The week of her quasi state funeral seems an appropriate time to reflect a little on Margaret Thatcher the politician. My first thoughts are that the cult of the personality is very much alive and kicking here in the UK. The West liked to denounce the former USSR and now the current North Korea for elevating their leaders into almost God like status. Yet the response to Mrs Thatcher was and still is not too dissimilar. For her followers, she could do no wrong and single-handedly reformed the ailing UK economy, and put the Great back into Great Britain. On the other hand for her opponents, she single-handedly wrecked British society and destroyed whole swathes of UK industry and is the begetter of all our ills today. Such agreement is a tad unconvincing. In democracies, political leaders can only achieve so much on their own. The changes that took place in the UK during her period in office came about because her party won three elections in a row and her party and her cabinet supported these changes. When her cabinet no longer supported theses changes, especially the poll tax, they got rid of her, fast. For all her period as Prime Minister, she had an overwhelming majority of MPs in parliament and thus immune to any opposition. She also had the wholehearted support of her party, the powers of the state and the support of most of the media. She didn’t have to force anyone in her government to carry out the changes that have come to be called Thatcherism. Her colleagues all supported them, some of her colleagues were even more radical than she was. The one time she did have to force something through – the poll tax – she lost this support and was unceremoniously chucked out. So much for great leadership!
When it comes to the changes that took place in the 1980s, none of them seem to have been her own brainchild. Her programme relied heavily on the thinking of others in her party, Sir Keith Joseph for example. It is also the case that many of the changes were contemplated by the previous Labour government and some were actually started by Labour – the reforms in education in England and the cut backs in government spending for example. Even with trade union reform the Labour government had led the way. What they failed to do was to carry the reforms through into law. This is where Mrs Thatcher and her government did succeed. The trade unions, in opposing Labour’s reforms, ended up with something much worse. A lesson in the great British art of not compromising! The same is true of the sale of council houses. Labour were contemplating this, but with the proviso that proceeds should go to the local authority to enable them to build replacement social housing. The Tories just sold the houses and pocketed the money. As regards some of the other changes, the privatisation of the state utilities, gas, electricity, telecoms etc, this was at first seen as a good way to raise money for the government without having to raise taxes. It also fitted in with the Tory obsession with private enterprise and their growing hatred of public services.
As regards the outcomes of all these ‘Thatcherite’ changes, it is hard to see anything really positive. Thatcherism was supposed to usher in a new era of entrepreneurial activity that would once again make the UK the strongest economy in the world. Shackling trade unions and reductions in income tax for the wealthy would release unheralded growth in the economy. Very little of this happened. While the economy did grow, the growth was unspectacular. It was also to a large extent bankrolled by the returns from North Sea oil. A gift from God, or perhaps an unwilling gift from us Scots. Certainly nothing to do with Mrs Thatcher. The economy certainly changed considerably in the 198s, with most of our remaining industry disappearing. What remains is now mostly under foreign ownership and management. So much for British entrepreneurial talent. Where the UK remains strong is in its traditional service sectors – advertising, the creative arts and banking. Yes, banking, something that has come back to haunt us a bit. Not that the current travails in the finance sector are the direct responsibility of Mrs Thatcher, but her trust and faith in deregulation and in captains of industry came to mark government policy for a generation or more.
This last point should remind everyone that perhaps the biggest success for Mrs Thatcher and her governments was to change the terms of debate about the economy and the role of government. It became standard wisdom that government was now part of the problem and not the solution. This also led to convulsions in the opposition, especially the Labour party, which changed beyond recognition to become New Labour, more or less another Tory party, just a bit kinder and a bit softer. But just as wedded to the neo-liberal economics of Thatcherism. Which perhaps explains why many in the Labour party are only too happy to fix on Mrs Thatcher as the evil witch who destroyed all that was good in the UK. Much easier than to engage in a bit of self analysis as to how the Labour party, in and out of government, was in part responsible for the rise to power of Mrs Thatcher.