Can Britain's Conservatives Escape Thatcher's Legacy?

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Darren Staples / Reuters

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron delivers his keynote speech at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, central England October 6, 2010.

"You can't put the Baroness in the toilet," a flustered Conservative party activist told her paint-spattered colleague. The equable Baroness Wilcox, a minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, seemed perfectly prepared to devote an hour to decorating a toilet block, but was quickly assigned another job: giving skirting boards and an internal window frame a second coat of brown gloss. Upstairs, a brace of Tory MPs ripped up floor tiles and laid new carpet.

Britain's Conservatives are keen to emphasize their commitment to improving opportunities for poor and marginalized communities, and social action projects such as the refurbishment of a dilapidated building in a hardscrabble suburb of Birmingham — Britain's second-largest conurbation — give party members the opportunity to translate rhetoric into action. During the party's four-day annual conference in the city, delegates got down and dirty in a concerted effort to transform the building into a community center that will be the base for five local women's groups. The Baroness was just one in a parade of Tory top brass, up to and including Prime Minister David Cameron, to make a contribution.

It has taken more than a lick of paint and a program of social action to begin to refurbish the party's reputation. Margaret Thatcher endowed the Conservatives with three election victories and a legacy of ill will. In an oft-quoted interview, the Iron Lady once insisted that Britons had come to expect too much from the state and to place too much blame for any problems on society. "There is no such thing as society," she declared. Cameron, the first Conservative premier since 1997, has devoted his time in opposition to recalibrating that message. "There is such a thing as society," he likes to say. "It's just not the same thing as the state."

Under Cameron's stewardship, the party during last May's election campaign promoted a big idea for a humane alternative to Thatcherism and to Labour's Big Government: the Big Society. This envisages fostering a culture of volunteerism that would see people painting toilet blocks and skirting boards in community centers they established, or even setting up parent-led schools and running some local services. "We know instinctively that the state is often too inhuman, monolithic and clumsy to tackle our deepest social problems. We know that the best ideas come from the ground up, not the top down," said Cameron after the election, when he relaunched the Big Society as an aspiration of his government, alongside his new coalition partner Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

Coalition with the cuddly, caring Lib Dems — the price of the Conservatives' failure to win an outright majority — might have been expected to remove the final traces of Thatcherite detritus from the Tory image as swiftly as an enthusiastic MP with a power stripper can clean a wall. But the Conservatives gathered in Birmingham amid intimations that any hard-won improvements to their image could be destroyed within weeks. One poll revealed that 57% of respondents saw the Big Society as an excuse for the government to save money by cutting back on public services.

That suspicion was always going to be hard to allay as the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne prepares to unveil on Oct. 20 the government's package of cuts to public expenditure to reduce Britain's £109 billion ($175 billion) structural deficit — "the borrowing that doesn't go away as the economy grows," as Osborne explained to delegates. But the chancellor's speech to conference, in front of a new-minted slogan with resonances of wartime spirit, "Together in the National Interest", intensified fears that the coming austerity measures would be as bruising as anything Thatcher dreamed up.

Osborne announced he had good and bad news to impart: "The good news is that we are in government after 13 years of a disastrous Labour administration that brought our country to the brink of bankruptcy. The bad news? We are in government after 13 years of a disastrous Labour administration that brought our country to the brink of bankruptcy." He revealed plans to reform Britain's welfare system by capping the amount of benefits any family can claim and by withdrawing universal entitlement to a subsidy for children from anyone earning over £44,000 ($70,000). Whilst the first reform is likely to impact on poorer families, the second targets the more affluent voters who form the Tories' core supporters.

Osborne had barely finished speaking before outraged constituents bombarded their MPs with complaints. The British media fulminated, and none more so than the Conservatives' habitual cheerleaders. The cuts represent "the most brutal option," opined the Daily Telegraph. "Well that's the Daily Mail [support] lost," said Mail columnist and former Conservative party press supremo Amanda Platell as she rubbed shoulders with Cameron and Osborne at a private party. Both men declined the Champagne on offer, as they had instructed their colleagues to do. If the Tory leadership cannot alleviate the public's pain, it's determined to be seen to share it. "It's fair that those with broader shoulders should bear a greater load," said Cameron in his conference speech. A father of three (his eldest son died last year), he stands to lose the chunk of child benefit that his own family receives. The well-heeled premier can cope, but the loss of political capital may trouble him.