Conservative Manifesto 1979 Analysis Essay

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The manifesto set out five tasks, which surely no modern day Tory would argue with.

  1. To restore the health of our economic and social life, by controlling inflation and striking a fair balance between the rights and duties of the trade union movement
  2. To restore incentives so that hard work pays, success is rewarded and genuine new jobs are created in an expanding economy
  3. To uphold Parliament and the rule of law.
  4. To support family life, by helping people to become home-owners, raising the standards of their children's education, and concentrating welfare services on the effective support of the old, the sick, the disabled and those who are in real need.
  5. To strengthen Britain's defences and work with our allies to protect our interests in an increasingly threatening world.

But there are plenty of other policies that resonate today.

Tax and spending

The 1979 manifesto committed the Conservatives to controlling better inflation by cutting state spending, a refrain that is repeatedly used by George Osborne, the current Chancellor.

It said: “The State takes too much of the nation's income; its share must be steadily reduced. When it spends and borrows too much, taxes, interest rates, prices and unemployment rise so that in the long run there is less wealth with which to improve our standard of living and our social services.”

Like today, waste in Whitehall departments and particularly the benefits system were singled out for particular action.

The 1979 document said: “The reduction of waste, bureaucracy and over-government will also yield substantial savings. For example, we shall look for economies in the cost (about £1.2 billion) of running our tax and social security systems.

On tax, the similarities between 2015 and 1979 are even more apparent; Mr Cameron could have been forgiven for cutting and pasting the language for his 2015 manifesto.

The 1979 manifesto said: “It is especially important to cut the absurdly high marginal rates of tax both at the bottom and top of the income scale.

“It must pay a man or woman significantly more to be in, rather than out of; work. Raising tax thresholds will let the low-paid out of the tax net altogether, and unemployment and short-term sickness benefit must be brought into the computation of annual income.”

European Union

There are also familiar themes – such as frustrations with the European Union’s Common Agriculture Policy: “We believe that radical changes in the operation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are necessary.”

On law and order the 1979 manifesto called for a “wider variety” of sentences for the courts, and pledged a free vote for MPs on reintroducing the death penalty.

Like in 2015, immigration loomed large in 1979. The manifesto sad that “immigration control for the future is essential if we are to achieve good community relations.

“It will end persistent fears about levels of immigration and will remove from those settled, and in many cases born here, the label of 'immigrant'.”

Specific measures included “a new British Nationality Act to define entitlement to British citizenship and to the right of abode in this country”.

It said: “It will not adversely affect the right of anyone now permanently settled here. We shall end the practice of allowing permanent settlement for those who come here for a temporary stay.”

Health, the NHS and defence

On health the 1979 manifesto opened the door to privatisation, with a policy of “pay-beds” for those who wanted them. On defence the 1979 manifesto said more money would be spent on the Armed Forces and servicemen and women would be better paid.

The 1979 manifesto concluded: “Most people, in their hearts, know that Britain has to come to terms with reality. They no longer have any time for politicians who try to gloss over the harsh facts of life.

“Most people want to be told the truth, and to be given a clear lead towards the action needed for recovery.

“The years of make-believe and false optimism are over. It is time for a new beginning.”

Can you tell the Conservative and Labour 2015 manifestos apart? Take our quiz:

For anyone interested in Mrs Thatcher, there are few better sources than the wonderful website of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation.  It is a model of what you would want from a political archive.  Out of the thousands of documents available free-of-charge online, my favourite – and one I’ve used in teaching for several years – is the one remaining copy of the draft Conservative election manifesto, prepared in case Jim Callaghan went to the country in 1978.  Very different from the manifesto that was eventually used a year later in 1979, the manifesto is a remarkable document – not least because it is Margaret Thatcher’s draft copy, complete with her suggested edits.

She is known for many things – the first women to become British Prime Minister, the longest-serving British Prime Minister in the democratic era, plus her ground-breaking research into saponification of α-monostearin in a monolayer.  She is perhaps less well known for her copy editing skills, but the annotations reveal she was no mean editor.

Take, for example, this bit from p.4, in which she culls the woolly early draft, both to sharpen the text and to make it more partisan.

But the document is also a brilliant insight into her politics.  The foreword includes a section setting out the duties of government.  There’s something in the way ‘individual citizens’ gets replaced with ‘people’ (and the way she queries the wishy-washy ‘reasonably stable currency’ and merely ‘adequate’ defences), but much more important is the way she adds to the three suggested duties of government a fourth: ‘To provide conditions in which enterprise can flourish’.

But my favourite bit comes on p.19, when a section on animal welfare gets the full Thatcher edit.

There’s something wonderful about that that aggressive crossing out, the horrified exclamation marks, the bemused question marks.  There, for good or ill, is Mrs Thatcher.

Philip Cowley


Published inBritish PoliticsConservatives


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