Britain Politics

Is Johnsonism a thing – and, if so, will it mark a significant departure from Thatcherism?

Adapted for Etonomics

Ever since Boris Johnson’s election in December 2019, the term ‘Johnsonism’ has appeared more and more in the media. The term suggests that Johnson’s views and beliefs can be collated into a coherent ideology in the same manner as those of Margret Thatcher (Thatcherism) and Tony Blair (Blairism). Johnson has broadly pursued moderately centrist economic policies alongside more right-wing stances on immigration and law and order. However, his views are often contradictory and lack any clear uniting set of beliefs, unlike Thatcher, whose views clearly revolved around a belief in free markets and the small state. In many ways, Johnson’s views seem to mark a significant departure from Thatcherism, particularly regarding the economy and social issues. However, his views in foreign policy, taxation, and law and order do seem at least similar to Thatcher’s. Thus, while his policies and views represent a significant departure from Thatcher’s in most (although not all) key areas, they are not sufficiently coherent to merit the label ‘Johnsonism’.

Johnson has, broadly, pursued a centrist economic policy that bears little resemblance to the privatisation and scaling back of public spending found in Thatcherism. For example, in response to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on companies and the economy, Johnson set up the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (better known as the Furlough scheme). This involved the government taking on the cost of 80% of the pay of workers placed on leave by their employers, with a projected final cost of £60 billion. Perhaps an even better indicator of Johnson’s willingness to implement significant public spending programmes than his coronavirus policies are those he set out before the exceptional circumstances of Covid; In the run up to the 2019 election, Johnson announced plans to increase funding for English schools by £7.1 billion by 2023 and for the NHS of £34 billion by 2024. While the 2019 conservative manifesto did contain commitments to balance the budget by not borrowing to fund day-to-day spending, Johnson’s large public spending program shows a significant departure from the fiscally-responsible, small state ideals of Thatcherism.

The same can be said of Johnson’s approach to nationalisation: not only has the Prime Minister described the National Health Service as a “simple and beautiful idea”, but in January 2020 (before the economic effects of the coronavirus had taken hold) he promised to nationalise the failing Northern Rail service and to give the regional airline Flybe a £106 million rescue loan . Given Thatcherism’s commitment to the free market and privatisation, this again suggests that Johnson’s policies are a significant departure from Thatcher’s economically.

Yet these pledges are less ideologically driven than pragmatic. For example, Johnson’s rescue of Flybe is part of his commitment to the regions, who were instrumental in bringing Johnson his 80 seat majority in the House of Commons; the airline was a vital piece of regional infrastructure and its loss would have been and now is incredibly detrimental those areas. Johnson’s spending promises for public services were also, according to Rachel Wolf, who co-authored the 2019 conservative election manifesto, aimed at voters who subscribed to conservative values but also relied heavily on public services, who were in the end key to Johnson’s northern gains in the election. Thus, not only are Johnson’s views and policies a significant departure from Thatcherism, but they also seem far less ideological than pragmatic, aiming to appeal to the voters that arguably won his majority.

Johnson’s tax policies, however, are much closer to Thatcherism than the rest of his policies, although they too have largely been guided by pragmatism. For example, Boris Johnson promised in his leadership campaign to implement an £8 billion income tax cut for medium earners by raising the 40p tax rate threshold from £50,000 to £80,000. This policy was much more consistent with Thatcherism which generally advocates lowering taxes, such as when Margret Thatcher reduced the top rate of income tax from 83p to 40p. In the election, Johnson also promised a so-called ‘triple lock’ on income tax, VAT, and national insurance. While not a tax cut, the pledge still shows Johnson’s general commitment to not raising tax, a view very much in line with Thatcherite economics. In fact, Johnson seems more Thatcherite in his tax beliefs than he cares to admit, with the £8 billion income tax cut being left out of the 2019 manifesto for in an attempt to doge criticisms that he was prioritising the rich rather than those less well off. This suggests that Boris Johnson’s views are more Thatcherite than they appear, but again highlights the pragmatism behind Johnson’s policies, as opposed to the more coherent ideological consistency that would be required for the existence of Johnsonism.

