Thatcher's legacy in Canada
It feels like only yesterday that I was watching Margaret Thatcher hold forth on her view of politics and society.
Actually, it was just last week. Thatcher, in fact, is a big part of the political-marketing phenomenon that I've been researching and writing about for the past few years (subject of a book due out later this year, and some radio work I've been doing lately.) And on this matter, Thatcher is still influencing how we see politics being carried out in Canada today.
Much is being written today about Thatcher as a woman of strong convictions, iron will, and so on. But another huge part of her legacy was as a pioneer in the realm of political marketing -- shaping herself and her politics into a product according to market research. Thatcher's endeavours on this score actually gave birth to a whole new field in political science, pioneered by Margaret Scammell, a lecturer in media and communications at the London School of Economics. (See image right)
And just last week again, another expert in this field, Jennifer Lees-Marshment, was talking to me about Thatcher's lasting imprint on political marketing -- the ways in which the former British prime minister used her advertising geniuses at Saatchi and Saatchi to develop policies that would expand the conservative base.
"Margaret Thatcher was interesting because she was one of the first leaders to use market research and communication advice to develop a product that would appeal to those citizens who had voted for Labour," Lees-Marshment said. "She’s somebody who is normally seen as a conviction politician... But actually research uncovered that at the beginning of her leadership, she was the opposite. She was very much listening to those who were doing the research, and segmenting the markets into, say for example, people who owned state houses or council houses, and being strategic about developing policies to suit them."
So adept was Thatcher in this realm that she was also called "Maggie the Marketed" and many of her practices have been studied and imitated throughout the United States and Canada -- by yes, people at the very heart of our current Conservative government too.
Back in 1989, in fact, a bright young fellow named Stephen Harper was trying to figure out how to put the fledgling Reform Party on the map and he wrote a "root-and-branch" memo to then-leader Preston Manning. The details of that memo are in Tom Flanagan's 1995 book, Waiting for the Wave, and it's interesting to look back now in retrospect at the tension between Manning and Harper. While Manning was more of a populist, Harper thought that an ideologically conservative coalition could be built in Canada, inspired by -- you guessed it -- Margaret Thatcher. Here's a little excerpt from page 60 of that (excellent, instructive) book.
As an alternative Harper proposed that the Reform Party could and should become a "modern Canadian version of the Thatcher-Reagan phenomenon." It should seek its core supporters in the private-sector middle class of Canada's urban areas, offering these voters a market-oriented ideology.
No surprise, then, that when Harper eventually took over the Conservative party, he had his own crack team of marketing experts, including one Patrick Muttart, studying the Thatcher-Reagan brand of politics and trying to put it to work here. Muttart is long gone from the PMO, but he's still well known as an international expert himself in political marketing, because of how he applied the Thatcher lessons to help Harper win power in 2006.
Have a look at this 2010 article from a British Conservative website known as conservativehome.
So I reached out to Patrick Muttart, former chief of staff (sic *** see note) to Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper. Muttart is perhaps the world’s leading expert on working-class voters in English-speaking countries, having studied their behavior and attitudes not only in Canada but also in Britain, Australia, and America. He has found that in each country, working-class voters may form the base for successful center-left governments but are crucially responsible for the rise of center-right leaders like Harper, Australia’s John Howard, and Margaret Thatcher.
He was kind enough to speak with me at length. He emphasized that working-class voters do not fit neatly on the traditional left-right continuum. They are fiscally conservative, wanting low rates of taxation and wanting government to live within its means, but economically populist, suspicious of trade, outsourcing, and high finance. They are culturally orthodox but morally moderate, in the sense that they don’t feel their lives will change much because of how social issues play out. They are patriotic and supportive of the military, but suspicious of foreign adventures.
In his statement today to mark Thatcher's death, Prime Minister Harper didn't explicitly mention how her marketing approach to politics had influenced him, but make no mistake -- it was arguably as inspirational, if not more so, than her ideology. Margaret Thatcher changed many things in politics in her home country, but thanks to Harper and Muttart and others, her legacy lingers here in Canada too, to this day.
*** Patrick Muttart was never chief of staff to Harper. He was deputy chief of staff.