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This book examines the Conservative Party’s period in opposition between 1974 and 1979, focussing on the development of policy in a number of important areas. It explains how Conservative policy changed and why it changed in the ways that it did, before going on to draw wider conclusions about Thatcherism and Britain in the 1970s. The central argument is that although this period has often been seen as one of significant change, with Conservative policy one part of much wider and more dramatic developments, if it is examined in detail then much of this change appears modest and complex. There were a range of factors pulling the Conservatives in a number of different directions during this period. At times policy moved forward because of these forces but at others its development was slowed. In order to understand this period and the changes in Conservative policy fully, we need to take a rounded view and have an appreciation of the intellectual, economic and social contexts of the time. However, this book argues that the short-term political context was most important of all, and helps to explain why Conservative policy did not change as much as might be expected. There was not necessarily a clear path through to the 1980s and beyond. The roots of Thatcherism may have been evident but it does not appear to have been inevitable in policy terms by 1979.
Trade unions, their practices, and their political and economic impact were important issues throughout the 1970s. According to different interpretations, this was either the period which marked the highpoint of trade unionism in Britain, or the moment of victory for neoliberal critiques and the beginning of the end for traditional industrial relations. The Conservative Party was at the heart of these debates and many important changes during this period. Influenced by wider neoliberal ideology, a number of Conservative politicians like Sir Keith Joseph were often outspoken and particularly animated by the Grunwick dispute, the subject of an instructive case study in this chapter. However, the Conservatives as a whole moved only gradually and partially in this direction. There were important developments and the party did devise new policies around the closed shop, picketing and trade union elections, whilst more serious and controversial reforms to the welfare payments made to strikers were also contemplated, but these were in line with long-standing Conservative concerns and often a response to events as they unfolded. The Conservatives did not necessarily have detailed plans for trade union reform worked out prior to 1979.
One of the defining issues in British politics and the central focus of economic policy between 1974 and 1979 was inflation. This was particularly true for the Conservatives, who invested a great deal in defining policies to deal with inflation and consistently emphasised the grave threat that it posed. This chapter details the development of these policies and suggests how they can best be understood. Many accounts have suggested that the Conservatives moved in a monetarist direction during this period. There can be little doubt that this is correct. Many of the leading disseminators of monetarist ideas were drawn towards the Conservatives, demonstrating the common ground between them. However, this chapter will show that their influence in policy terms may not have been direct and the Conservatives’ position was not revolutionised. Ideas closer to traditional prices and incomes policies remained stubbornly in play. A greater focus on monetarist ideas did not necessarily require a significant re-evaluation of Conservative philosophy, and pragmatic concerns were often just as significant as wider ideological forces.
The economic crises of the 1970s were understood to require action on a broad scale. The Conservatives focussed on three areas: public spending, taxation and the role of private enterprise. In simple terms, the party would argue that government expenditure needed to be cut, that the burden of taxation needed to be reduced, and that the profitmaking power of the private sector needed to be restored. However, this chapter argues that although there were important developments, the Conservatives’ wider economic policies did not change dramatically. By the end of the period there was a little more acceptance that the electorate were aware of the need for tough spending cuts, but the Conservatives had always called for retrenchment and, despite some tough rhetoric, the party did not appear ready to slash public spending at all costs. There were also some more philosophical arguments about the need to reduce taxation and support the free market system, and there were hints at some of the more controversial and lasting changes that would be brought about by the Thatcher governments. However, the fine detail of Conservative policy did not develop as much as might be expected.
During the 1970s the Conservatives argued strongly and consistently that levels of immigration needed to be reduced. The debate was about by how much it should be reduced and by what means. However, at the same time the party could not, and generally did not wish to do this by following any extreme policies which might undermine its electoral support, damage race relations or lead it to renege on assurances that had been given in the past. For example, the Conservatives considered tougher policies like repatriation and did give some thought to withdrawing the right of entry to Britain from some groups that they had previously expected would keep it, before eventually rejecting such policies and sticking to a firm but pragmatic approach. Here, rhetoric sometimes became important. Margaret Thatcher’s famous intervention in January 1978 provides an example of the ways in which it could act as a substitute where policy change was not possible. Immigration therefore provides another example of a policy area in which there is something of a gap between the tone of the period and the policy reality.
