An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


Why Hasn’t Thatcherism “Failed”?


The Winter of Discontent, as we all know, represented three things:

  • the downfall of the Callaghan government
  • proof that Keynesianism didn’t work
  • and that Margaret Thatcher needed to ride in on a white horse to save us all

History 101 – especially for the political right.

I’ve come across an interesting article which puts that into perspective. Colin Hay argues that while the Winter of Discontent was certainly a crisis for the postwar consensus, it wasn’t necessarily a failure.1 The reason it became viewed as such – both at the time and through the lens of the popular imagination – was because the right were incredibly successful at portraying each individual problem as a symptom of a broken system.

Most importantly, Thatcher was available as an alternative for the disgruntled population.

Hay contends that the economy was improving up until 1979 and was made decidedly worse by the monetarist policies of the early Thatcher years. It was only when the economy subsequently recovered that Thatcher’s legacy was secured. Did it improve because of her, or despite her? The debate, really, is immaterial. Enough people thought that she offered an alternative, and having chosen that alternative the economy recovered. Perceptions are more important than the “really real”.

It’s always tempting to draw parallels with the present, but it seems to me that the current “crisis” could easily be painted in similar terms. But only if we have an alternative to neo-liberal, monetarist politics. None of the three major parties currently offers this.2 There is a danger, if the economy recovers, that the current austerity package offered by the coalition government will be seen as successful.

Of course this leads to three new issues:

  • the economy will do what it wants – Westminster has no control
  • the left can only hope to regain power through distorting the current crisis to its own ends
  • without an alternative, Miliband is simply the new Heath – we’re stuck with Thatcherism for a while yet

Or is this a tad too cynical?


1 Colin Hay, ‘The Winter of Discontent Thirty Years On’, Political Quarterly 80(4) (2009), pp. 545-552
2 Colin Hay, ‘Chronicles of a Death Foretold: the Winter of Discontent and Construction of Crisis of British Keynesianism’, Parliamentary Affairs 63(3) (2010), pp. 446-470

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