‘Everyman a capitalist?’ or ‘Free to Choose’? Exploring the tensions within Thatcherite individualism

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It is widely recognised that ‘the individual’ was prioritised by the Thatcher governments. However there has been little analysis by historians of exactly how the Thatcher government conceptualised ‘the individual’. In this paper we attempt to remedy this deficiency by undertaking a case study of a key Thatcherite social policy reform: the introduction of ‘Personal Pensions’. This approach allows us to understand the position of ‘the individual’ on the functional level of Thatcherite policymaking. In doing so we argue that there was no coherent or fixed Thatcherite concept of the individual. Instead we identify three fundamental tensions: (i) should individuals be capitalists or consumers; (ii) were they rational or irrational; and (iii) should they be risk-taking entrepreneurs or prudent savers? These tensions themselves reflected, in part, conflicts within the diverse tapestry of post-war neoliberal thought. Ultimately we demonstrate that the ideal of creating a society of entrepreneurial investor capitalists was discarded when faced with practical constraints, and that this cemented the Thatcherite preference for giving individuals the freedom to choose within a competitive market.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)477-501
Number of pages25
JournalHistorical Journal
Issue number2
Early online date10 Aug 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2018
EventThatcher Network inaugural conference: Thatcher and Thatcherism: New Critical Perspectives - University of Durham, Durham, United Kingdom
Duration: 19 Jan 201720 Jan 2017


  • Neoliberalism
  • Pensions policy
  • Conservative party
  • Thatcherism


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