recession, as well as the Persian Gulf War, placed the Conservative Party back on top of the opinion polls for the first time in over a year (Major, 1999). However, the scandals which dominated the remaining years of Major’s premiership have clouded his legacy, beginning in September 1992. After battling to keep the Great British Pound above the agreed lower limit of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, Major’s Treasury were forced to withdraw it; accumulating total losses of £3.5 billion (Major, 1999). However, arguably more damaging to the Conservative Party’s reputation were the internal scandals between 1990 and 1997. Europescepticism within the cabinet led to vehement infighting with leading figures opposing Major’s pro-European stance, whilst others were involved in the ‘Cash for Questions’ scandal. A newspaper sting involving a number of MP’s, including Neil Hammond, who accepted money from businesses to pose questions in the House of Commons. Finally, and perhaps most embarrassingly, after revealing the ‘Back to Basics’ campaign at the 1993 Party Conference, a drive which sought to return Britain to the family values of a bygone era, a host of Tory MP’s and associates were exposed to having been involved in a number of sexual scandals; ranging from homosexual acts, death by auto-erotic asphyxiation, with one MP even involved in an extra-marital affair with a mother and her two daughters (Marr, 2007).
The election defeat which followed Major’s time in Downing Street led to thirteen years in the wilderness for the Conservative Party, during which time they appointed four different leaders. William Hague was the first tasked with updating the Party’s image, albeit from a Eurosceptic point of a view. He drew upon the ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ being utilised by George W. Bush as the Governor of Texas and created the ‘Listening to Britain’ campaign, attempting to re-introduce the party of Thatcher and Major. The party which had turned away from the ‘One Nation’ conservatism of Disraeli and embarked on a neo-liberal ideology, laced with scandal. His attempts resulted in impressive results in the European Parliament Election, but little else. An appearance at a theme park sporting a ‘HAGUE’ baseball cap and revealing that as a teenager he would drink “14 pints an evening” did little to combat the ‘Cool Britannia’ image which had won New Labour the election (BBC News, 1999). The election results of 2001, in which they gained only one more seat than 1997, confirmed Hague’s inability to modernise the party and led to his resignation.
Hague was briefly followed by Iain Duncan Smith between 2001 and 2003; the ‘Quiet Man’ of the Party defeated pro-European Kenneth Clarke in the battle for the leadership. Duncan Smith’s reign continued the Euroscepticism of Hague, but saw a return to the scandal of Major. In 2002 it was revealed that the Conservative Party leader had doctored his CV in earlier life and a year later it was found that he had abused the MP’s expenses system (BBC News, 2002). A vote of no confidence followed. His successor was Michael Howard, elected to the role unopposed; he too lasted only two years in the job. Crime, immigration, and gay marriage, were all major policy issues during his time in opposition, as well as the war in Iraq. However the Conservative agenda failed to remove the government in the 2005 election, although their performance was much improved. Howard’s inability to take advantage of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s mistakes over the invasion of Iraq resulted in a third successive Labour victory.
The first four men to walk in the shoes of Thatcher undoubtedly did so in her shadow. A legacy of social conservatism proved hard to shake for each of them, with the Party seemingly out of touch with major issues such as immigration, crime, and gay marriage. In 2005 Michael Ashcroft found that most voters thought the Conservative Party “wasn’t like them and didn’t understand them” (2005). The lasting impact of a number of scandals, including Black Wednesday, Cash for Questions, and the Back to Basics campaign, also continued to affect the Party’s image up to 2005. Despite an economic policy similar to the incumbent government, and a largely Eurosceptic agenda- popular with the electorate; the general opinion of the Conservative Party remained one of distrust and dislike.
The Conservatives were in desperate need of rebranding, and so in December 2005 elected 39-year-old, former PR man, David Cameron. The MP for Witney defeated David Davis with almost two thirds of the postal ballot, issuing him with a mandate to modernise the Party. The impact was immediate with comparisons drawn between himself and a young Tony Blair, leading to the headline ‘Heir to Blair’. The ‘spin’ which had long been associated with New Labour men such as Alastair Campbell and Phillip Gould was now to be seen within the opposition as costume changes and informal interviews became the norm. A change of the official party logo, switching from torch to tree, also exemplified the new Tory consensus; the flame of Conservative continuity extinguished by a “more environmentally friendly” image (BBC News, 2006). Few policies were attributed to the early life of Cameron as Conservative leader; however a change in the Party image was distinct. Though increasingly popular with the public, the Party’s strategy was not appreciated by all Conservatives. Former Chairman of the Party Norman Tebbit suggested Cameron was “intent on purging even the memory of Thatcherism before building a New Modern Compassionate Green Globally Aware Party" (Tebbit, 2006). The increasingly socio-liberal rhetoric of Cameron was seen by many as the Party’s final shift to the centre ground, a return to ‘One-Nation Conservatism’ exemplified by such policies as the “A-List” of parliamentary candidates. Drawn up following his appointment, the list aimed to revolutionise the identity of the Party by prioritising female and ethnic minority candidates. The Party Chairman in 2006, Francis Maude, exemplified the new spirit of his contemporaries as opposed to predecessor Tebbit when he said:
“Far too many Conservative MPs are like me: white, middle-class, English, based in the south-east - identikit Tories… And it doesn't look like modern Britain, where 52% of the electorate are women and 8% are ethnic minorities. If we don't look like we are capable of representing that 52% of the electorate who are women, we won't secure their support." (Woodward & Branigan, 2006)
The new-look, socially-responsible Conservative’s also eased their tone on issues such as immigration and gay adoption, whilst maintaining a sceptical stance on Europe. However a speech given by Cameron to the Centre for Social Justice in July 2006, in which he urged people “to think before labelling teenagers in hooded tops ‘gangsters’”, led to the newspaper headline “Hug a Hoodie” (BBC News, 2007). The term was used against Cameron by both New Labour and the Liberal Democrats in an attempt to show the Conservative Party as remaining out of touch- however the impact was minimal.
