Why Liz Truss Couldn't Channel Margaret ThatcherRoundup
tags: conservatism, British history, Margaret Thatcher, prime ministers, Tories, Liz Truss
Robert Ralston is a lecturer at the University of Birmingham and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Editor's note: this essay was published prior to Liz Truss's resignation as prime minister on October 20.
Britain is facing a tough winter ahead. Energy prices are skyrocketing, the pound has fallen relative to the dollar, mortgage rates have climbed sharply, and the National Health Service is under strain. Industrial action has ground trains to a halt and slowed down Royal Mail delivery. For older Britons, this is all eerily reminiscent of the problems Britain faced during the “Winter of Discontent” in 1978 and 1979.
And new Prime Minister Liz Truss is trying to pattern herself on a political figure who rose to prominence during that period: Margaret Thatcher. Like Thatcher in 1979, Truss is claiming that Britain is in decline and that she is the answer. She has scapegoated global conditions, including the covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as domestic opponents. During her speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham on Oct. 5, Truss acknowledged, “The status quo is not an option.” She asserted, then, that her party was “the only party with a clear plan to get Britain moving” and “the determination to deliver.”
Yet while Thatcher spun a dominant narrative of decline that resonated with the public and enabled her to prescribe a path to renewal, Truss’s speech rang hollow.
Despite the two confronting a similar period of domestic turmoil and torment, Truss’s position is fundamentally different from Thatcher’s because her party has been in power for the last 12 years, and she does not credibly represent a new kind of politics like Thatcher did.
The 1979 election was dominated by claims of British decline. The preface of the Conservative Manifesto — laying out the party’s agenda of law and order and austerity to combat inflation — proclaimed that there was a “feeling of helplessness” because many Britons saw their country as “a once great nation that has somehow fallen behind” and worried “that it is too late now to turn things round.” Thatcher herself went on the BBC and declared, “I can’t bear Britain in decline. I just can’t.”
As historian Guy Ortolano argues, Thatcher weaponized public fears about decline during the campaign and into her early years as prime minister. She successfully blamed the incumbent Labour Party for Britain’s problems and took umbrage at Labour’s attempts to fault world conditions for British decline.
Thatcher’s effort to harness fears about decline also worked because she was an outsider, both with respect to her relationship with the Conservative Party, as well as her sex and class. She was from Britain’s middle class — a “grocer’s daughter”— and was a woman in a male-dominated world of British politics (when she was first elected, she was one of only 25 women in a Parliament of 630). In 1975, she had become the leader of the Conservative Party by toppling Edward Heath thanks to support from backbenchers — and over the opposition of senior party figures and the establishment Conservative press. Many in her own party held Thatcher in disdain, because they saw her style as abrasive, no doubt influenced by sexist and classist tropes.