Belfast Telegraph

Sweet-talking Dave is a chip off the old block

The PM is the modern embodiment of 1980s Thatcherism. The only difference is where Maggie cut with a smirk he cuts with a smile, argues Malachi O'Doherty

It's hard to recall Margaret Thatcher smiling. Indeed, a media-savvy party machine would probably not thrust forward a person like her to lead now.

What the public is presumed to want these days is the slicker and more dapper modern types like Tony Blair and David Cameron.

These were leaders who could persuade the electorate to back unpopular and difficult measures and sell them with charm and good suits.

What many must be asking now is whether there is any real difference between Thatcher and Cameron - apart from appearances.

The anomaly about Thatcher was that she was a snarling battleaxe, yet revered by most of the people.

What has changed that we now need to be stroked and assuaged rather than berated by a Prime Minister?

Britain is different now. Tory ministers in her day could sneer at the poor and at single parents and yet be admired. Cameron isn't even tempted to try to pull that off.

Osborne has a hard edge of the old type. We might imagine him to be a 'son of Tebbit'. But we could not imagine that he could lead the party in a modern Britain which wants to believe that its Prime Minister is humane.

Cameron is the modern personification of Thatcherism in everything but her confidence that she could scold people into voting for her.

She said there was no such thing as society. Cameron says there is a Big Society. Both were really saying that the state can shift the burden of its responsibilities for the needy onto their neighbours.

Both imagine an economy that succeeds through the liberation of capital. Let big money thrive and we'll all be better off.

In Thatcher's day, this was called 'trickle down'. Some organic law of how an economy works would ensure that the wealth of the rich would ultimately benefit the poor.

Thatcher said a rising tide would float all boats. Osborne says tax relief for big corporations will establish that Britain is "open for business".

And the Tories continue to advance plans for the health service that Thatcher herself would have found difficult to sell.

Doctors are to be managers, as if we could all concede easily that they don't have more important talents to deploy in the service of our welfare.

But what is really striking is how Cameron's journey is beginning to follow the course of Thatcher's. In his first months in office, he began to look a bit superfluous. Thatcher regenerated herself with the Falklands war.

There was, it is true, more of an appetite for war then. We hadn't had one for so long. But the parallel with Cameron's Libyan mission is not the Falklands, but the later first Gulf War, when Thatcher urged George Bush senior to liberate Kuwait.

Thatcher had started out as the 'milk-snatcher', a prime minister with a focus on the economy and individual responsibility.

She was the snappy nanny who would have order in the nursery and yet she went on to make her name in international affairs, not just with her wars, but also with her alliance with US President Ronald Reagan, permitting him to bomb Libya from British bases, siding with him on the plan to install Cruise Missiles with nuclear warheads in Britain and Europe.

If Cameron has been studying Thatcher's career, he may have learned a few important things.

One is that he can force through unpopular cuts by presenting them as essential medicine that the country has to take, even while other economists are saying that Keynes was right and that you grow yourself out of a deficit by spending.

And so we get the continued recital of the bleak description of the country's finances, as if the state was a household that had to pay its bills on time and had never been in debt before.

The other lesson he may have learned is that, while people are beginning to suffer from the cuts and inflation, and his Chancellor is holding the stage, the best distractions are the old ones: war and Royal weddings.

Neither of these may have been timed to suit him, but they could hardly suit him better if timed differently.

But if Cameron thrives by adopting a style wholly unlike that of his great predecessor, then what does that say about modern Britain?

We are so used to politicians who look and talk like encyclopaedia salesmen that we have almost forgotten how dowdy and charmless were the men who came before Thatcher.

What has changed is the propensity within the British electorate to accept moralising from those in power. That is indicative of the social revolution we have undergone since the 1980s. People will no longer be told that they must be wary of gays, or that the burden of guilt for the state of the country can be laid on the shoulders of young women who get pregnant so that they may enjoy the freedom that comes with stingy benefits in a grim council flat.

Yet they will accept - or appear to - that the cost of putting the country right must come out of their pockets.

Thatcher said it with a smirk and a big stick. Cameron says it with a smile. He's getting his way.

He must be wondering how much more radically Thatcher herself could have completed the job of serving the interests of capital if she had had a smart young man like himself standing at her right-hand side.

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