After nearly five years in opposition, and with the New Labour government self-imploding, Cameron was given his first opportunity to fight a general election as leader of the Conservative Party in May 2010. Live televised debates, contested by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg, and Cameron, gave the former Granada TV executive the chance to present himself as the viable alternative to the boom and bust of recent years. Of the three debates, Cameron placed second on domestic affairs, joint winner on international affairs, and importantly, outright winner on the economy (Wintour, 2012).
The election resulted in the first hung parliament since 1974. Cameron had succeeded in gaining more seats than the incumbent Labour party, but failed to earn a majority large enough to form a government. The coalition which followed pitted the Conservative’s as the senior partner alongside the Liberal Democrats, and made Cameron the youngest Prime Minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812 (Hough, 2010). The image of the Conservative Party destined to change once again.
As the leading party within the coalition, the Conservatives have since been seen by many to have returned to a Thatcherite agenda. The austerity measures implemented since 2010, including large increases in university tuition fees, part-privatisation of the NHS, and the capping of state benefits, each exemplify the desire of Cameron’s party to roll back the state, as was the case post 1979. However, although the economic policy may have, and continue to be, Thatcher like, the makeup and social outlook of the party is dramatically different with nine ethnic minority MPs. Nonetheless, the economic cuts, reminiscent of Thatcher’s time in government are once again seen as the Conservative Party “attacking the poor” (Lawson, 2012). An opinion not only made by the left-wing media, but by Conservative MP Nadine Dorries who criticised the Prime Minister and Chancellor George Osborne when she said:
“…not only are Cameron and Osborne two posh boys who don't know the price of milk, but they are two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to want to understand the lives of others.” (BBC News, 2012)
Such opinions were expressed at large when George Osborne was booed by a crowd of 80,000 at the Paralympic games in London during the summer of 2012 (The Telegraph, 2012).
Sleaze has also once again returned to damage the Conservatives since 2010. The phone-hacking scandal, leading to the resignation and arrest of Director of Communications Andy Coulson, damaged the Prime Minister’s image dramatically, an inquest into the extent of his relationship with Rebecca Brooks, the former News of the World editor, further extenuating the impact. Accusations of Party collusion in sexual assault during the 1970s and 80s, as well as the Andrew Mitchell ‘Plebgate’ affair, proved reminiscent of a Conservative Party many had hoped would not return. However, the appointment of Lynton Crosby to mastermind the next Conservative election campaign signifies that Cameron realises the Party needs to change it’s image once again. The Australian behind Boris Johnson’s two London Mayor election victories has already impacted the Prime Minister’s response to pressure on a European referendum, the Scottish referendum, as well as his handling of revelations regarding the Hillsborough inquiry. His response to which drew many plaudits (Muir, 2012).
There is no doubt that the image of the Conservative Party has changed since 1979, never more dramatically than between 2005 and 2010, when David Cameron drastically modernised the Party. The impact of which returned them to power for the first time in thirteen years. However, the role of Cameron has changed since forming the coalition. Whereas prior to the election, Cameron was seen to be the man dragging the Party towards the centre ground, that role is now fulfilled by the Liberal Democrats, leaving Cameron and the Conservatives to push through the hard line policy, reminiscent of Thatcher.
When concluding whether the Conservative Party have an image problem, we must consider the larger picture. The Party’s approval rating dramatically fell in the 1990s as Major’s government began to tear itself apart. This was only remedied by the re-branding and modernisation of Cameron post 2005, work which ultimately won him a premiership. However, the image which was built in the years between his election as Party leader and Prime Minister, is dramatically different to the image the Conservative Party currently has; an image which currently has Labour 13% ahead in the polls (UK Polling Report, 2013). The Conservative Party has undoubtedly had image problems before, they have one now. However, they also have the man responsible for the Party’s rebranding only a few years ago, a change which won them an election. Who’s to say he can’t do it again?
