Remaking the Individual in Thatcher’s Britain: A Cultural or Economic Project?

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Differing accounts of Thatcherism’s attempt to reshape ‘the individual’ reflect a wider split between those who see Thatcherism as a project of political economy and those who see it as a project of cultural change. Indeed, even amongst scholars who agree that Thatcher’s governments were local expressions of ‘neoliberalism’ two traditions have emerged that rarely interact. On the one hand, historians of ideas have traced Thatcherite thinking about the individual, primarily from the perspective of political economy. Recent contributions to this literature highlight the different conceptions of the individual within neoliberalism and understand Thatcherism as a selection of those that best fitted the British or Conservative party context. Alternatively, the Foucauldian tradition associates Thatcherism with a broader cultural phenomenon: the emergence of a ‘neoliberal governmentality’. From this perspective, Thatcherism and neoliberalism were processes of subjectification, whereby the individual was constructed according to specific behavioural norms.

This paper claims that we should both integrate this scholarship and expose the dynamic interaction between culture and economics that defined Thatcherism. Taking a major policy reform, personal pensions, it shows that attempts to remake the individual as rational, independent, and risk-taking informed even the minutiae of political economy. Yet, as the policy process unfolded this ideal individual’s characteristics clashed with each other and with other aspects of macro-economics. The result was a policy that only reflected its starting cultural ideal in an incomplete and distorted form. Therefore, whilst the case of personal pensions represents an archetypal attempt to change culture using economic/social policy, the precise group of values which the policy sought to encourage was different from that which had originally inspired it. Thus, Thatcherism’s hallmark was not only that it collapsed the economy-culture binary, but that it allowed cultural and economic considerations to interact with and change each other throughout the policy-making process.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 13 Sep 2017
EventContemporary British History Now - King's College London, London, United Kingdom
Duration: 13 Sep 2017 → …


ConferenceContemporary British History Now
CountryUnited Kingdom
Period13/09/17 → …
Internet address

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