The Tory Popularity Ceiling and Thatcher’s Legacy

The current Tory leadership of the U.K. government genuinely differs from that of prior eras. Whereas Margaret Thatcher cut the top income tax rate by more than half, Cameron has left income taxes alone and indeed one tax (VAT) has gone up. Their coalition with the LibDems gives the socially liberal wing of the party more running room, and the younger crop of leaders, including PM Cameron, have many more centrist positions than do those Tory politicians who will be pensioners soon. A number of the younger leaders have a sincere interest in amerliorating poverty, a sharp break from their ancestors, many of whom saw the non-rich as a different species. These changes might be thought to broaden the appeal of the party, but according to this very nice series of polls by the Guardian, the Tories just can’t persuade much more than a third of voters to support them. Some if not all of this problem with the public goes straight back to the Iron Lady

I had an email recently from a British friend (at least I hope we are still friends) blasting me for advising the coalition government and for my foolishness at not seeing that David Cameron is Margaret Thatcher all over again. A mutual friend (who I know is still a friend) said “Don’t take it personally, we hate Tories and we always will.” Both of them are in their 60s, and there are many other people in their generation who will never, in particular, stop loathing Margaret Thatcher. When the current crop of Tory leaders does something different than Margaret Thatcher they see it as a trick to convince the public that the party has changed. When the current crop of Tory leaders does something reminiscent of Maragaret Thatcher, they see it as proof that soon, David Cameron will rip of his face Mission-Impossible style and reveal the grinning, gap-toothed visage they knew was concealed there all along.

Thatcher makes an intriguing foil to her contemporary conservative head of state, President Reagan. When the latter was revealed to have Alzheimer’s disease, many people who voted against him voiced sincere sympathy for what he and his family were going through. In contrast, I spend an awful lot of of time in the U.K. and am in touch with people there almost every day, and I have to say that if Ms. Thatcher’s own dementia is generating sympathy in Brits who hated her policies, they are doing a frightfully good job of hiding it. I don’t even hear much sympathy from people who did vote for her. Thatcher seems to be in that small group of politicians who have a strange political legacy: The number of people who today acknowledge voting for them is far fewer than could explain all the elections they won.