Keith Joseph helped to overturn a generation of post-war so-called Keynesian consensus by inspiring Margaret Thatcher to privatise major nationalised industries and coined the phrase ‘the socialist ratchet’ to illustrate his then-radical beliefs1Rhodes Boyson had a phrase, ‘slow-quick-quick-slow foxtrot to socialism’, that expressed the same view.. Joseph and others suggested that Labour were a party of change, so did things like creating the welfare state, whereas Conservatives were by nature pragmatic and left things pretty much alone – so over time, the direction of the Government was inevitably leftward.

What I ponder a lot is this – if the post-war consensus lasted from about 1945 to roughly the mid-80s (e.g. we could take the nationalisation of British Gas, the first really major privatisation in 1986, as the final nail in the coffin), Thatcher ended about 40 years of ‘Keynesian’ orthodoxy. And since the mid-80s, with New Labour maintaining the core economic model, we’ve now had 30-something years of Thatcherite orthodoxy. I’m writing this in 2017, so about 32 years of full-on Thatcherite ratchet, to adapt the phrase from Keith Joseph. The time periods here could be meaningless, of course, but it’s worth a suggesting a hypothesis – each major economic consensus lasts for a generation of roughly 40 years, and over the next few years we’re due for another major turn.

Here are some quotes that give a bit more context – and the latter, written before the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, is fairly amusing. Even if you disagree with this hypothesis, it’s worth remembering that all apparently unassailable consensuses are not actually immortal truths – tides change, even after decades of repetition.

NB I’m not consciously cheerleading for any particular political ideology in this piece, it’s just a perspective I enjoy thinking about!

Keith Joseph, 1975:

“I argued that the pendulum in politics had been replaced by the ratchet, in the sense that the Socialists, when in office, move the balance towards collectivism: we Conservatives, when in our time comes, at best leave things as they are ready for Labour’s next turn of the screw.”

Margaret Thatcher obituary, The Economist, 2013:

“She reversed what her mentor, Keith Joseph, liked to call “the ratchet effect”, whereby the state was rewarded for its failures with yet more power. With the brief exception of the emergency measures taken in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007-08, there have been no moves to renationalise industries or to resume a policy of picking winners. Thanks to her, the centre of gravity of British politics moved dramatically to the right. The New Labourites of the 1990s concluded that they could rescue the Labour Party from ruin only by adopting the central tenets of Thatcherism. ‘The presumption should be that economic activity is best left to the private sector,’ declared Mr Blair. Neither he nor his successors would dream of reverting to the days of nationalisation and unfettered union power.”

Here’s the Keith Joseph newspaper clipping in full:

References   [ + ]

1. Rhodes Boyson had a phrase, ‘slow-quick-quick-slow foxtrot to socialism’, that expressed the same view.