This Wednesday, a second debate in a series of debates and talks organised by York Union this term, focused on the issue of whether “Thatcherism must be abandoned to save Britain’s economy”. Proposing the motion were Vidhya Alakeson, deputy chief executive of the Resolution Foundation think tank, and Stefan Stern.
Offering the arguments against were Mark Littlewood, director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, who argued that we have a misleading understanding of Thatcherism, and Martin Vander Weyer, a British financial journalist, who argued that historical perspective reveals the benefits of Thatcherism relative to her predecessors and successors.
The effective organisation of the debate allowed the panellists to discuss the issue in a lively and intellectually stimulating manner. Asking audience members to vote on the motion before entering the debate meant they were active participants, rather than passive listeners of the discussion. As the debate moved to the Q&A session, members of the audience received the opportunity to share their opinions and put pressure on the speakers.
Vidhya Alakeson started the debate, using economic perspective to demonstrate that Thatcherism represents an unsustainable economic approach, which resulted in the growing inequality and financial instability of the British economy. Her arguments were countered by Mark Littlewood, who started with the philosophical question of the definition of Thatcherism. His argument emphasised that successive generations of politicians, rhetorically committed to the Thatcherite principles, fundamentally misunderstood its basic premises. As a result, policy decisions were based on the principles of the ‘big active state’, which contradicted the Thatcher focus on markets, individuality and freedom.
An ideological perspective came next from Stefan Stern, arguing that Thatcherism is a complex doctrine, which consists in positive, negative and seriously controversial elements. The key problem, in his view, was that any doctrine is comprised of a rigid set of principles, which are unquestionably applied to the required policy area. However, a number of these principles, particularly uncompromising leadership style and a sceptical approach towards British participation in the EU, no longer provide a sufficient response.
Finally, the debate was concluded by Martin Vander Weyer with his emphasis on the history. Martin’s argument was two-fold. On the one hand, the criticisms directed towards Thatcherism ignore the existence of serious economic problems in the 1970s, which were only solved with Thatcher’s accession to power. On the other hand, Thatcher successors had selectively applied her principles, combining and complementing them with the range of opposing ideas, which led to a misleading conclusion, that Thatcherism is still dominant in British politics. Martin emphasised that ‘true’ Thatcherite principles are still better than other possible alternatives.
Overall the debate managed to present several different perspectives on Thatcherism as well as engaging a large number of students in one of the most important and sophisticated political debates of our time.