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The Gunmen on the Heath
Be wary of inflicting too a humiliating defeat on David Cameron; if it isn’t followed through afterwards, we could doom ourselves to two decades of Tory rule under a new set of Thatchers.
If David Cameron is a Child of Thatcher, he seems to have missed out on the dominant genes. You need not consult the New Statesman, the Morning Star or another left-wing publication, nor the circles of socialist and liberal gossip and speculation, for a proposal that the Conservative Party may be out of government in 2015. Norman Tebbit, a veteran of the regime aforementioned and long-time premier commentator in the conservative right, has voiced his concerns that David Cameron could be kept languishing in non-majority government after the next election. Perhaps worse for Cameron, the wise sage of Epping has floated the possibility that the Conservatives may be booted out of national government altogether if the economy fails to pick up, and specifically if rebel Liberal Democrat MPs form a coalition with Labour.
Several factors, as Tebbit points out, could sour any bets placed on Cameron’s vitality as leader. A major economic crisis would likely upset the opinion polls for the incumbent government, regardless of which party is in office. Another diplomatic dispute resembling Cameron’s “walkout” on the EU Treaty would bolster support from much of the Europe-hostile public and conciliate potentially disloyal Tory backbenchers. British involvement in a Middle Eastern conflict, in Syria or otherwise, could take public opinion either way depending on whether it becomes a spiritual successor to the zero-casualty ease of Libya or the painfully futile Afghanistan.
The wondrous benefit of historical hindsight allows us to analogise the Cameron government to its ideological predecessors, and particularly that which it seeks to emulate most. Thatcher’s first cabinet was itself struck by sagging opinion polls and public anger at its policies, many of which reeked of intentional cruelty and caprice. At the time, according to the Telegraph, several high-ranking Tories had little faith in the government’s ability to hold onto power:
“By 1981, Thatcher was a hated figure in parts of the country. Lord Bell, the architect of Thatcher’s iron image, even claims that the party chairman, Lord Thorneycroft, and two cabinet ministers, Lord Carrington and Humphrey Atkins, confronted the prime minister and suggested she should resign”
Though not the only or absolute factor in deciding the outcome of the 1983 General Election, there is general historical consensus as to what saved Thatcher from defeat. A near-future invasion of the Falklands by Argentina would be the ultimate historical repetition of the ugly opportunism provided by conflict – as in 1982, the sudden and calamitous seizure of the islands followed by a pithy British recapture and victory would provide Cameron with all the Churchillian glory required to secure a strong majority in 2015.
It is easy to compare Cameron to Thatcher, despite a clear dearth of accomplishments as we approach the second anniversary of the signing of the Coalition Agreement in May 2010. As much as the angry Left may view him as the tyrannical, maniacal and omnipotent successor to Thatcher, his banality and weakness as a Conservative Party leader is apparent in the lack of significant praise received by the party’s right. Admonished for bringing the Lib Dems into government, hated for his liberal manners and acceptance of gay marriage as a fundamental right, Cameron is not particularly popular with the Tory Right. He is certainly no Thatcher to them, and is yet to prove his credentials as a full-blooded Conservative. Never doubt the abilities or the influence of the backbenchers, especially in the Conservative Party. In one respect, Cameron and the Iron Lady may soon be similar; Thatcher’s Downfall in 1990 may have been led by the resignation of close ally Sir Geoffrey Howe, but it took more than Brutus alone to skewer Caesar twenty-three times. If all Cameron has to look forward to in comparison between himself and Thatcher in posterity’s history books is a similar ousting by discontented MPs, then there is little for the Left to fear from him personally.
What must be avoided at all costs is an unwitting reversion to an earlier emulation of the past; the strong-willed and well-organised Left of the early 1970s was able to undermine, embarrass, obstruct and cripple the government of Edward Heath to the point of ultimate humiliation; Heath did not manage to complete one full term, taking office in May 1970 and being defeated in an election held on his own instructions in February 1974. What is sometimes forgotten when examining the Miner’s Strike of 1984-5 is its predecessor in 1973, which resulted in victory for the N.U.M. under the newly-elected Arthur Scargill. The strike was aggresively fought on both sides, and was preceded in 1972 by the famous blockading picket of Saltley Gate in Birmingham. The Heath government was consigned to history as a failure.
Thatcherism was developed in the wings of the Conservative Party in the bitter years following the destruction of the Heath government. The resentment and hatred felt towards the trade unions by the Tories became the forebear of Thatcher’s harshest restrictions of the unions in the 1980s. The February 1974 defeat represented an unexpected and particularly loathed humiliation for the Conservative Party – a Versailles moment, followed by the demands for a more ruthless and effective leader to crush the unions and ensure a long stay in a strong majority government.
Heath had presided over a large rise in unemployment. He was racked by fluctuating opinion polls, the political blowback of Bloody Sunday and the national shame of the Three-Day Week. But it could not be said that he was cruel – he did not take the same pleasure in subjugating and inflicting perpetual misery upon the inhabitants of Labour heartlands as Thatcher and her colleagues did. In their determination to bring down his administration in the most destructive and ignominious way possible, Heath’s opponents outside the Conservative Party created the ideal footing for his opponents inside the party.
David Cameron has displayed moments of monstrosity, and a post-Thatcher zeal for persecuting the weak and tormenting the poor with deceit-coated assaults on living standards. He is also occasionally inclined to violent political repression and enjoys using the police to silence unpleasant noises from outside the consensus. But at the very least, thank the gods, he has not exhibited outward or overt racism, homophobia or anti-Semitism – and is desperate to prove he suffers none of the above, despite his party’s association in the European Parliament with unsavoury continental allies. Consider what may happen if, following a disgraced Conservative exit from government, a wilderness period leads to the election of one of the Tory Right’s hardliners. In a bleak economy, worsened by an ineffectual Labour government and an endless Eurozone debt crisis, the more disturbing ideas and vices of the Tory backbenches could find their way onto the leadership podium.
It is agreed among all on the Left; Cameron and the Conservatives must be out of office in 2015. But we must tread very carefully in how the task is undertaken, or history will judge us.
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