A quest for the ‘Iron Lady’.
Lady Thatcher is dead but not – at least metaphorically – buried, still demonised by the hard left left, still lionized by the hard right, still a source of great political and economic controversy. This generation is confronted by very different problems: the straitjacket of prolonged austerity, the lack of accountability in corporate power, the over-dominance of finance, a grossly unjust system of remuneration and the destruction of the public realm.
I say genuinely and forcefully that it is to Lady Thatcher’s credit that she has shown that we should not be daunted by problems of that scale and magnitude, but should tackle them head-on and overcome them with the same flame of conviction and resolution that remains her greatest memorial. [Michael Meacher (Oldham West and Royton, Labour) April 11th, 2013 ]
Stewart Morris in his essay Did Thatcher Governments Change Britain? states that the Thatcher governments – broadly threefold aims – were to: restore the political fortunes of the Conservative Party, revive market liberalism and create a free economy. Aims to be pursued by limiting the scope of the state, changing individual policies and the climate of ideas in which such policies could be pursued – shifting the parameters of the ‘consensus’ itself – an hegemony of ideology and policy, requiring radical reform.
Dissent within the party was punished and increasingly so in Parliament, which – itself – became a charade with little supervisory power over the executive. Even Cabinet government under Thatcher declined, substantive issues were decided by Thatcher in consultation with a few key ministers and advisers. It seems that Thatcher’s brand of ‘strong leadership’ is now crucial to success in British politics. Whether this change in style has caused a substantial change in Britain generally is highly questionable.
Many comparative studies suggest that productivity over the whole post-war period grew fastest not in those countries with unrestrained free markets, but in those with high quality state education and other infrastructure initiatives, and state-led investment and product-development policies for targeted industrial sectors. Over the whole cycle of 1979-88, the increase in productivity growth was unremarkable compared to previous decades; the spurt from 1986 merely compensated for the earlier slowdown.
Privatisation did not form a substantial plank of the Conservative policy agenda in 1979. Ideologically, privatisation produces an extension of economic freedom and in the neo-liberal view thereby increases political freedom. Deliberately pricing shares low creates millions of new share owners making renationalisation virtually impossible.
Lord Stockton claimed that the ‘family silver’ was “sold to the few family members who could afford it”; in effect, due to these deliberate undervaluation, nearly half of it was given away for free. Arguably its most important impact was electoral. The substantial proceeds of privatisation increased the funds available for government tax cuts, helping to fuel the ‘Lawson boom’ and improving the Conservatives’ prospects in the 1987 General Election.
It is also doubtful whether or not it improved the efficiency of either the remaining public sector or the newly privatised industries, and in many cases private monopolies (or effective monopolies) simply replaced public ones.
High levels of unemployment were seen as unfortunate, but essentially tolerable provided the economy was otherwise successful. Some estimates claim that in 1987, 8 million people were below the poverty line – the fact that the government had no consistent policy for correcting this was not seen by Conservative voters to be a great enough concern to prevent them from supporting Thatcher.
Legislation on industrial relations and a radical privatisation policy have created an almost irreversible shift in the relationship between the state and industry. This was, critically, with voters, and in tune with long-term trends in Britain and abroad. However, the level of change was meagre compared to Thatcher’s own ambitions.
There were major institutional reorganisation, emphasising self-management, in schools and hospitals, however, the old Tory network of the military, public schools, law, the City and landed interest was left much stronger by these apparently radical Conservative governments.
Strong public support for the welfare state, especially the ‘middle class sacred cows’ of the NHS, tax relief on mortgage interest and maintenance grants for students, prevented any wide-ranging reforms in this crucial area.
Taxation and spending at the end of 1989 were not significantly below the 1979 levels. Social security increased in absolute terms, real terms and (for most of the period) as a proportion of GNP. This was a direct result of arguably the most visible change of all during the Thatcher years, the unintentional rise in unemployment.
The inconsistency of Thatcherite ideology and their mistaken belief in a purely top-down approach to government ensured that according to their own criteria for success, especially in those areas where they faced popular opposition, the Thatcher governments were always destined to fail. [Stewart Morris – Did Thatcher Governments Change Britain?]
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