Political parties tend to stick with winning formulae. So while Labour’s recent manifestos differ substantially from the one that failed to fend-off Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives’ still shows striking similarities to the one that swept her to office 36 years ago.
Cutting income tax, promoting a ‘property-owning democracy’, helping small businesses by removing ‘red tape’, restricting immigration and stepping-up the fight against crime are as central to the party’s platform now as they were in 1979. Two of the other big planks – reducing trade union powers and tackling inflation – later faded because they ceased to be viewed as problematic. Thatcher’s followers still credit her with knocking them off the agenda.
But the Iron Lady’s first manifesto, considered radical at the time, is disturbingly moderate by today’s standards. Her government either cleverly concealed the true extent of its liberalising intentions or – more likely – only gained full confidence in the idea of unleashing ‘market forces’ once safely installed at No 10. The 1979 programme very deliberately stops short of endorsing “free trade”, the tariff-free movement of goods and services across national borders. Its demand is for “Fair Trade”, which still leaves plenty of scope for barriers against ‘unfair’ imports that will damage UK jobs. Although Thatcher had built her ministerial career as Edward Heath’s Education Secretary (1970-74), her pledges on schools go no further than reinforcing the “3 Rs” (reading, (w)riting and ‘rithmetic), with no commitment to reversing the radical comprehensivisation pursued by Labour. “Radical changes” are mentioned only in relation to the Common Agricultural Policy. But even when Brussels proved immune to British farmers’ complaints, there was no question of the UK abandoning the European Community, to which the previous Conservative government had won entry after a decade of struggle.
And while Privatisation – the selling-off of state-owned industries and assets – is often assumed to have defined Thatcherism from the start, it only rose to the fore in later (1983 and 1987) manifestos. In 1979, the principal pledge was to stop taking more private firms in to public ownership. The only promised company sale was of the National Freight Corporation, a road haulage firm that went on to stage an employee buyout in 1982.
Giving voters a new home
One major sell-off was fully flagged up in 1979, and still has profound repercussions half a century on. The section ‘Helping the Family’ begins by lauding families’ aspiration for “a home of their own”, and promises to promote this by lowering inflation (to bring mortgage interest rates down) and cutting taxes (to help people save for a deposit). It moves straight on to “The sale of council houses”, promising council tenants “the legal right to buy their homes”.
The offer of sale prices at least 33% below market value, and 100% mortgages where needed, made this an instantly popular policy, and over 400,000 were to exercise their right-to-buy by 1982. As anticipated, council tenants who voted Conservative in anticipation of a discounted house continued to do so after they received one, and in 2015 the party was still developing extensions of the policy, this time with housing-association tenants in their sights.
To the obvious critical question - where would low-income families now live, with councils unable to replace all the homes they sold? – the Conservatives had a ready answer. They would revive the private rented sector, which had coincidentally shrunk by 400,000 between 1973 and 1977. The disappearance of private landlords was blamed on rent controls and other regulations, which the Conservatives promised to roll back. Two unique features of today’s UK housing market, the high rate of return on buy-to-let investment and the escalating cost of housing benefit, can be largely traced to the pro-ownership, pro-landlord policies launched in 1979. With right-to-buy discounts rising to 50% for those who waited 20 years or more, council tenants in expensive-housing areas like Westminster have found themselves living in a gold mine, which canny property entrepreneurs and estate agents were later keen to exploit.
Two significant developments soon after her election were to secure Thatcher’s return with an increased majority in 1983. Revenue from North Sea oil, which became exportable from 1980, made it possible to deliver lower income without the deep public spending cuts that would otherwise have been needed. And sending a task force to recover the invaded Falkland Islands showed the Iron Lady to be wrought rather than cast.
Official History of North Sea Oil
So unlike Ronald Reagan, who was swept to the US presidency (on the third attempt) in 1980 with a clear intention to privatise, deregulate and shrink the state, the Conservatives’ 1979 prospectus shows a party still in transition from the cross-party ‘Butskellism’ of the 1960s to the ‘neo-liberalism’ it was later to embrace. Sensing that voters were ready to turn to them without a detailed prospectus, the Conservatives built their 1979 appeal around general aspirations to economic freedom and national strength. The manifesto gave them a menu from which they could later select the items that proved most popular, building them into the coherent programme that 1980s ‘Thatcherism’ came to represent.