14 June 2024

Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Revolution


The piece below is Robert Colvile’s introduction to ‘Conservative Revolution: The Centre for Policy Studies at 50’, published on June 4. It can be purchased here

‘The Centre for Policy Studies was where our Conservative revolution began.’ That phrase, from which this book takes its title, forms the first line of Margaret Thatcher’s speaking notes for her address to the think tank’s AGM in 1991, less than a year after being forced out of Downing Street.

She went on to list the core principles upon which she and her friend Keith Joseph had founded the CPS, and which remained at the heart of its mission: to promote ‘financial orthodoxy and free enterprise’, ‘control government spending and borrowing’, ‘cut taxes, regulation and bureaucracy’, ‘strong defence’, ‘fight for free trade’, ‘respect nationhood’ and so on. 

Lady Thatcher had many more things to say about the CPS over the years. Even before she became Prime Minister, she credited it with helping her to accomplish ‘the revival of the philosophy and principles of a free society’ – adding that ‘history will accord a very great place to Keith Joseph’ for his role in that.

After Joseph’s death, she would argue that ‘it was by implementing the policies worked out by Keith Joseph and the Centre that we gradually restored the confidence and reputation of our country once again’ – an accomplishment built upon ‘liberating the genius of the people and limiting the powers and role of government’.

This year, the Centre for Policy Studies is marking its 50th anniversary – a full half-century since Joseph, Thatcher, Alfred Sherman, Nigel Vinson and their allies began their remarkable crusade to transform the Conservative Party, and British society. 

In many ways, it can be hard to appreciate the full scope of their success in building the capital-owning democracy of which they dreamed – precisely because they were so successful. To us it now seems commonplace that companies should be run by their executives and shareholders rather than the trade unions. That inflation is managed via monetary rather than fiscal policy. That the state should not own and operate haulage firms, travel agents or telephone lines. That money can flow freely into and out of the country. Or that you can take your pension with you when you leave your job. But all of those facts had to be argued for, and fought for. 

The work of the CPS is about more than those early years – much more. If that were not so, it would not have survived over the following decades, let alone remain one of the most influential think tanks in Westminster.

As Charles Moore says in our conversation later in this book, one of the crucial tasks of the CPS is to renew itself for each generation. And many of the essays here set out how it has done that, under a succession of Directors and Chairmen who have done credit to Lady Thatcher and Keith Joseph’s memory, by developing policies that have done the nation a very great deal of good. 

But it is fair to say, as its Director, that the legacy of those early years is both an inspiration and a rather terrifying challenge. Even as I type these words, I have only to turn in my chair to see Lady Thatcher staring sternly down from the portrait that hangs behind my desk. 

Yet Lady Thatcher, I am fairly certain, would not have wanted a book such as this to be just a collection of platitudes and obsequies. And that is why we have chosen that phrase, ‘Conservative revolution’, as the title of this collection. Because it speaks to a tension that many of the authors here explore. 

Were the accomplishments of Margaret Thatcher, and the ideology of the Centre for Policy Studies, revolutionary in spirit, as well as effect? Isn’t a ‘Conservative revolution’ a contradiction in terms? If so, it was a contradiction Thatcher herself was alive to. In 1996, when she delivered the inaugural Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture – reprinted here – she insisted that:

When Keith and I were struggling to shift Britain back from the socialist state, we were also acting as conservatives, with a small “c”. We were seeking to re-establish an understanding of the fundamental truths which had made Western life, British life, and the life of the English-speaking peoples what they were. This was the foundation of our Conservative revolution. It remains the foundation for any successful Conservative programme of government.

Thatcher saw her revolution, in other words, as a turning of the wheel – a restoration of a classical liberal society in which individuals are free to flourish, which in turn enables the nation to flourish with them. Dominic Sandbrook, in his essay on Thatcherism, shows that, at least in her early years, Thatcher was as eager to present herself as a traditionalist as a radical, and that her beliefs were the product as much of her biography as her ideology. 

Likewise, Tim Congdon describes how monetarism, viewed by many as a dangerous innovation, was conceived by its advocates as a return to the classical liberal tradition, in the face of an economic establishment that had fallen into delusion.

And of course, when making her famous claim that there was ‘no such thing as society’, Thatcher’s point was not to assert some radical, atomised vision of human life but to point out that society was ultimately made up of individuals and families, and that they should not look constantly to government to solve their own problems.

But the essays here also grapple with the tension between being conservative and revolutionary. In our conversation, Lord Moore – the Iron Lady’s authorised biographer – highlights the extent to which what made her remarkable was not just her ideology, but her ability to translate that ideology into the realm of practical politics, through all the necessary compromises that brought.

Charlotte Howell’s essay on Alfred Sherman, the extraordinary figure who served as the CPS’s first Director, shows the strain this created between the insurgents and the establishment – a story that has frequently repeated itself within the Conservative Party. This, again, was a tension the CPS’s founders were well aware of. 

The Centre was launched with a series of extraordinary speeches from Keith Joseph, setting out a detailed and compelling prospectus for where both Conservatives and Labour had gone wrong in the post-war years. He accompanied this by endless further lectures, in particular at universities, to evangelise his cause. (David Willetts describes in his essay the excitement of attending such an event.) 

Yet what made the CPS different from existing think tanks was that it was not meant to be about ideology, but results. In its founding prospectus, there is a stern injunction that ‘the purpose of the Centre will be practicable. There will be no attempt to propose policies such as denationalisation that are not politically feasible.’

This is a principle we have tried to adhere to during my time as Director: the way I often put it is that the function of the CPS is not merely to tell people about the delights that await them in the Promised Land, but to draw them a map to actually get there. 

This is the spirit, of course, which animated the famous ‘Stepping Stones’ paper produced by John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss, and mentioned by multiple contributors to this collection. The paper is emblematic not just because it examined the causes of Britain’s economic dysfunction – rightly concluding that there was no way to fix the situation without taking on the unions – but because it also set out the need to convince the public of that argument, in order to actually bring about the changes that the country so desperately needed. 

This essay collection, then, is not a backward-looking affair. Indeed, many of its authors draw the parallels between 1974 and 2024, arguing (implicitly or explicitly) that we need a similar Conservative revolution today. 

In these pages you will find Anthony Seldon writing on the CPS’s early days; and Ryan Bourne on whether Thatcher’s economic reforms were – to echo Alfred Sherman – just an ‘interlude’ between periods of swollen-state stagnation. Graham Brady reminds us that the CPS was set up to champion liberty, not just prosperity. David Willetts, Stephen Parkinson and Tim Knox explore the CPS’s story after the Thatcher years, and their own time there. Alys Denby marks the 10th anniversary of CapX – the CPS’s media arm, set up to continue the work of communication and evangelisation started by Joseph. Niall Ferguson, Paul Goodman, Rachel Wolf and Maurice Saatchi address, in very different ways, the connections between past and present, and the tasks that lie ahead of the CPS, and the wider Conservative movement, in the future. 

I am hugely grateful to all those who contributed to this essay collection, and to all those who have worked for, written for, supported and championed the CPS over the years. I am especially grateful to my colleague Karl Williams, who has worked with me to shape and edit this book. 

In her notes for that speech in 1991, Thatcher concluded by warning her friends at the CPS that the great temptation in politics was to ‘lose sight of the eternal truths and choose the popular, quick fix’. It is a temptation which the CPS has spent 50 years trying to avoid. I very much hope that our successors are able to say the same 50 years hence. 

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Robert Colvile is Editor-in-Chief of CapX and Director of the Centre for Policy Studies.