Forty years ago, Sir Keith Joseph, a leading Conservative politician, began a radical re-think that paved the way for Thatcherism. James Landale examines how an unconventional politician challenged conventional wisdom and changed the course of British politics.
In all the comment after Baroness Thatcher's death, only passing mention was made of Keith Joseph. However, Joseph played a key role in making Thatcherism possible. The defeat of the Heath Government in early 1974 had an especially profound effect on Joseph, who had served in Heath's Cabinet. He came to a startling conclusion: 'it was only in April 1974 that I was converted to Conservatism', he confessed, 'I had thought that I was a Conservative but I now see that I was not really one at all.'
Joseph's radical re-think led him to challenge the economic and political consensus on which British politics had been based for thirty years. Since 1945, British governments had sought to maintain full employment by intervening in the economy, but Joseph rejected this approach. He began a series of major speeches by declaring that, 'This is not the time to be mealy-mouthed: intervention is destroying us.' In September 1974, he argued that inflation was caused by governments themselves.
Joseph was seen as a challenger for the Tory leadership, but after making controversial comments on social deprivation and contraception, he declined to challenge Heath. Instead, Margaret Thatcher stood for the leadership in February 1975 and defeated Heath. She put Joseph in charge of policy. Little more than two years after Joseph had first challenged the old consensus, his ideas for tackling inflation as a priority and accepting the prospect of higher unemployment were becoming mainstream.