Redecorating Britain in a deep shade of blue

October 18, 1996

If universities have changed enormously in the past quarter century, so too have the ideas that are taught in them. Richard Cockett assesses the influence of the new right.

The year 1971 was a strange one for the putative new right. Edward Heath's Conservative government had promised a "quiet revolution" of free-market reforms on coming into power a year before. But July of that year proved to be a watershed as the government started to go into reverse; and Heath embarked on his famous U-turn. For the new right, the promised revolution had gone very quiet; they had suffered their first betrayal. It was often to be thus in the ensuing 25 years.

The new right had already earned its journalistic sobriquet in a Fabian pamphlet of 1968. The author, David Collard, had correctly identified the growth of a new economic, social and moral politics which could eventually outflank a left which was then busily occupied with excavating the flagstones of Paris in between inventing ever more ethereal slogans to daub on the walls of the Sorbonne. It was not quite a movement as yet - this had to wait until the mid-1970s, when the state of Britain's economy became so parlous that all politicians recognised the need for some drastic surgery. Like all authentic revolutionary movements, the new right could eventually boast the requisite full house of gurus (Hayek, Friedman), high priests (Joseph, Walters), apparatchiks (Sherman, David Hart), leaders (Thatcher, Reagan) and led (the Conservative back benches and new Labour). They also acquired an appropriate demonology; Keynes, Heath, Scargill, social workers and the Foreign Office. There was no sealed train, but plenty of sermons on the mount, from the Old Testament thunderings of Hayek in The Road to Serfdom (1944), through to the monetarist gospel of Friedman first expounded to the American Economics Association in 1967, and ending with the revelations of Margaret Thatcher to a bemused Church of Scotland in 1988.

Economics was the most important and persuasive element of the arguments deployed by the new right in Britain, focusing on the twin evils of inflation and "big government", the former being a consequence of the latter. By 1975 inflation was running at 26 per cent and Peter Jay was penning long editorials for The Times on the ungovernability of Britain. It was their success in predicting inflation and then proscribing a cure for it that gave the new right their original purchase on power. The key claim of the monetarists was that defeating inflation should become the principal aim of governments, rather than the Keynesian goal of full employment. The free market replaced the state as the engine of economic growth, and the enterprise economy and the encouragement of an "entrepreneurial culture" stemmed from this.

Fuelling these economic imperatives was a resolve to reverse Britain's economic decline. There was an important strand of nationalism running through the new right in power, from the Falklands war through to the endless battles with Europe. Economic decline was not, in their eyes, an inevitable consequence of two world wars, but the result of a conspiracy between a defeatist liberal intelligentsia, obstreperous shipbuilders and cantankerous coal miners. There was a strong element of class warfare in the new right - if the Great was to be put back into Britain, then the "enemy within", trades unionists, had to be defeated to allow managers to manage and capital to fructify. Thatcherism owed its success partly to the fact that many of its advocates had fought the class war in the 1930s and 1940s and had merely switched sides, believing in the power of personal economic freedom to bring about the emancipation of the working-class that planning had so singularly failed to deliver.

L-4drop = /The new right also had a strong moral argument, which rested on a repudiation of everything that had happened in the 1960s and a return to what Mrs Thatcher called Victorian values. Permissiveness represented all the false values of the progressives, and the new right preached a return to self-help and the gospel of work, where people took responsibility for their own lives rather than lapsing into the dependency culture. For a movement usually accused of cultivating greed and selfishness, the Thatcherites were always keen to scale the moral Everests of their day, much to the distaste of the turbulent priests on the foothills below them. One of the more striking paradoxes of the new right is that they never resolved the alternative dynamic of deregulation and the urge to get Back to Basics. Deregulation brought in its wake Channel Four, Michael Grade and Gaytime TV rather than a new puritanism a la Samuel Smiles.

What was the impact of the new right? I would pitch their success at about 6 out of 10. There has been an enormous shift in the middle ground of politics in the past 25 years, as every election since 1987 has been fought on the basic economic ground (of low taxation and economic competitiveness) mapped out by the new right in the 1970s. The trade unions have been emasculated, and Tony Blair now makes the sorts of speeches that cost Keith Joseph the leadership of the Tory party in 1975. The class war was won and socialism is now dead. On the other hand the population remain stubbornly attached to the NHS and the rest of the welfare state. The sexual revolution of the 1960s has continued unabated (especially in the Tory party) and despite the leaderene's disdain for feminism, the women's movement also continued to make strides in the 1980s. Mrs Thatcher might never have entered the promised land, but the new right has had as important an impact as any such movement in modern history.

Richard Cockett is a lecturer in history at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, London.

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