In 2015, Kwasi Kwarteng, now Britain’s chancellor, published his little-known history, Thatcher’s Trial: 180 Days That Created a Conservative Icon. It’s the work of a critical admirer, and it helps us decode today’s British political turmoil. Kwarteng focuses on six months in 1981 when Thatcher “redefined modern conservatism in one of the greatest feats of modern political leadership”. In doing so, he emphasises, she ignored criticism. “Don’t worry what people think now,” was her mantra. “Don’t ever work for popularity. Above all, don’t care what the newspapers say. What is important is that your decisions should be clear, and stand up to history.”
Kwarteng imagined himself to be channelling Thatcher when he shocked voters and markets last month with unpopular, unfunded tax cuts. The pound hit an all-time low against the dollar, forcing him into a partial recantation. But to understand Britain’s new government, you have to understand its cult of Thatcher — one largely shared by prime minister Liz Truss, whose political awakening began with a school project on Thatcher’s fall.
There are similarities with the cult of Mussolini that persist among some of Italy’s far-right now entering government under Giorgia Meloni. I’m not asserting a moral parallel: Mussolini was a fascist and Thatcher wasn’t. The point is simply that the UK and Italy have joined Argentina, with its cult of Perón, as “undeveloping” nations whose leaders are slaves of a defunct politician. (American conservatives’ cult of Reagan was dismantled by Donald Trump.)
When a country declines, it often seeks guidance from a Dead Leader. That’s true in Italy, where average incomes have fallen since 2000, and in Argentina, where, by some measures, absolute poverty has risen since the 1980s. In Britain, daily life peaked in 2007, though at the time everyone was too busy complaining to notice. Since then, wages and spending on schools have fallen, while hospital waiting lists hit record levels.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives have been casting around for new ideas ever since defenestrating Thatcher in 1990. She was a rare politician who completed her project. Once she’d gone, there wasn’t much room for more privatisation or tax-cutting if Britain were to remain a recognisable developed country. That left post-Thatcher Tories at a loss. They experimented with Thatcherite encores such as rail privatisation. Eventually, they found their generational project: Brexit. But six years on, the promised trade deals and nimble deregulated economy haven’t materialised. “Levelling up” never went beyond a slogan. When all else fails, you return to the source, hence Kwarteng’s Thatcherite tribute act.
Cults of Dead Leaders tend to be small, ignored by most voters and concentrated among party activists. In the UK that means the 141,725 Conservative members who voted in this summer’s leadership election. In Italy, far-right activists dominate the semi-covert cult of Mussolini, says John Foot, author of Blood and Power: The Rise and Fall of Italian Fascism. They will be among the few commemorating this month’s centenary of his March on Rome. Meloni still inhabited this activist demi-monde when, aged 19, she praised Mussolini: “Everything he did, he did for Italy.” Now she disavows “nostalgic attitudes of fascism”. However, cult members bond over symbols like the flame on her party’s emblem, which harks back to the party founded in 1946 by Mussolini loyalists.
Dead Leaders only ever united a faction of their nations. That’s part of their appeal: cultists of Thatcher, Mussolini or Perón band together to taunt enemies. But rival cult members also fight each other. When Rishi Sunak stood against Truss for Tory leader, he posed as the true heir: “I am running as a Thatcherite, and I will govern as a Thatcherite.” In Argentina, rightwing Peronists compete against leftwing Peronists such as current president Alberto Fernández, who got his start in politics through his uncle, Perón’s personal photographer.
Cultists are vague about the Dead Leader’s precise policies. They revere Thatcher as a tax — cutter, even though Britain’s total tax burden actually rose under her rule. (She only cut taxes for the rich.) What matters to cultists is the hero’s perceived mindset. Thatcher, Mussolini and Perón each represent the strong leader who trampled over opponents and foreigners. “Her uncompromising style” consoled demoralised Britons, writes Kwarteng.
The Dead Leader’s dimly recollected legacy becomes the lodestar of today’s policy. But as knowledge advances over time, past leaders’ policies are discredited, whether it’s Thatcher’s trickle-down economics or Perón’s dream of autarky. Neither markets nor the CBI, the employers’ organisation, thought that Kwarteng’s tax cut for the 1 per cent would boost economic growth. A better lodestar for today’s politicians might be the policies of today’s successful countries.
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