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Will Thatcher’s historical legacy, like Robert Peel’s, U-turn from beyond the grave?


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Since her death on 8 April, Margaret Thatcher's legacy has been described by commentators in many ways. Some saw her as rolling back the socialist state, others as a believer in strong executive government and economic freedom. Electorally, she was the most successful Conservative leader, taking her party to three consecutive General Election victories, but she was also a leader who ultimately broke her party, consigning it to opposition for a generation.

This latter description of her politics resembles closely that of the nineteenth century Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. Peel's belief in strong executive government, balanced budgets and a unilateral shift to free trade economics in the 1840s has strong parallels with Thatcher's politics in the 1980s. Both Thatcher and Peel believed in the strong state and the free economy. Despite both being Oxford-educated scientists - Peel studied mathematics at Christchurch and Thatcher, chemistry at Somerville - historians have described them as having a preference for 'system' and dogmatism in policy making over empirical evidence. Both won elections with large majorities, Peel in 1841 and Thatcher in 1979, 1983, and 1987, but later divided their parties, Peel in 1846 over the repeal of the Corn Laws and Thatcher over Europe from the late 1980s.

Given these similarities, can Peel's legacy tell us anything about how Thatcher may be viewed by historians? Peel left a legacy which divided historical opinion, though less over what he said or did about policy, and more due to the way in which historians have related his politics to that of the Conservative and Liberal parties of their own age.

While Thatcher is famous as the lady 'not for turning', Peel performed many controversial policy U-turns, including Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the endowment of the Catholic Maynooth seminary in Ireland in 1845, and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. All these policies conflicted with views he had expressed in public and private. But instead of contesting the facts associated with these policy decisions, historians have used Peel's politics to support their favoured political party in their own period.

The nineteenth-century historian and Liberal MP, Charles Parker, led the way in Sir Robert Peel from his Private Papers, published in three volumes between 1891 and 1899, as a model for the Gladstonian Liberalism of his era. Parker's descriptions of Peel's policy U-turns in the 1840s were quoted by other Liberal politicians in Parliament to support William Gladstone's conversion to Home Rule in 1885. It was argued that Gladstone was following Peel's noble example by sacrificing 'on the altar of his country the idol of his own personal consistency'.

During the 1920s, the collapse of the Liberal party caused the migration of many free market Gladstonian Liberals, including Thatcher's father, Alfred Roberts, to the Conservative party. These new Conservatives attempted to remodel their old Liberal hero, Peel, into a Conservative hero, appropriating him for the party of their era. Thus followed works by George Kitson Clark, Robert Blake, and Norman Gash, all committed Conservatives, arguing that his policy U-turns showed not that he was not a proto-Liberal, but instead a pragmatic 'founder of modern Conservatism'.

The argument rumbles on amongst today's generation of historians. In 1979, the year Thatcher came to power, Boyd Hilton revised Clark's, Blake's and Gash's characterisation of Peel as a pragmatic Conservative, to that of the dogmatically-minded 'progenitor of Gladstonian Liberalism' à la Thatcher. Later, one of Thatcher's own ministers, Douglas Hurd, wrote a biography of Peel, attempting to roll this back and revive Clark's view of him as a pragmatic founder of modern Conservatism and, by extension, the Conservative hero of his generation of Thatcherite politicians.

Like the historiography of Robert Peel, the divided opinions over Thatcher's legacy expressed since her death have also focused less on the detail of what she did or thought, and more on the legacy she has left the present-day Conservative party. To many on the left, she is cast as a 'true blue' Conservative who waged war on the trade unions and the traditional working class. Many of her own supporters, 'dry' Conservatives including Norman Tebbit and her own official biographer Charles Moore, would not deny this - arguing instead that this was part of what made Thatcher a great Conservative leader.

But Thatcher often justified the same policies as a 'nineteenth-century Liberal' (as Milton Friedman described her), fighting for a return to their 'Victorian values' of self-help and self-reliance. The 'wets' took this to believe that Thatcher was not the modern embodiment of Conservative politics but instead a modern-day Gladstonian Liberal. Ian Gilmour, who Thatcher sacked in 1981, went as far as to argue that her 'dogmatic' brand of politics betrayed the core values of an anti-free market Conservative tradition which went back to the days of Benjamin Disraeli, lifelong political enemy of both Peel and Gladstone.

Thatcher believed throughout her life that her policies would ultimately be vindicated by history. She once stated that 'I am in politics because of the conflict between good and evil, and I believe in the end good will triumph'. Similarly, Richard Gaunt has argued that during his life, 'Peel did not merely hope for his reward in heaven - but in history'. How history sees Thatcher - as a true blue Conservative or a modern-day Gladstonian Liberal - will ebb and flow with time. But just as with Peel's historical reputation, the colour of the moment may well depend more on how historians view the Conservative or Liberal parties of their day, than on the facts of what she did or believed as Prime Minister.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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