The failure of Thatcherism was in trying to carry through a radical approach with barely 40% of the vote. However, it would be sad if the end of Thatcherism meant the end of radicalism in British politics, writes Martin Jacques.
The 1980s were the Thatcherite era. At no time in modern British political history has a leader and her followers exercised such a profound influence on the course of political events. Certainly the 1945 Labour Government marked a break at least as fundamental in the conduct of national affairs, but this was more the inheritance of war than the work of a government. In terms of setting a new political agenda the Thatcher governments have had no peer in this country for more than a century.
The reason for this is quite simple. From the outset the Thatcher governments were highly radical in intent. They wanted to clear up the mess of the 1970s. But more importantly, they sought to reverse the UK's long decline. And in order to achieve this they rightly recognised that the habits and practices of our nation had to be transformed. In the first instance this required shock treatment. But national renewal was never seen as a short-term operation. One of the distinguishing features of the Thatcherite project has been its capacity to think long term. Society was quite literally to be remade.
That era is now patently over. John Major will be a quite different Prime Minister to Margaret Thatcher. True, more than Michael Heseltine, he will stress the line of continuity with his predecessors. But he will consolidate rather than innovate. He is no bold radical, a technocrat rather than an ideologue, a pragmatist rather than strategist, a man of caution rather than a risk taker. In short, he is the antithesis of Thatcher. After the storm, the Tory Party has opted for peace and tranquility. We are witnessing the return of a more pragmatic, consensual form of politics.
As we emerge from the Thacherite era, how should we regard it? Did it fail? Of course, in one sense it did not. Thatcherism has had a profound impact on the contours of political life which will endure indefinitely. But it has not succeeded in its main objectives: to reverse the process of national decline and carry through a social revolution.
Radical projects are always dangerous operations. They enjoy an uneasy relationship with the society that they wish to change. From the outset they have the quality of the outsider. Thatcherism was no exception. It did not like British society. It wanted to shake it up, to transform it, to carry through a revolution.
While that revolution was going with the grain of society, with people's yearning for change still strong and the grim memory of the turmoil of the '70s fixed in the mind, Thatcherism was able to command the political stage. But inevitably things move on and attitudes begin to shift. Society starts to tire of perpetual change, of the messianic message, of permanent revolution. The experiment turns sour. Society comes to see as alien the radicalism which it once embraced. That has been the fate of many radical projects the world over, and Thatcherism has gone the same way.