Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Thatcherism and the Idea of Policy Imposition

I was one of many PhD students to do a thesis on the (then) sexy topics of Thatcherism and ‘policy networks’. My first proper academic publication was about Thatcherism (here) and the idea that Conservative governments used a ‘top down’ policy style with no time for arguments within government or consultation with affected interests.  This line may be seen as exaggerated for the following reasons:

1. All ministers or governments only have the time to pay attention to a small number of issues for which they are responsible. So, they may try to impose new policies in some areas but leave most untouched.

2. Ministers delegate responsibility for most policymaking to civil servants, who engage in the sort of consultation that some ministers reject.
The article then shows how this process worked in UK health policy, identifying a top-down internalised process (led by Thatcher) to reform healthcare, followed by a much wider process of policy formulation in the Department of Health under Kenneth Clarke and much greater consultation under his successor William Waldegrave. It suggests that internalisation tends to fail because policymakers need information from (often a wide range of) groups, while policy imposition may only go so far before bruiser-style ministers leave their posts to be replaced by ambassadorial figures who take a more conciliatory approach to the longer process of policy implementation. This is not to say that policy does not change (it often changes radically) but that we should not exaggerate the overall effect of any government. In this regard, the Thatcherite reputation is based partly on a myth that cannot be sustained logically.

By lucky chance (or because I have not changed my views in over a decade), I make a similar argument in more recent articles such as this one, this one, this one and, most recently, this one with Grant Jordan. Some of them are free this month, but please let me know if you want an emailed copy.

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