The Lady Is Not For (A Populist) Turning: Thatcherian Ambiguities In Cas Mudde’s Theory – Analysis


Margaret Thatcher is the most controversial Prime Minister in recent British history. Finding herself governing a country on its knees in the late 1970s, the Tories’ leader applied a series of unprecedented economic measures that polarized the judgment on her. Charismatic figure, accusations of authoritarianism, and populism were not alien to her. The essay aims to analyze the Iron Lady’s rhetoric in the light of Cas Mudde’s theory of populism. Populism is a “thin ideology”, which sees society divided into two categories (the pure people vs. the corrupt elites), based on the concept of the general will. Thatcher used nationalism (thin ideology) only occasionally to shape her political offer, which was based on conservatism (thick ideology). Secondly, the Manichean worldview in Mudde’s terms (“good” people, “bad” elites) is not Thatcher’s case. As for the volonté général, the Lady relied more on the idealization of her electors to justify her policies.

Thatcher “the Populist”?

Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) was a British politician, the most controversial Prime Minister in recent British history (Campbell 2009), with “a powerful personality” (Hadley-Ho 2010). Serious, intelligent, competitive, and hard-working (Cannadine 2017), imperious, vehement (Lewis 1975), the Iron Lady contributed to change the European history as well as her country and party. Loved and hated alike since the beginning of her career, she earned the title of “That Bloody Woman” (Rosaspina 2020). Determined, ambitious, uncompromising; “you turn if you want to”, Thatcher (1980) said in a Conservative Party’s congress: “The lady’s not for turning”. Daughter of a grocer, she identified herself with the suburban bourgeoisie, which later became the basis of her political support (Riddell 1985). She entered the House of Commons in 1959 after Oxford graduation in chemistry. Minister of Education (1969-1972), party leader from 1975, PM from 1979 to 1990, she won three general elections. She brought a change of emphasis in British politics (Lewis 1975). And promised to stop British economic decline, affirming Thatcherism, seen by critics as “an attack on the physical, economic, cultural and intellectual life of the nation” (Trimm 2010, 163).

Characterized by a charismatic, strong, and personalistic leadership, during her mandate she applied a neoliberal program in Great Britain: liberalizations, privatizations of many public companies (Harvey 2005), cutting taxes, welfare, and social services (Cooper 2012), curbing unions’ power. “State-controlled economy is a recipe for low growth and […] free enterprise within a framework of law brings better results” (Thatcher 1988). Under her government and leadership inflation, deficit and unemployment collapsed (Campbell 2009); pro-decriminalization of homosexuality, pro-abortion, and pro-divorce (Rosaspina 2020), she had more progressive (therefore ambiguous) than many would say. Her rhetoric was unmistakable, and with her Great Britain became competitive again after years of stagnation. This came at the price of social division on her persona and policies, based on social conservatism and economic liberalism (Beaumont 2010). Thatcher’s policy “has often been characterized as populist, reflected in an apparent identification with the ‘common people’ […] against the elites of the British establishment” (Fella 2008, 187-8); Hall (1988) interpreted Thatcherism as ‘authoritarian populism’, while Reyes (2005) preferred “conservative populism”.

She “adopted a populist critique of the post-war social democratic consensus” (Fella 2008, 188). Cas Mudde (2004) provides a definition of populism allowing a better understanding of what the concept is sociologically referred to: his concepts of thin ideology, antagonistic groups, and general will are interesting to be seen in Thatcher’s case. Was the Iron Lady “populist” following Mudde’s sociological theory? Surely, she was not populist in populism’s informal terms. 1) promising people what they want to hear, with a “highly emotional and simplistic discourse” (Mudde 2004, 542) and 2) giving money to people increasing public spending, pleasing them and “buying” their support (ibid.), aka “clientelism” (Mudde-Rovira Kaltwasser 2017). The risk is to identify charismatic leaders as populists, but Mudde provides a theory framing populism. The choice to analyze Thatcher within an academic framework is unusual since her critics were not based on her (alleged) populist discourse or attitude. Studies on the relation Thatcher-populism are very few; furthermore, there has not been any adaptation of Mudde’s theory of populism to the Conservative Party’s leader. The conclusions are that Thatcher only partially and ambiguously reflects Mudde’s definition. She was an ambiguous figure as well as a complex character, between conservatism and liberalism, anti-statism and nationalism.