Yet, unlike his tax policies, the social policies and views put forward by Johnson starkly contrast with the socially conservative views of Thatcherism. For example, in 2003 Johnson voted to repeal Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988). Section 28 had been passed into law under Thatcher herself and stated that local authorities should not “intentionally promote homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. This is particularly revealing as the vote was not whipped by the Conservative party and a majority of conservative MPs had abstained, suggesting a level of ideological belief rather than pragmatism. Johnson was also one of the first senior conservative MPs to support the legalisation of same sex marriage in 2010, and mentioned LGTBQ issues specifically in his first address in front of Number 10 Downing Street. He also told the national LGTB+ Conservatives organisation that he would “champion LGBT+ equality” and “get tough on hate crime”. All of these actions show that Johnson is clearly socially liberal and in favour of promoting LGBTQ rights, something that contrasts sharply with Thatcherism’s strong emphasis on traditional values and social. Indeed, Johnson’s social views do seem far more coherent and consistent than his economic ones.

However, the views put forward by Johnston on foreign policy are closer to Thatcherism than many of his others. For example, the British exit from the European Union (Brexit) has dominated Johnston policy agenda since the 2016 referendum. His support for Brexit, particularly in the referendum with his use of the slogan “take back control”, does somewhat align itself with Thatcher’s own desire to protect British national sovereignty against the growth of the European Economic Community (EEC) as it was during her premiership. Indeed, the third volume of Thatcher’s authorised biography by Charles Moore suggests that on multiple occasions Thatcher suggesting that the UK should leave the European union. Thatcherite foreign policy also includes the concept on Atlanticism: the belief in a close relationship between western Europe and the US. Boris Johnson’s policies seem to reflect this also, as seen in his close personal relationship with the American President, Donald Trump, who referred to Johnson as “Britain Trump”. Johnson has also championed the importance of a US-UK trade deal after Brexit, implying a shift towards America and away from Europe in UK foreign policy given the great difference in regulations between the two which would result in a US trade deal inevitably making an EU one much more difficult. Johnson also expressed support for a “Trump deal” to replace to Iranian nuclear deal, even while officially committing to uphold the original. This again suggests Johnson’s pursuit of a pro-American foreign policy somewhat similar to that pursued by Thatcher with Ronald Reagan, suggesting that in foreign policy Johnson’s policies do not mark a significant departure from Thatcherism.

Johnson’s policies on law and order have been much more consistent, coherent, and Thatcherite than all of his others. For example, in his election manifesto in 2019, Johnson promised to make it easier for the police to use their controversial stop and search powers on those convicted of knife crime using a new court order. Similarly, the manifesto promised that those charged with knife possession offences would appear between magistrates “within days not weeks”. Both of these pledges demonstrate Johnson’s commitment to being tougher on knife crime, and are very closely aligned to the Thatcherite belief in being tough on crime and increasing the powers of the police. In the same manifesto, Johnson also promised to increase the number of police officers by 20,000, a pledge which later became one of Johnson’s six ‘guarantees’. Not only does this pledge demonstrate again Johnson’s more Thatcherite stance on law and order but, together his other law and order policies, it suggests a much more coherent ideological stance in this area, although as law and order and foreign policy are the only areas with real consistency, it is still not enough to suggest the existence of Johnsonism as a distinct ideology.

In conclusion, while Boris Johnston’s views and polices show little significant departure from Thatcherism in law and order or foreign policy, they show very significant differences in most of his economic and social policy. Thus, Johnson’s beliefs can only be said to mark a partial departure from Thatcherism. Also, given the lack of a set of uniting, coherent political philosophies in his views and the dominance of pragmatism in determining individual policies, it cannot be said that Johnsonism, as a distinct ideology, exists.

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