“Consensus” was a swear word for Margaret Thatcher. She once declared:
“To me consensus seems to be —the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no-one believes, but to which no-one objects. — the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.
“What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner “I stand for consensus”?”
She enjoyed an argument and thought that if everyone agreed with you something must be wrong. Paradoxically when at a Conservative Party Conference she was as enthused by the Socialist Worker demonstrators screaming abuse outside the Hall as she was by those granting her a standing ovation with it.
So she was not afraid of a certain degree of unpopularity. But, of course, she was also keenly aware of the importance of winning elections. Partly it was about remembering that the most vocal were not necessarily a majority – that was Edmond Burke’s point about “half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink” but are not “the only inhabitants of the field.”
Timing was the other key point. General Elections only have to take place every five years. Controversial reforms might provoke strong opposition and leave you well behind in the opinion polls. That would not necessarily matter if the policies succeeded and the naysayers were confounded. In the case of the early period of Thatcher we had monetarism – to “squeeze out inflation” – and the cutting of subsidies to nationalised industries which required cuts in overmanning. There followed a big increase in unemployment but she argued that economic reality had to be faced or we would continue to decline. Plenty disagreed. Terry Beckett, the Director General of the CBI, promised a “bare-knuckle fight” with the Government. The TUC were not supportive either.
Yet the approach worked. New jobs were created. Prosperity was widened. Enterprise was embraced. From claiming that Thatcher would fail to deliver economic growth, her critics had to switch to attacking her for doing so. Society had become “materialist”. There was a “loadsamoney culture.” Yuppies were denounced for bringing gentrification to derelict districts and drinking in wine bars and using mobile phones. Sir Peregrine Worsthorne decried “bourgeois triumphalism”.
Older readers may feel a warm glow of nostalgia as I recount all this, but murmur that while Thatcherism was “right for the time” something different is now required. I don’t see why. Since we ceased having a Labour Government in 2010 the burden of tax and regulation on the economy has increased. We have become more socialist than we were under the Socialists. Liz Truss believes, as Margaret Thatcher did, that shifting towards a free market offers a better prospect for wealth creation and economic growth. That was the message she repeated at countless hustings for the Conservative leadership election. Some thought she didn’t really mean it and was just telling the membership what they wanted to hear. Today’s “fiscal event” will surely disabuse them of such doubts – even if there are no “rabbits out of the hat” the measures already briefed to the media represent a significant change of direction.
At least some of the measures will be unpopular. Lifting the cap on bankers’ bonuses will not poll well. Economists will tour the studios to offer predictions of doom. They will be followed by spokesmen for charities and assorted pressure groups full of indignation. Truss has said she is “willing to do unpopular things”. That is crucial. The challenge for her is not merely to prove her critics wrong but to do so in time for the next General Election which is only a couple of years away.
The schedule that Truss faces is rather more demanding that the one Thatcher faced. Thatcher had four years in opposition to set out her ideas which she did with great clarity. In recent years the Conservative Party has not put forward the case for capitalism which has allowed the Left to put forward a caricature (as William noted yesterday in reference to supposed “trickle down economics”.) Some confuse it with corporatism, where vested interests are protected, rather than a system of competition and innovation. It is welcome that Truss can now use her position to engage in that battle of ideas. But she does not have long.
When Thatcher then came to power she brought in some big changes early on. Most of them weren’t actually specified in the 1979 Manifesto. For example, on October 23rd, exchange controls were abolished overnight. They had been in place for 40 years. There was disbelief. Denis Healey, the Shadow Chancellor, said the Government would soon regret this “reckless, precipitate and doctrinaire action.” Amidst the mood of pessimism the general reaction was that it was a folly: Why would anyone keep their money in the country unless they were forced to do so? But Thatcher had time to be bold. The next election, in 1983, saw her returned in a landslide.
What really matters though will be the state of the economy in 2024. Fair-minded floating voters will judge Truss on results – whatever doubts they have at present. Obviously, the impact of the tax changes announced today and the other reforms in the weeks and months to come will not be the only factors impacting our economic performance. The wholesale price of natural gas has been fluctuating wildly each day of late. What will happen in Ukraine? Nor will the next election be decided on the economy alone – any more than the one in 1983 was. But if the free market reforms that Truss is bringing in can be shown to be working that will surely be crucial. The best chance for that happening is to get on with it. They need to be bold changes implemented rapidly. Sometimes in politics caution is advisable. Truss does not have that luxury.