Cas Mudde’s Theory of Populism

The paper’s objective is to analyze Margaret Thatcher starting from some of her political discourses, in the light of the theory on populism formulated by Cas Mudde (2004) in his article “The Populist Zeitgeist”. The paper’s purpose is to verify if Mrs. Thatcher can be considered populist according to this theory. Thatcher is here framed within Mudde’s theory – her discourses have been retrieved from the homonymous Foundation, covering her 1979-1990 PM activity. The speeches are a product of a long process of selection out of hundreds of documents. Mudde’s theory is adequate and suitable to European right-wing parties and politically neutral, which is an advantage when analyzing controversial characters. Mudde (2004) does not see populism as a pathology of Western democracies. He acknowledges that the concept of populism is “highly charged and negative”, both in “scholarly and public debate” (Mudde-Rovira Kaltwasser 2013, 149).

He sees “populism as an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, the pure people versus the corrupt elite, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people” (Mudde 2004, 543). According to Mudde (ibid.), populism is a thin ideology and does not have the consistence that other “isms” (such as liberalism, fascism, socialism or conservatism) Indeed, “it can be attached to all kinds of ideologies, which we call the host ideologies” (Mudde-Hanso 2018); “populism” alone in its pure form does not almost exist. “As a thin-centered ideology, populism can be easily combined with […] different […] ideologies, including communism, ecologism, nationalism or socialism” (Mudde 2004, 544). Thin-ideologies are opposed to thick ideologies, that “have a dense morphology […] and […] are crucial for developing an overarching network of ideas that offers answers to all the political issues confronting a society” (Mudde-Rovira Kaltwasser 2013, 150).

Mudde (2004) emphasizes the Manichean distinction between two classes, “the people” and “the elite”; the people are always opposed to the (cultural, economic, political, mediatic) elite. The first group is pure, the second is corrupt. Populists “argue that political parties corrupt the link between leaders and supporters, create artificial divisions within the homogeneous people and put their own interests above those of the people” (ibid. 546). Populists define who belongs to “the people” or “the elite” (Mudde-Rovira Kaltwasser 2013). The former “is depicted as a homogeneous and virtuous community; the latter […] homogeneous but pathological” (ibid. 151). In relation to Thatcher, Mudde’s theory main elements – populism as “thin ideology”, populism as a “Manichaean division”, populism as a “general will” of the people – are individually analyzed.

Populism as Thin Ideology: Adapting Nationalism to Conservatism

Thatcher was inspired by Conservatism, a thick ideology, with some liberal elements. Her policy was oriented to a traditional (center-)right conservative thought. As for the “thin aspect”, she adopted nationalism, emphasizing the “UK’s greatness”, believing that her country was composed by “extraordinary people”. An important example of the mixture of nationalism (thin ideology) and conservatism (thick ideology) was her bellicosity during the 1982 Falklands crisis when Argentina invaded the British islands in the Atlantic. The reaction was Thatcher’s top-moment of nationalism, an occasion to reinvigorate her imagine, driving the attention away from the domestic economic troubles (Cannadine 2017). She fought a battle of principle, boasting her nationalistic rhetoric centred on the “Britishness”. After the victory against Argentina, she proudly showed her nationalism in the Parliament: “Our country has won a great victory and we are entitled to be proud. This nation had the resolution to do what it knew had to be done” (Thatcher 1982).

Many “thought we could no longer do the great things” and “believed that our decline was irreversible”, while others maintained “that Britain was no longer the nation that had built an Empire and ruled a quarter of the world. Well, they were wrong” (ibid.). A second example of the use of nationalistic (thin) rhetoric is related to the negotiations with the European Community. The Lady resorted to nationalistic discourses to underline not only the UK’s uniqueness vis-à-vis Brussels’ bureaucrats, but also the diversity(or superiority) of the British people (typical for nationalism) and this can also be related to Mudde’s theoretical second element, the antagonization of one group, the good free Brits and the bad bureaucratic Europe. Adding some nationalism (and Euroscepticism) to her Conservatism, the lady wanted to emphasize the UK’s uniqueness. “Certainly, we want to see Europe more united and with a greater sense of common purpose. But it must be in a way which preserves the different traditions, parliamentary powers and sense of national pride” (Thatcher 1998).

