At this week’s Labour conference, Tom Watson told members to stop “trashing” the record of New Labour. This raises a paradox – that if any party should be attacking the record of a successful recent leader, it should be the Tories, not Labour.
Put yourself in the shoes of a Tory loyalist. You support Osborne’s introduction of a National Living Wage. But Thatcher was opposed to state intervention to support wages, and allowed Wages Councils to wither (though it was the Major government that finally abolished them). You want to withdraw from the single market if this is necessary to control immigration – but it was Thatcher who helped create that market. You want to reintroduce grammar schools – but Thatcher abolished many of them. You support Philip Hammond’s promise to “reset” fiscal policy – but Thatcher preached the need for “good housekeeping.” You’re worried that immigration will undermine traditional communities – but Thatcher destroyed many of these in mining areas. You support Ms May’s desire to put workers onto company boards – but Thatcher championed “management’s right to manage.”
From this perspective, Tories should be trashing Thatcher’s policy. However, I very much doubt that her name will be booed whenever it is mentioned at next week’s conference, and Tories don’t use the word “Thatcherite” as a term of abuse in the way Labour members use the word Blairite.
Why is this? It’s not because, on domestic policy, Corbynistas are as distant from Blairism as May is from Thatcherism. They support New Labour policies such as tax credits, minimum wages and infrastructure spending.
Instead, there are other reasons. One is that Blair has become synonymous with the war in Iraq, whereas Thatcher was smart enough (or lucky enough) to start a war she could win.
Also, “Thatcherism” and “Blairism” function much as House Stark or House Bolton do – as indicators of tribal loyalties rather than ideology. Tories can think of themselves as Thatcherite even whilst renouncing many of her policies because they regard her as one of their tribe: she was on the right side of the class war. Even in his pomp, however, many Labour members never really regarded Blair as “one of us”.
There’s something else. Tories don’t think so much about political ideas: they don’t “problematize” or “workshop” them. Instead, as Oakeshott said (pdf), governing is for them a “specific and limited activity” to be gotten on with rather than theorized about. This often leads them to value unity over theoretical arguments - at least when Europe isn't at stake. And because people aren’t very good at thinking, and because there’s a thin line between being principled and being a sanctimonious twat, this gives them a big advantage.