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The Tories need to get over Thatcher - by Dr Robert Saunders for Unherd - 26.07.22

As Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak battle it out in their race to Number 10, Dr Robert Saunders, Reader of History at Queen Mary College assesses their respective claims as Margaret Thatcher’s ‘true heir.’

But as Dr Saunders points out, attempting to appropriate ‘The Mantle of Margaret’ risks making both candidates and those around them look rather foolish:

“For two candidates who grew up in the Thatcher era, and who lack strong public profiles of their own, the allure of the Iron Lady is obvious. Like Thor’s hammer, Thatcher’s handbag can bestow godlike powers on those deemed worthy to lift it. Yet her centrality to the current campaign also tells us something about the modern Conservative Party, at a time when its political direction has rarely felt less certain.

Thatcher has come to represent three things that are sorely lacking in her party today: intellectual clarity, political longevity, and electability. Like many late-term governments, the Conservative Party often feels like it is reacting to events, rather than shaping them. It is struggling to hold together a diverse electoral coalition, with very different understandings of what it means to be “a Conservative”.

Given the strictures under which both candidates are operating appeals to Thatcherism are understandable:

“[The Party] is about to elect its fourth leader in six years, and can smell defeat in the polls. In such a context, there is a particular allure to a Prime Minister who radiated ideological certainty, who set the agenda of British politics for a generation, and who won three general elections in a row. For a party that feels like it is lost in space, the gravitational pull of “Thatcherism” is hard to withstand. The challenge for Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak is to harness it to their purpose.”

Both candidates appear to be appealing to different aspects of the Thatcher legacy:

“Perhaps curiously, as the younger of the two, Sunak seems more attracted to the early Thatcher. His Thatcher believed in “sound money”, “balancing the books” and “tackling inflation”.

She treated the national finances like a household budget, where you don’t spend more than you earn and you lie awake at night worrying about a rise in prices. This is the Thatcher who raised taxes during a recession, in the belief that short-term growth was less important than putting the economy back on a secure foundation.

For Liz Truss, it is not the prudent housewife that glitters in the imagination but the “Iron Lady”: the swashbuckling, pugnacious Thatcher who cut taxes, sent the fleet to the Falklands, defied the Soviet Union and, as one of her MPs famously put it, could not “see an institution without hitting it with her handbag”.

She seems drawn, in particular, to the later Thatcher: the Gloriana figure who strode the world-stage and boasted of unleashing entrepreneurialism. While Sunak sings what Spitting Image called the “Grantham Anthem” – a hymn to “hard work”, “family values” and attention to detail — Truss’s outfits, speech patterns and Instagram posts evoke more heroic Thatcherite characteristics, such as resolution, determination and a willingness to stand up for Britain in the world.”

As the author points out, the multiple crises and dramas of the decade drew out multiple aspects of Margaret Thatcher’s personality. In the current context therefore

“The question that exercises the two leadership candidates is not “which version of Thatcher is correct?”, but “which is most potent in the present situation?” Which speaks most directly to contemporary problems? And which, crucially, is most alluring to Conservative party members?”

The full article can be found below with a link to the original here:

Article by Robert Saunders for Unherd - The Tories need to get over Thatcher - 26.07.22
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Credit: Tom Stoddart/Getty

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