This isn’t a post about what I think about Margaret Thatcher, beyond my amazement at the body politic and their inability to make appropriate decisions related to the telecoms, media and technology sectors. It has never been that much of interest to me and viewed it with a lot of my cynicism fueled by legislation like part V of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 or the Digital Economy Act 2010.
I cited those two acts in particular, as they are empirical evidence that stupidity doesn’t run along party lines. I’ve also met some really smart politically active people who I am happy to consider my friends including Nick Osborne and Will Heald.
Instead this post is more about trying to make sense of what happened after Margaret Thatcher died and try and contextualise it for the wider world.
On the pro-Margaret Thatcher side of things the narrative is relatively easy. Mrs Thatcher was responsible for clearly differentiating against the Labour Party. The Conservatives came to power with a raft of ideas that they thought would reinvigorate the UK; socially and economically. Under Mrs Thatcher, the government took on and won conflicts against strong interest groups including the trade union movement – which has never recovered.
The Margaret Thatcher administration was considered to have played a strong game abroad; from the Falklands Islands to negotiating with the European Community. She is also lauded as being a partner to Ronald Reagan on foreign policy.
Mrs Thatcher is not President Reagan
Whilst many American media saw an analogue between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher; I think that a closer comparison would be Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson became president at a troubled time. The politics of Thatcher and Johnson were very different but some of the factors of their administrations were very similar. America was going through economic and social change. His part in that change, in particular the civil rights movement divided voters – Johnson took decisions that were unpopular and sowed the seeds of the current bipartisanship in the US government.
Margaret Thatcher faced similar troubled times in the UK:
- UK industry was struggling – UK industry had suffered decades of chronic underinvestment and poor stakeholder relationships. It no longer had many of the advantages of its first mover status in the industrial age. In addition, the rebuild of mainland Europe after the war and US foreign policy towards the British Empire had accelerated the UK’s decline due to a lack of captive markets and increasing competition. Globalisation had come on stream as Korean shipyards, Japanese consumer goods and cheap Indian textiles demolished industry in the North of England. The interesting thing was that lots of foreign-run businesses in the UK were doing much better than their British counterparts so it couldn’t have been all about the workers
- It is hard for anyone under the age of 25 to imagine it, but the Cold War promised imminent destruction which changed the relationship between western and eastern Europe. Deployment of US nuclear weapons on UK soil was emotive
- Society generally wasn’t as liberal as it is now, being PC didn’t happen. Discrimination was rampant as the UK hadn’t addressed the changing racial and ethic mix of the country from descendants of the Windrush immigrants, the Irish and the South Asian immigrant communities. Enoch Powell had made his famous rivers of blood speech a few years before. Society wasn’t as accepting of the LGBT elements of the community
- Foreign policy had to deal with a diminished role for the UK in the world. From trying to manage that the UK was outmaneuvered on Hong Kong by China to the unequal partnership with the US
The conflict points
- Monetary policy to reduce inflation – this drove up interest rates and sent many UK manufacturing businesses to the wall. A good deal of this was because Margaret Thatcher rejected Keynesian economics. Since the North of England was dependent on these businesses an economic gulf opened up between the South East and the rest of the country. Subsequent economic progress widened the gap further
- Miners Strike – Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet sought to go head-to-head with the NUM which had brought down the Heath administration. Admittedly, the miners weren’t helped by Arthur Scargill’s leadership
- Privatisation – took assets out of state control. It is controversial every time there is a train crash or electricity price hike as it allowed strategic assets to be owned by foreign companies the debate wages on about appropriate returns and a lack of investment
- The big bang – deregulated banking and fueled further growth in the city. Along with the move to home ownership, new-fangled financial instruments created the conditions of the current economic crisis. The lack of a portfolio of industries in the UK economy meant the the country took a harder hit than other European countries with a similar balance sheet
- Poll tax – the community charge or poll tax was a replacement for the property rates which used to fund council services. Since it was a flat charge on the individual it had been considered as far back as 1981 and viewed in a Green Paper to be unfair. It was eventually implemented first in Scotland and then in England and Wales in 1990. Riots ensued as the tax was considered to be unfair by many
- Northern Ireland – the Margaret Thatcher administration had reasons to be disliked by both sides. Republicans due to the way in which the Thatcher administration handled the Hunger Strikes in the Maze prison and the shoot-to-kill policy; Unionists due to the Anglo-Irish agreement that gave the Irish government a say in Northern Ireland’s affairs
All of this has made the Conservatives almost unelectable in many parts of the UK; Scotland only has one Conservative MP. This is closer to the Lyndon B. Johnson analogy for Margaret Thatcher echoing Lyndon B. Johnson’s comments about losing the South for generations when he legislated on equal rights.
Under-discussed aspects of the Thatcher administration
- The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was allowed to shape and direct day-to-day policy on drug use which was at odds with Mrs Thatcher’s conviction (rather than evidence)-based approach to policy
- Launching campaigns promoting safe sex and the dangers of AIDS. Again this sat against Mrs Thatcher’s personal beliefs in terms of family values
- Taking climate change seriously. Prior to her career as a politician Mrs Thatcher has been a research chemist, which probably helped her understand the issue. Her understanding of climate change had nothing to do with her conflict with the miner’s unions
- Ironically Margaret Thatcher signed the UK up to the Single European Act to create one European market
- Abolished corporal punishment in state schools back in 1986. No more going to the headmaster’s office to be caned
- Rupert Murdoch – Margaret Thatcher’s close relationship with Murdoch was a mutually beneficial relationship; however it set the template that led to the current news media debacle in the UK that lead to the Leveson Report
What I can’t really explain is the amount of energy that has gone into the debate some 20 years after she left office.
I suspect that Margaret Thatcher’s death is a point where the wider political agenda shaped by her administration has taken the UK since the mid-1990s is being debated. This debate isn’t split along current party lines as Ed Milliband’s Labour Party is still similar to the New Labour of Tony Blair – just a bit jaded and suffering from a creative bankruptcy of new ideas.
Secondly, when one looks at the like of the English Defence League, Casuals United and UKIP there seems to be at least part of the country who don’t feel as if mainstream politics represents them.
Finally, there is an underlying anger in the poorer members of society for which the 2011 were a pressure valve letting off steam. Throw in some industrial action into the mix and it would all start to feel like 1979 again…