Steve Bush's provocatively-titled Progress piece, Labour Ended Thatcherism is interesting for drawing attention to the discontinuities between Thatcher and Blair, but for all that ventures a fundamentally flawed position. Steve's argument is that Thatcherism was discarded and buried by 13 years of Labour government. He writes:
For 18 years, the Thatcherites tried to tell us that public services were at their best as a safety net. In the next 13, New Labour built more schools than a government had ever built before. It established academies that can go toe-to-toe with the private sector in terms of facilities and results. It built and rebuilt hospitals and clinics that rivalled any in Europe. Thatcherism thought the state couldn’t end poverty in Britain, Blairism helped to reduce it overseas. Thatcher thought that children shouldn’t be told they had ‘an inalienable right to be gay’. Blair led the greatest expansion of civil rights since the 1960s. Thatcher’s successors oversaw appeasement in the Balkans, New Labour stepped into the killing fields in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Kurdistan. For Thatcherites, the private sector was an end. For Blairites, it was one of a number of means. Thatcher let the police grow into a underregulated and shadowy arm of the state; New Labour introduced the Hillsborough Inquiry and tackled institutional racism in the Met.If you put it like that ...
Sure, the New Labour years chalked up some worthwhile achievements. It's one of history's little ironies that my erstwhile comrades on the far left still bang on about there being no difference between Labour and the Tories, while they busy themselves defending the very services 13 years of Labour governments rebuilt. Nevertheless, Steve makes a very serious error. What was it that Clinton said about the economy again?
If we accept New Labour wasn't Thatcherite, then it was certainly Neoliberal. While in his first term Blair signed the Social Chapter, introduced the minimum wage, legislation for mandatory trade union recognition and a populist windfall on the privatised utilities, the common sense of the period, of the deregulated market as the master, went fundamentally unchallenged. The neoliberal core of the Thatcherite project was accepted as the natural order of things, and was fostered by further deregulation, the spread of Private Finance Initiatives, and a whole bunch of measures that saw capital penetrate the fabric of the state to a degree that was not possible even under the period of high Thatcherism. Yet while New Labour was busy creating new business opportunities where none existed previously, the social democratic side of the project tried ameliorating the effects of increasingly free markets (where possible, using market-based solutions), while equipping workers with the education and skills that would enable them to compete successfully in a globalising economy.
Therefore, New Labour and Thatcherism are different and it's daft to pretend otherwise. But strip away the peculiar trappings of both and you bring out the fundamental identity of each. As the Tories once accepted the basic premises of the post-war settlement, so the centre left under Blair and Brown took the neoliberal settlement Thatcher successfully imposed as their starting point. In that sense, Thatcher's premiership was transformative, whereas the New Labour years were not.