by Ben Williams
A burgeoning area of political research has focused on how the ideas and practical politics arising from the theories of the ‘New Right’ have had a major impact and legacy not only on a globalised political level, but also in relation to the domestic politics of specific nations. From a British perspective, the New Right’s impact dates from the mid-1970s when Margaret Thatcher became Leader of the Conservative Party (1975), before ascending to the office of Prime Minister in 1979. The New Right essentially rejected the post-war ‘years of consensus’ and advocated a smaller state, lower taxes and greater individual freedoms. On an international dimension, such political developments dovetailed with the emergence of Ronald Reagan as US President, who was elected in late 1980 and formally took office in early 1981. Within this timeframe, there was also associated pro- market, capitalist reforms in countries as diverse as Chile and China. While the ideas of New Right intellectual icons Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman date back to earlier decades of the 20th century and their rejection of central planning and totalitarian rule, until this point in time they had never seen such forceful advocates of their theories in such powerful frontline political roles.
Thatcher and Reagan’s explicit understanding of New Right theory was variable, but they nevertheless successively emerged as two political titans aligned by their committed free-market beliefs and ideology, forming a dominant partnership in world politics throughout the 1980s. Consequently, the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’ that had traditionally incorporated shared cultural values and military and security co-operation, reached new heights amidst a decade very much dominated by New Right ideology. However, as we now look back over forty years on, debate has arisen as to what extent the ideas and values of the New Right are still relevant in the context of more contemporary political events, namely in relation to how the free market can appropriately react to major global crises. This has been notably applied to how various governments have reacted to both the 2007–8 global economic crash and the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic, where significant levels of state intervention have challenged conventional New Right orthodoxies that ‘the free market knows best’.
The New Right’s effect on British politics (1979-97)
In my doctoral research into the evolution of contemporary Conservative Party social policy, the legacy and impact of the New Right on British politics formed a pivotal strand of the thesis, specifically how the UK Conservative Party sought to evolve both its image and policy agenda from the New Right’s free market economic emphasis into a more socially oriented direction.  Yet my research focus began at the tail end of the New Right’s period of hegemony, in the aftermath of the Conservative Party’s most devastating and humiliating electoral defeat for almost 100 years at the 1997 general election.
From this perspective of hindsight that looked back on eighteen years of continuous Conservative rule, the New Right’s influence had ultimately been a source of both rejuvenation and decline in relation to Conservative Party fortunes at different points of the electoral and historical cycle. In a positive sense, in the 1970s it appeared to revitalise the Conservative Party’s prospects while in opposition under the new leadership of Thatcher, and instilled a flurry of innovative, radical and eye-catching policies into its successful 1979 manifesto, which in subsequent years would be described as reflecting ‘popular capitalism’. Such policies would form the basis of the party’s accession to national office and consequent period of hegemonic rule throughout the 1980s in particular. The nature of such party-political hegemony as a conceptual term has been both analysed and explained in terms of its rise and fall by Andrew Gamble among others, who identified various core values that the Conservatives had traditionally stood for, namely ‘the defence of the Union, the defence of the Empire, the defence of the Constitution, and the defence of property’.
However, in a negative sense, by the mid to late 1990s, as Gamble identifies, the party appeared to have lost its way and had entered something of a post-Thatcher identity crisis, with the ideological dynamic instilled by the New Right’s legacy fatally undermining its previously stable equilibrium and eroding the traditional ‘pillars’ of hegemony’ as identified above. While Thatcher’s successor John Major was inclined to a more social as opposed to economic policy emphasis and between 1990-97 sought to distance himself from some of her harsher ideological policy positions, it was perhaps the case that the damage to the party’s electoral prospects had already been done. Not only had the Conservatives defied electoral gravity and won a fourth successive term in office in 1992, but the party’s broader ethos appeared to have become distorted by New Right ideology, and it became increasingly detached from its traditional instincts for pragmatic moderation located at the political centre, and notably its capacity to read the mood with regards the British public’s instinctive tendencies towards social conservatism, as has been argued by Oakeshott in particular. 
Critics also commented that the New Right’s often harsh economic emphasis was out of touch with a more compassionate public opinion that was emerging in wider public polling by the mid-1990s, and which expressed increasing concerns for the condition of core public services. This was specifically evident in documented evidence that between ‘1995-2007 opinion polls identified health care as one of the top issues for voters. The New Right’s focus on retrenchment and the free market was now blamed for creating such negative conditions by some, both within and outside the Conservative Party. Coupled with a steady process of Labour Party moderation over the late 1980s and 1990s, such trends culminated in major and repeated electoral losses inflicted on the Conservative Party between 1997 and 2005 (with an unprecedented three general election defeats in succession and thirteen years out of government).
