Given that Margaret Thatcher was 87 and had been in frail health for a number of years, the news of her death are hardly surprising. Realising that it is almost a quarter of a century since she was forced to step down as leader of the Conservative Party and UK Prime Minister after fifteen years as party leader and eleven years as PM is slightly scary. I remember following the final dismantling of her leadership on the BBC’s Nordic cable channel – a very strange experience for a Scandinavian.
But to give a slightly different angle to the history of Margaret Thatcher and British politics in the 1970s and 1980s, let us make a counterfactual experiment and assume that “Sunny” Jim Callaghan had followed the advice presented to him, called a general election in the autumn of 1978 and – as the opinion polls expected – won a majority in the House of Commons.
First of all, the Conservative Party has little patience with leaders who lose elections. Winston Churchill is the exception to the norm, but otherwise electoral losers have all been forced to leave their position more or less elegantly. So, in the event of a Callaghan victory in 1978, Margaret Thatcher would either have stepped down or faced a successful challenge to her leadership in late 1978 or some time during 1979.
Jim Callaghan would still have faced many of the same challenges in economic policy that Thatcher had to address, most notably the transition from a high- to a low-inflation economy. We could also argue that Callaghan would somehow have tried to curb the influence of trade unions during his second term in order to implement the low-inflation policies. Things would have been quite nasty but Callaghan’s electoral mandate might just have helped him pushing his policies through – and the trade unions would have met a less destructive opponent, leaving them as a more powerful force on the British labour market.
A Labour government would also have had to consider the continued existence of the coal mining industry in the UK. The strategies would probably have been much less adversarial but mining was a dying business and there would have been conflicts and upheavals.
Finally, Callaghan just like his colleagues on the continent would have had to deal with the conflicts over the deployment of US mid-range missiles in Europe – an issue which tore the German SPD apart and caused considerable problems for the Social Democratic parties in the smaller European countries.
After the big upsets in economic and foreign policy during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the next big issue was deregulation and privatisation. Here, the Carter administration had been the trailblazer in the US with policies spreading to European and Pacific countries. Industrial policy was turning from the question of state ownership to the promotion of inward investment – even if British Airways could have stayed in state ownership.
Still, the 1979 election and subsequent events meant that the UK moved to the right economically even if the developments on the social and cultural agenda were more complex and Margaret Thatcher and the people around her doubtlessly played a major role in this. In the end – after some seven or eight years of success – came Hybris in the form of the Lawson boom, the poll tax and the divisions over Europe which continue to haunt the British (or should we say: English) Conservatives to this very day.