This chapter provides context for the policy discussions which follow, situating the Conservative opposition in the economic, social, cultural and political contexts of the 1970s. Key themes that are often seen to have defined the decade are analysed and their impact on the direction of Conservative policy assessed. The chapter highlights the breakdown of the post-war consensus, economic decline, the ungovernability of Britain and a loss of morality in national life as being important. These were the ideas that helped shape the Conservatives’ sense of how the world was changing. It is clear that they did play a role in the development of policy, but this influence was not often direct. They were central to the increasingly well-formed ideas of some Thatcherites and were often there under the surface and in much of the rhetoric of the time, but they were not at the heart of the official policymaking process.
Education was another contentious policy area during the 1970s. The Conservative Party essentially moved from a position in which standards and choice were at the centre of its approach to education – but it had gone with the grain by expanding the number of comprehensive schools in Britain – to one in which it felt even more strongly about standards and choice, and was more sceptical about the need to impose comprehensives on unwilling parents and pupils, but still did not, or could not, commit to seriously undoing many of the most important changes. The party therefore looked for alternative ways in which standards and choice could be improved, once the types of school from which parents would have to choose was less of a factor. This chapter examines those alternative policies, including an assisted places scheme, educational vouchers and a Parents’ Charter. It shows again that short-term political factors often had the greatest immediate impact on Conservative policy.
Devolution was one of the defining issues in British politics during the late 1970s. It was a fundamental concern for the Conservative Party. The party had a uniquely strong tradition of support for the principle of the United Kingdom, but by the mid-1970s it had accepted the need for some kind of devolution as a means of avoiding other more radical changes. Official policy was therefore to support a directly elected assembly in Scotland. Though this commitment remained it was less concrete by 1979 than it had been at the beginning of the period. Support for such an institution became more circumstantial and qualified. Philosophical arguments in support of devolution appear to have been employed less often. The focus was more on the negative consequences of Labour’s specific proposals. However, devolution was not rejected outright. That eighteen years of Conservative government in which nothing was done about devolution followed, was not as inevitable in the preceding years as it might later appear.
This chapter draws together Conservative policy in relation to nationalised industry and housing under the theme of ownership. By the 1970s the Conservatives had long been clear that they saw nationalised industries as undesirable in principle, and had begun to consider how to actually denationalise in practice. But it was also recognised that it would not be a straightforward process. The proposed method for unwinding the nationalised industries was wider share ownership. This can also be seen in relation to home ownership. The aim of a ‘property-owning democracy’, a long-standing element of Conservative thinking which had been revived and updated a number of times, moved more clearly to the centre of party strategy under Thatcher. Nonetheless, the most important policy which would help to bring it about was not in itself new. The sale of council houses under the ‘right to buy’ scheme had been a feature of Conservative manifestos in 1970 and 1974, although it was now given a new impetus.
The concluding chapter draws together the different subjects discussed in the course of the book and summarises its main arguments. These include that although the 1970s have often been seen as a time of significant change in Britain, with Conservative Party policy playing a significant part, much of this change appears less dramatic than might be expected if the 1974–79 opposition period is looked at in detail. The breakdown of the post-war consensus, economic decline, the ungovernability of Britain and a loss of morality in national life were important themes which could be seen to define the period. However, although these ideological conditions were important, established practices, traditions, ways of approaching certain problems and the practical short-term political context of the period, which often engendered pragmatism, were also crucial. By comparing the policies outlined by the Conservative Party in 1974 and in 1979 we can see that in simple terms there were real developments during this period but few dramatic changes. In turn, this can tell us a great deal about the development of Thatcherism and Britain during the 1970s.