Populists “accept the essence of democracy, in terms of popular sovereignty and the majority rule. They want the people to elect their leaders” (Mudde-Hanso 2018): despite Thatcher was accused of nationalism and imperialism – “identification with authority, traditionalism and firm leadership” (Hall 1988) – but there are no doubts that she was intrinsically democratic. She believed in the rule of law (Fry 1998) and voluntarily resigned as PM in November 1990. Populism “is inherently hostile to the idea and institutions of liberal democracy or constitutional democracy” (Mudde 2004, 561); she was not. Verdict: She only occasionally used nationalism (thin ideology) to formulate her political thought – which was conservatism (thick ideology) – to boost British pride; Thatcher was not strictly populist in Mudde’s terms.

The Manichean Division: Thatcherian Cleavages

Thatcher always stressed the importance of individual responsibility for the community. “We must recognize certain groups of people who need help, but the rest of us must take responsibility for ourselves, and […] stop being […] a subsidized-minded society” (Thatcher 1975, 50). Most famously, too many “have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!’ or […] ‘I am homeless, the Government must house me!’ and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first” (Thatcher 1987). Thatcher did not divide society in “good people” and “corrupt elite”. In her mindset, there were conservative voters, decent people, “common” men, and women, who worked, produced, and were harassed by the State. They were the bourgeoise, small-medium entrepreneurs and traders who paid taxes, “homeowners, car owners, (small) business people, farmers, private-sector workers, pensioners […] dismayed by […] higher taxes, regulation, bureaucracy, interference, excess paperwork, waste, centralizing decisions and political correctness” (Reyes 2005, 109).

On the other hand, she stigmatized other categories of people: hooligans, protesters, the left, the Labour party, IRA terrorists, and the European Union. She idealized her enemies but did not attack “the elite” and making a eulogy to the sacred pure people. Cultivating social envy against the elite has never belonged to her o British conservatives. However, for Thatcher, everything was a battle (Fella 2008) and in this sense, there was a “social division” in her mind, but not in Mudde’s terms. Thatcherism shows “how a populist discourse can be constructed from a structurally elite position” (Reyes 2005, 106). Thatcher did not consider the people “pure” (a priori). She considered the individual man and woman, “forged consent through the cultivation of a middle class” (Harvey 2005, 61) with close political attention to the elites – which were not corrupt in her mindset, but the result of meritocracy. According to Mudde (2004, 546), what is clear “is who and what populists are against”. Thatcher was against the abovementioned categories. In this sense, populism not about class (ibid.). Thatcher did not reject the political class as a whole and most of all did not delegitimize it just because it was the political class as populists leaders usually do. “Populists are reformist rather than revolutionary, they do not oppose political parties per se. Rather, they oppose the established parties” (ibid. 546).

Thatcher did not oppose the conventional political cleavage left-right. Finding the enemy or separating those who vote for a movement from those who do not, is typical of politicians; it is simply how politics works. She did not – as Mudde’s theory does – see juxtaposition between the corrupt elite and the pure people. She created the division between society as a sum of individuals vs. socialists and other political enemies. “Some socialists seem to believe that people should be numbers in a State computer. We believe they should be individuals. We are all unequal. No one, thank heavens, is like anyone else, however much the socialists may pretend otherwise” (Thatcher in Reed 2020). She produced the same level divide – “we” (conservatives) and “they” (socialists) – not, as Mudde suggests, looking to the corrupt elites-pure people scheme. Verdict: Although she emphasized the difference between opponents and supporters, Mudde’s Manichaean worldview is not consistent with her discourse. Thatcher did not see society divided into corrupt elite-pure people; since she was a politician, she just exalted herelectorate denigrating adversaries.

The (Majoritarian) People’s Volonté Général

The concept of volonté général is expressed by the formula Thatcher always used to justify her policies, to give herself legitimacy, to unify the country (nationalism, thin ideology), to emphasizing/dividing the electorate and supporters (Manichean division friends and foes, and not people-elite), but to present her actions as good for the people. With the concept of “TINA” – “There Is No Alternative” (Reyes 2005) – it is as if Thatcher considered herself as the guarantor of order and the popular will. Since “there is no alternative” to her, what she did was the product of general will. She assumed that the general will was to preserve the identity and the post-British empire, therefore – for example – not giving up the Falklands was imperative. “Yet we also fought alone – for we fought for our people and for our own sovereign territory” (Thatcher 1982); “our people” means the Brits who, according to her, expected the government to be though on Argentina, to protect the great British nation’s unity and safety.