The shifting spectrum and New Labour
When once asked what her greatest political achievement was, Margaret Thatcher did not highlight her three electoral victories but mischievously responded by pointing to “Tony Blair and New Labour”. It is certainly the case that Blair’s premiership from 1997 onwards was very different from previous Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s, and arguably bore the imprint of Thatcherism far more than any traces of socialist doctrine. This would strongly suggest that the impact and legacy of the New Right went far beyond the end of Conservative rule and continued to wield influence into the new century, despite the Conservative Party being banished from national office.
This was evident by the fact that Blair’s Labour government pledged to “govern as New Labour”, which in practice entailed moderate politics that explicitly rejected past socialist doctrines, and by adhering to the political framework and narrative established during the Thatcher period of New Right hegemony. This included an acceptance of the privatisation of former state-owned industries, tougher restrictions to trade union powers, markedly reduced levels of government spending and direct taxation, and overall, far less state intervention in comparison to the ‘years of consensus’ that existed between approximately 1945-75 (shaped by the crisis experience of World War Two). Most of these policies had been strongly opposed by Labour during the 1980s, but under New Labour they were now pragmatically accepted (for largely electoral and strategic purposes).
Blair and his Chancellor Gordon Brown tinkered around the edges with some progressive social reforms and there were steadily growing levels of tax and spend in his later phase in office, but not on the scale of the past, and the New Right neoliberal ‘settlement’ remained largely intact throughout thirteen years of Labour in office. Indeed, Labour’s truly radical changes were primarily at constitutional level; featuring policies such as devolution, judicial reform (introduction of the Supreme Court), various parliamentary reforms (House of Lords), Freedom of Information legislation, as well as key institutional changes such as Bank of England independence. The nature of this reforming policy agenda could be seen to reflect the reality that following the New Right’s ideological and political victories of the 1980s, New Labour had to look away from welfarism and political economy for its major priorities.
Conservative modernisation (1997 onwards)
Given the electoral success of Tony Blair and New Labour from 1997 onwards, the obvious challenge for the Conservatives was how to respond and readjust to unusual and indeed unprecedented circumstances. Historically referred to as ‘the natural party of government’, being out of power for a long time was a situation the Conservatives were not used to. However, from the late 1990s onwards, party modernisers broadly concluded that it would be a long haul back, and that to return to government the party would have to sacrifice some, and perhaps all, of its increasingly unpopular New Right political baggage. This determinedly realistic mood was strengthened by a second successive landslide defeat to Blair in 2001, and a further—albeit less resounding—defeat in 2005. Key and emerging figures in this ‘modernising’ and ‘progressive’ wing of the party included David Cameron, George Osborne and Theresa May, none of whom had been MPs prior to 1997 (i.e., crucially, they had no explicit connections to the era of New Right hegemony) and all of whom would take on senior governmental roles after 2010.
Such modernisers accepted that the party required a radical overhaul in terms of both image and policy-making, and in global terms were buoyed by the victory of ‘compassionate’ conservative George W. Bush in the US presidential election in late 2000. Consequently, ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ became an increasingly used term among such advocates of a new style of Conservative policy-making (see Norman & Ganesh, 2006). My doctoral thesis analysed in some depth precisely what the post-1997 British Conservative Party did in relation to various policy fronts connected to this ‘compassionate’ theme, most notably initiating a revived interest in the evolution of innovative social policy such as free schools, NHS reform, and the concept of ‘The Big Society’. This was in response to both external criticism and self-reflection that such policy emphasis and focus had been frequently neglected during the party’s eighteen years in office between 1979 and 1997.
Yet the New Right legacy continued to haunt the party’s identity, with many Thatcher loyalists reluctant to let go of it, despite feedback from the likes of party donor Lord Ashcroft (2005) that ‘modernisation’ and acceptance of New Labour’s social liberalism and social policy investment were required if the party was to make electoral progress, while ultimately being willing to move on from the (albeit triumphant) past.
Overview of The New Right and post-2008 events: (1) The global crash (2) austerity (3) Brexit (4) the pandemic
During the past few decades of British and indeed global politics, the New Right’s core principles of the small state and limited government intervention have remained clearly in evidence, with its influence at its peak and most firmly entrenched in various western governments during the 1980s and 90s. However, within the more contemporary era, this legacy has been fundamentally rocked and challenged by two major episodes in particular, namely the economic crash of 2007–8, and more recently the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Both of these crises have featured a fundamental rebuke to the New Right’s established solutions as aligned with the culture of the reduced state, as had been cemented in the psyche of governance and statecraft within both Britain and the USA for several decades.
In the context of the global economic slump, the immediate and instinctive reaction of Brown’s Labour government in Britain and Barack Obama’s Democrat administration in the USA was to focus on a primary role for the state to intervene and stimulate economic recovery, which entailed that large-scale ‘Keynesian’ government activity made a marked comeback as the preferred means of tackling it. While both such politicians were less ideologically wedded to the New Right pedigree (since they were attached to parties traditionally more of the liberal left), this scenario nevertheless marked a significant crossroads for the New Right’s legacy for global politics.
