Look back in anger?
It is 25 years since Mrs Thatcher1 was driven out of Downing Street at the end of one of the most significant and controversial premierships in British political history. Does the passing of time make an assessment of her legacy any easier? And could history be repeating itself?
Ivo Clifton, Head of Charities and Specialist Business, Rathbones
Is it possible to write about Margaret Thatcher’s legacy without being political? A quarter of a century after she left office, unable to suppress her tears as she was swept from Downing Street following 11 years in power, all that she achieved — or, as some might see it, all that she wrought — still splits opinion with undiminished intensity.
Twenty-five years on, it should be possible to be balanced, finding a middle ground between hagiography and hatred. These extremes are a little clichéd after so many years.
Of course, many will never alter their opinions, regardless of which side they represent — Mrs Thatcher always aroused strong feelings. But it may be instructive to view things through a slightly different prism; and interesting to acknowledge parallels in the politics of today.
Any consideration of life after Mrs Thatcher must inevitably be preceded by consideration of life before Mrs Thatcher. It is sometimes easy to underemphasise quite what a mess Britain was in when she became our first female Prime Minister on 4 May 1979.
The Labour government of Harold Wilson and, following Wilson’s resignation in 1976, James Callaghan was by any standard crisis-prone. Britain was forced to negotiate a loan from the International Monetary Fund in 1976. Inflation was rampant. The top rate of tax was 83% and the basic rate 33%. Union-led strikes ushered in the Winter of Discontent of 1978-79.
This disarray is recalled well enough, but what we tend to forget are the strange and dysfunctional minutiae of everyday existence; and perhaps the reason we forget them is that many now appear almost unthinkable. Using the oft-quoted opening line from LP Hartley’s The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
Your telephone, for example, was not your own. It belonged to the Post Office. In many homes it would be screwed to the wall. Anyone who dared contemplate even the addition of an extension lead should prepare for a descent into the Kafka-esque world of state bureaucracy and a six-week wait for an engineer.
Such was the belief in monopolisation that the government served not just as the de facto overseer of water, gas and electricity supplies but as the provider of the nation’s only answer-machine service.
Although mundane, these examples still conform to the standard narrative that Mrs Thatcher hated nationalised industries, opposing the very essence of state control. That may be true, but it is reductive and only likely to reinforce the polemic about her.
Nationalised industries weren’t the only reason that Britain was the sick man of Europe. Indeed, Britain was still a world leader in many technologies, which benefited from nurturing and investment from the state — Concorde, which came to epitomise glamour in the 1980s, was just one example of what British (and, grudgingly, French) technology could achieve.
Mrs Thatcher was opposed to the inefficiency of monopoly, where the absence of competition (in the guise of market forces) tended to make management complacent and workers greedy. Under monopolistic conditions, it was near impossible to drive innovation or resist union pay demands backed up by the threat of crippling strikes. The taxpayer paid the bill and the customer paid the price in poor service.
Yet poor quality management and uninspired workers weren’t solely the preserve of state monopolies or nationalised industries. Private sector industry was in decline burdened by a dependence on family ownership and non-meritocratic public school management, and an inability to see that the world was changing. It was such cosy complacency that Mrs Thatcher hated.
Britain was broke, broken and backward: it was ripe for change.
Mrs Thatcher’s gender, at the time still a novelty in the loftiest political strata, was a key element of her early career progress and arguably even saved her from the sack during her troubled reign as the “milk-snatcher” Education Secretary under Edward Heath, whose aversion to her was well known. As she remarked in her memoirs: “There was no-one else.”
When Heath fell in February 1975, his standing irreparably undermined by bruising clashes with the miners and the three-day week, Mrs Thatcher was put forward as a stalking horse because her promoters believed that, as a woman, she simply could not win.
Political columnist Simon Jenkins, in reflecting on her death in April 2013, described her as “an unclubbable outsider”. Even the Margaret Thatcher Foundation’s official biography notes that victory would prove “to her own surprise”. Yet win she did; and four years and three months later, when the country went to the polls amid double-digit inflation and further industrial action, she won again.
The fundamental task that Mrs Thatcher set herself upon assuming office was not rooted in some sort of personal whim. It was instead entrenched in unavoidable reality. Britain’s long-term economic decline had to be reversed.
Mrs Thatcher had long been an admirer of economist Friedrich von Hayek, who regarded economic intervention by government as a precursor to an authoritarian state. Having read pamphlets produced by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) think tank since the 1960s, she went to lunches there after becoming party leader. The IEA advocated less government, lower taxes and greater freedom for businesses and consumers.
Heath had also espoused free market economics, but on becoming prime minister faced such hostile economic conditions that he was forced to adopt Keynesian policies. When unemployment rose through one million in January 1972, Heath’s government responded with two Budgets designed to prime the economy. Unemployment fell in the subsequent ‘Barber boom’, but Heath had lost the economic initiative. Mrs Thatcher would not make the same mistake, seeing that lack of conviction and weak leadership never ended well.
That she managed to reverse Britain’s economic decline is beyond contention. However, opinion remains bitterly divided as to the cost at which this was achieved — a cost measured not in a purely economic sense but in terms of the broader impact on industries, sectors, organisations and, most emotively, communities.
Her successes can be summarised easily enough.
The economy was revived. Outdated institutions were reformed. A pervasive psychology of degeneration and debility was overturned. Britain headed into the 1990s with its reputation hugely enhanced, subsequently enjoying a boom that stretched from 1992 to 2008.
Yet many of the aspirations voiced in her memorable maiden speech as Prime Minister — “Where there is discord may we bring harmony; where there is despair may we bring hope” — went unfulfilled. The notion of “creative destruction”, as posited in 1942 by Joseph Schumpeter in his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, could be seen in full effect during the Thatcher years.