Thatcher was able to couple nationalism with cleavage-making within the society/electorate, but as PM she wanted to unite the Brits interpreting and emphasizing their “general will”: a safe, prosperous and great country was in the people’s interest. Thatcher (1980) interprets the “will of the people”: “Decent people do want to do a proper job at work, not to be restrained or intimidated […] They believe that honesty should be respected, not derided. They see crime and violence as a threat […] They want to be allowed to bring up their children in these beliefs”. Speaking of “they”, she makes herself as a guarantor of the will of the people. “Our aim is to let people feel that they count for more and more. If we cannot trust the deepest instincts of our people, we should not be in politics at all” (ibid.); “trust the instincts of the people” is the typical assumption related to the (populist) general will of the crowd. The concept of the general will is also visible when speaks of a majority of the population or a majority of the electorate.

“A party is about adding up those special interests and making certain that the views of the whole majority, the majority of taxpayers, the majority of consumers, the majority of people in this country on law on order […] So always […] in my policies, we have […] to look at the broad majority interests of the great mass of British people” (Thatcher 1984). It is Mudde’s “will of the people” that Thatcher is referring to, to justify her political action. At the end of her political career, Thatcher (1990) said: “We have given power back to the people on an unprecedented scale. We have given back control to people over their own lives”. She believed she has done what people hoped for, what the general public – “the people” – expected her to do. Verdict: The concept of the general will is coupled with nationalism. The Lady relied on the concept of voters’ majority and idealization of the average elector as justification for her policies as the general will of the public, justifying her practices based on the popular mandate and the citizens’ will.

Polarizing, and Marginally Populist

Margaret Thatcher was a polarizing and controversial figure. Her policies, as well as her political speeches, her attitude, her posture, were loved and hated by the Brits. She is a protagonist of the British politics of the second part of the last century. She was accused of authoritarianism, more than populism: therefore, following Mudde’s theory main elements, the Lady can only be considered marginally populist. Intransigent and tough, she embraced conservatism (thick ideology) since she was a teenager (Campbell 2009); occasionally, during her political career, she coupled it with nationalism (thin ideology): from the Falklands to the negotiations with the EEC. Secondly, she divided the society and the electorate she cultivated from the one she attacked (typical from politicians), but not depicting Mudde’s category of the pure people vs. the corrupt elite.

Lastly, the will of the people she referred to, most of the time was the will of the majority (which voted for her as PM three times). Thatcher – who was more complex than one may think (Fry 1998) – is not conventionally acknowledged as populist; not even, though marginally, in Mudde’s terms. She was an ambiguous character in terms of Mudde’s formulation, but some elements of her discourse partially reflected his guidelines. The closest to the professor’s formulation is the concept of thin-thick ideology (Thatcher coupled conservatism with occasional nationalism, the thin ideology accompanying the thick one); then there is the concept of Manichean division of “us” vs. “them” (though, not in Mudde’s terms of good people vs. corrupt elite), “conservatives” vs. “labourists” (which, however, is typical for every politician).

Thatcher, a true individualist, did not attack the elite because of their being elite or defended “the people” a priori. Mudde’s theory can only be partially applied to Thatcher, who in general and historically is not (considered or) conventionally seen as populist. However, “it is only by embracing a plurality of perspectives and theories […] that we can truly further our field of study” (Mudde 2016, 16); people are complex, and their political activity or personality is hard to be encapsulated in rigorous scientific theories. Margaret Thatcher was not strictly populist in Mudde’s terminology; however, some elements only limitedly fitted her. She might be considered just a little bit populist, therefore surely ambiguous as a character.

*About the author: Amedeo Gasparini, class 1997, freelance journalist and researcher, managing “Blackstar”, MA in “International Relations” (Univerzita Karlova, Prague); BSc in “Science of Communication” (Università della Svizzera Italiana, Lugano); [email protected]


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