However, once the dust had settled and the economic situation began to stabilise, the post-2010 austerity agenda that emerged in the UK (as a longer-term response to managing the global crash) provided New Right advocates with an opportunistic chance to reassert its former hegemony, given the setback to its influence in the immediate aftermath of 2008. Although Prime Minister David Cameron rejected criticism that austerity marked a reversion to harsh Thatcherite economics, having repeatedly distanced himself from the former Conservative Prime Minister since becoming party leader in 2005, there were certainly similarities in the emphasis on ‘balancing the books’ and reducing the size of government between 2010-15. Cameron argued this was not merely history repeating itself, and sought to distinctively identify himself as a more socially-oriented conservative who embraced an explicit social conscience that differed from the New Right’s primarily economic focus, as evident in his ‘Big Society’ narrative entailing a reduced state and more localised devolution and voluntarism (yet which failed to make his desired impact). Cameron argued that “there was such a thing as society” (unlike Thatcher’s quote from 1987), yet it was “not the same as the state”. 
Following Cameron’s departure as Prime Minister in 2016, the issue that brought him down, Brexit, could also be viewed from the New Right perspective as a desirable attempt to reduce, or ideally remove, the regulatory powers of a European dimension of state intervention, with the often suggested aspiration of post-Brexit Britain becoming a “Singapore-on-Thames” that would attract increased international capital investment due to lower taxes, reduced regulations and streamlined bureaucracy. It was perhaps no coincidence that many of the most ardent supporters of Brexit were also those most loyal to the Thatcher policy legacy that lingered on from the 1980s, representing a clear ideological overlap and inter-connection between domestic and foreign policy issues.
On this premise, the New Right’s influence dating from its most hegemonic decade of the 1980s certainly remained. However, from a UK perspective at least, the Covid-19 pandemic arguably ‘heralded the further relative demise of New Right influence after its sustained period of hegemonic ascendancy’. This is because, in a similar vein to the 2007–8 economic crash, the reflexive response to the global pandemic from Boris Johnson’s Conservative government in the UK and indeed other western states (including the USA), was a primarily a ‘statist’ one. This was evidently the preferred governmental option in terms of tackling major emergencies in the spheres of both the economy and public health, and was perhaps arguably the only logical and practical response available in the context of requiring such co-ordination at both a national and international level, which the free market simply cannot provide to the same extent.
Having said that, during the pandemic there was evidence of some familiar neoliberal ‘public-private partnership’ approaches in the subcontracting-out of (e.g.) mask and PPE production, lateral flow tests, vaccine research and production, testing, or app creation, which suggests Johnson’s administration sought to put some degree of business capacity at the heart of their policy response. Nevertheless, the revived interventionist role for the state will possibly be difficult to reverse once the crisis has subsided, just as was the case in the aftermath of World War Two. Whether this subsequently creates a new variant of state-driven consensus politics (as per the UK 1945-75) remains to be seen, but in the wake of various key political events there is clear evidence that the New Right’s legacy, while never being eradicated, certainly seems to have been diluted as the world progresses into the 2020s. How the post-pandemic era will evolve remains uncertain, and in their policy agendas various national governments will seek to balance both the role of the state and the input of private finance and free market imperatives. The nature of the balance remains a matter of speculation and conjecture until we move into a more certain and stable period, yet it would be foolish to write off the influence of the New Right and its resilient legacy completely.
 Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, (1944)
 Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, (1962)
 Ben Williams, The Evolution of Conservative Party Social Policy, (2015)
 BBC ON THIS DAY | 2 | 1997: Labour routs Tories in historic election (2nd May 1997)
 Andrew Gamble, The Crisis of Conservatism, New Left Review, (I/214, November–December 1995)
 Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct, (1975)
 Rob Baggott, ‘Conservative health policy: change, continuity and policy influence’, cited in Hugh Bochel (ed.), The Conservative Party and Social Policy, (2011), Ch.5, p.77
 Jesse Norman & Janan Ganesh, Compassionate conservatism- What it is, why we need it (2006),
 Ben Williams, Warm words or real change? Examining the evolution of Conservative Party social policy since 1997 (PhD thesis, University of Liverpool), https://livrepository.liverpool.ac.uk/11633/1/WilliamsBen_Apr2013_11633.pdf
 Michael A. Ashcroft, Smell the coffee: A wake-up call for the Conservative Party, (2005)
 Ben Williams, The Big Society: Ten Years On, Political Insight, Volume: 10 issue: 4, page(s) 22-25 (2019)
 Margaret Thatcher, interview with ‘Woman’s Own Magazine’, published 31 October 1987.
Source: Margaret Thatcher Foundation: http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689
 Society and the Conservative Party - BBC News (9th January 2017)
 Ben Williams, Brexit: The Links Between Domestic and Foreign Policy, Political Insight,
Volume: 9 issue: 2, page(s): 36-39 (2018)
 Ben Williams, The ‘New Right’ and its legacy for British conservatism, Journal of Political Ideologies, (2021)