Her faith in the invisible, self-correcting hand of market forces lent itself to a Darwinian fight for survival for some industries. The climate was “efficient” but unforgiving. The result, her critics maintain, was the onset of unchecked inequality, a colossal and continuing transfer of wealth from poor to rich and a culture of greed-driven individualism.
Mrs Thatcher’s deeds were uncharacterised by sympathy. She offered precious little of it and expected none whatsoever in return. Political columnist Hugo Young observed how she gradually “became harder than hard” and developed a “severity of will” that in the age of spin that followed would be almost unconscionable: “I think by far her greatest virtue,” wrote Young in 2013, “is how little she cared if people liked her.”
Her famous remark “there’s no such thing as society” was used to demonstrate her callous approach, even though those that cited it had misunderstood her. The full comment was: “I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” This is the real point about Mrs Thatcher. She understood that for someone to get state support, someone else had to pay for it.
To some extent, the country she reshaped took on her beliefs. There emerged what Young lamented as “a mood of tolerated harshness”. Materialism inexorably became part of the nation’s collective consciousness. Harry Enfield’s cash-waving Loadsamoney was conceived as a satirical caricature and became a misconstrued hero: conspicuous wealth was not only desired but openly idolised.
It may be, though, that Mrs Thatcher’s apparent indifference to sentiment is vital to any attempt to assess both what she did and what she left behind. At Oxford she studied chemistry and there was something unmistakably scientific — something innately dispassionate — about her approach to policymaking.
Those who suffered most grievously from the effects of her reforms would find it hard to accept that she acted with detached impartiality. The residents of former mining villages could hardly be expected to see that their treatment was fundamentally comparable to that of merchant bankers. Yet there is an argument for believing she applied much the same heuristic — to employ a suitably methodological term — to an extraordinarily diverse range of targets.
Consider the Big Bang of October 1986, when the deregulation of financial markets revolutionised the City, and the crushing of the miners’ strike in 1985, when the government defeated Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers and pushed ahead with legislation to restrict trade union rights. Both the Square Mile and the coal industry were effectively closed shops; in Mrs Thatcher’s eyes, stockbrokers and union firebrands alike represented vested interests and enduring concentrations of power; and in both instances she ensured that centuries-old traditions and cosy certainties were duly swept aside in the name of progress.
Ultimately, she was determined to break up elites wherever she found them, seeing them as opposed to the interests of the general public. If middle ground is to be found, this may be it. The lingering controversy, of course, is that the outcome of this putative even-handedness was itself far from equitable: prosperity for some and poverty for others. The underpinning ideology — free markets and the profit motive — was astonishingly consistent; but the fates of those involved, as has been well documented, were anything but.
The photograph of Mrs Thatcher in the rear of her government limousine became the defining image of the Iron Lady’s departure from Downing Street on 28 November 1990. It encapsulated in a single snapshot the end of an era, the point at which one of the most significant yet divisive prime ministers reached an unexpectedly lachrymose climax.
That one frame also encapsulated much of her legacy. As was customary at the time, the limousine was a Daimler. When Mrs Thatcher came to power Daimler was part of Jaguar, which in turn was part of British Leyland — a sprawling, recently-nationalised company so indelibly associated with walk-outs and poor productivity that Basil Fawlty proposed the British Leyland Concerto, “in four movements, all of them slow, with a four-hour tea-break in between”.
In 1984, with the fervour for privatisation escalating, Jaguar regained its independence through a public sale of shares and has since gone from strength to strength, albeit under the ownership of Ford from 1989 and Tata Motors since 2008. It is now a global brand and market leader – in short, the embodiment of everything that the chaotic and militant British Leyland was not.
Supporters would assert that this captures perfectly the lasting positive effects of Mrs Thatcher’s policies; her opponents would no doubt protest otherwise, highlighting the collapse of companies, industries and communities that fared less well during her period of office. Crucially, both would have a case. There can be no dispute that there were winners and losers. We can measure progress and success in all sorts of ways — economic growth, global standing, influence on other countries, the value of our investment portfolios, even the convenience of owning our telephones — but the conclusions we reach will be clouded by the very subjectivity to which Mrs Thatcher herself appeared immune.
Easier to agree on is the fact that her advent represented one of those occasional tipping points at which society necessarily reconnects with politics. Country and party were in dire need of something different; salvation arrived in the improbable form of a would-be leader disliked not only by opponents but by many colleagues; and the “unclubbable outsider” went on to transform every aspect of British politics to such a degree that the repercussions were felt — and continue to be felt — far beyond these shores.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Earlier in 2015 all three major political parties were led into the General Election by men who, as teenagers in the 1980s, qualified as “Thatcher’s children”. Now Labour has a leader whose ascent began with a tokenistic fudge and whose chances of triumphing were initially seen as minimal; who is unshaking in his convictions, prepared to say things that are unpopular or considered ridiculous by his party elite but resonate with ordinary people; who invokes, deliberately or otherwise, the politics of class conflict; who is prepared to shift economic policy outside the mainstream; and who represents, above all, a break from the immediate and injurious past.
Could it be that Mrs Thatcher, eternal doyenne of the right, might serve as an inspiration and role model for Jeremy Corbyn, old-school champion of the left? Maybe not. But in a quote traditionally attributed to Mark Twain: “History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
(1. At the time of her death, Margaret Thatcher’s full title was The Right Honourable The Baroness Thatcher LG OM FRS — for convenience, we use her parliamentary ‘career name’.)
This article first appeared in Rathbones Review, Winter 2015 edition.