BibliographyANDREWS, Kay and JACOBS, John (1990). Punishing the Poor: Poverty under Thatcher. London, Macmillan.
ASHCROFT, Michael (2005). Smell the coffee: A wake-up call for the Conservative Party [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://www.lordashcroft.com/pdf/GeneralElectionReport.pdf
BALE, Tim (2012). An analysis of the Conservatives since 1945 [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/2012/10/31/conservatives-party-change-bale/
BBC (2013). On this day: 1984 Miners strike over threatened pit closures [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/march/12/newsid_2540000/2540175.stm
BBC NEWS (1999). The all new William Hague [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/317507.stm
BBC News (2000). Thatcher’s Bruges speech [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/653550.stm
BBC NEWS (2002). Tory leader’s education under scrutiny [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/2588855.stm
BBC NEWS (2006). Tories show off ‘scribbled’ logo [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/5348630.stm
BBC News (2007). Don’t hug a hoodie, says Cameron [online]. Last accessed 13 January at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6665017.stm
BBC News (2012). MP Dorries calls PM and chancellor ‘arrogant posh boys’ [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-17815769
FRANKLIN, Bob (2004). Packaging Politics, 2nd Edition. Oxford, Oxford.
GAMBLE, Andrew (1994). The Free Economy and the Strong State: The Politics of Thatcherism, 2nd Edition. London, Palgrave Macmillan.
GREEN, William (2009). After 30 years, the big debate rages on. [online]. The Journal, 4 May. Last accessed 13 January 2013 2010 at: http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-198980576.html
HALL, Richard H. (1975). Occupations and the Social Structure. New Jersey, Prentice-Hall.
HEPPELL, Timothy and SEAWRIGHT, David, eds(2012). Cameron and the Conservatives. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.
HOPKINS, K (2009). Blue-collar workers ‘bear brunt’ of recession. [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/jul/14/unemployment-blue-collar-workers
HOUGH, Andrew (2010). David Cameron becomes youngest PM in almost 200 years [online]. Last accessed online at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/7712545/David-Cameron-becomes-youngest-Prime-Minister-in-almost-200-years.html
JACKSON, Ben, and SAUNDERS, Robert, eds (2012). Making Thatcher’s Britain. Cambridge, Cambridge.
KAVVANAGH, Dennis (1987). Thatcherism and British Politics. Oxford, Oxford Paperbacks.
KAVVANGH, Dennis (2011). Thatcherism and the End of Post-War Consensus [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/modern/thatcherism_01.shtml
LAWSON, Neal (2012). Labour’s challenge to Osborne’s attack on the poor could be a turning point [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2012/12/labours-challenge-osbornes-attack-poor-could-be-turning-point
LEE, David J. and TURNER, Bryan S. (1996). Conflicts about Class: Debating Inequality in late Industrialisation. New York, Longman Group.
MAGGS, Charles (2012). Blue collar Tories: Conservatives try to woo working class vote [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://www.politics.co.uk/news/2012/11/01/blue-collar-tories-conservatives-try-to-woo-working-class-vo
MAJOR, John (1999). The Autobiography. London, Harper Collins.
MARR, Andrew (2007). A History of Modern Britain. Oxford, Pan Books.
MILNE, Seamas (2004). The Enemy within: Thatcher’s secret war against the Miners. London, Verso Books.
MOORE, Charles (2010). No Such Thing as Society: a good time to ask what Margaret Thatcher really meant. [online]. Last accessed 15 November 2012 at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/charlesmoore/8027552/No-Such-Thing-as-Society-a-good-time-to-ask-what-Margaret-Thatcher-really-meant.html
MUIR, Hugh (2012). Lynton Crosby: the ‘evil genius’ taking Cameron into bare-knuckle politics [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/nov/23/guardian-profile-lynton-crosby
TEBBIT, Norman (2006). Change is needed, but be careful, Mr Cameron [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3622167/Change-is-needed-but-be-careful-Mr-Cameron.html
THATCHER, Margaret (2007). The lady’s not for turning [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2007/apr/30/conservatives.uk1
The Telegraph (2012). George Osborne booed during Paralympic 2012 medal ceremony in Olympic Stadium [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-17815769
TRADING ECONOMICS (2013). United Kingdom Unemployment Rate. [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://www.tradingeconomics.com/Economics/Unemployment-Rate.aspx?Symbol=GBP
UK Polling Report (2013). YouGov/Sunday Times- Con 31, Lab 44, LD 11, UKIP 8 [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/
WALTERS, Simon (2001). Tory Wars. London, Potlico.
WINTOUR, Patricl (2012). TV debates to return for 2015 [online]. Last accessed 13 January at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/oct/22/tv-debates-2015-general-election
WOODWARD, Will and BRANIGAN, Tania (2006). The A-List: new leader’s drive for women and minority candidates [online]. Last accessed 13 January 2013 at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2006/apr/19/uk.conservatives