11 February 2024

Weekly briefing: The Iron Lady vs Britain’s bad boyfriend


On this day in 1975, Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party. Back then, Britain was an embarrassment, beset by inflation, traumatised by mass unemployment, held to ransom by trade unions, with both political parties incapable of governing.

Every Prime Minister’s legacy is contested, but no one can dispute that the country changed fundamentally under her leadership. And you don’t have to be an employee of the think tank she founded to yearn for a return to the purpose, ambition and intellectual clarity she embodied (though it does help). 

Today, as Prof Niall Ferguson warned in his Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture in November, we are repeating the mistakes of 50 years ago. Central banks have pumped up inflation by printing money, public spending is 45% of GDP and taxes are the highest they have been since the aftermath of the Second World War. Economics can seem like a cold-blooded discipline, but the effects of this are palpable. Everyone who sees their pay cheque gouged by the taxman then dissolved by the rising costs of daily life knows what it feels like. 

Thatcherites can take some comfort from the fact that both parties agree that growth is the cure for our ailing country. But their policy treatments are less encouraging.

Like a manipulative boyfriend, Labour is at once transparently desperate to be seen as the party of business and completely unable to commit. Rachel Reeves is seducing bankers with a promise to uncap their bonuses, yet Keir Starmer is saddling businesses with pointless and divisive new race equality obligations. They are equally confused when it comes to climate change, U-turning on their absurd target of spending £28bn a year on green investment but sticking to plans to decarbonise the grid by 2030, which no expert believes is achievable. 

Likewise, the Conservatives are teasing voters with assurances of tax cuts and planes to Rwanda. But unforced errors – an ill-advised handshake with Piers Morgan and crass culture-war comments at PMQs – have distracted from the appearance of competence and discipline Rishi Sunak wishes to project. Meanwhile too many within his party are already behaving as though it is in opposition, disintegrating into factions fighting over the future of the right. For example, however correct the ideas Liz Truss and her allies were pushing at this week’s PopCon event, her brief and ignominious tenure as Prime Minister makes her an unattractive advocate for them.

In other words, it’s a risky moment for those of us who believe the road to prosperity lies in a liberal, free market direction. But it is precisely because these ideas – about the collective benefits of individual liberty – are difficult, and even sometimes counter-intuitive, that the arguments for them must be constantly remade.

That is what CapX is for, and though this will be my last Briefing as Editor, I know the site will continue to make the case for freedom, markets, choice and enterprise long into the future.

Many thanks to all the readers who’ve got in touch with me, and to all my brilliant colleagues, especially my Deputy Joseph Dinnage and Editor-in-Chief Robert Colvile. I’m very sad to be leaving CapX and the CPS, but I will be taking with me the picture of Margaret Thatcher that I Blu-Tacked above my desk. And, of course, I will keep reading CapX – as should you all.

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Alys Denby is Editor of CapX