Saturday, April 13, 2013

Thatcher: There WAS an alternative

The first thing I need to say about Margaret Thatcher is that when it comes to the former Prime Minister, I can scarcely be regarded as a disinterested or objective observer.

I spent most of my early adulthood wishing she was no longer in Number Ten, and much of my later journalistic career was spent in areas such as South Wales and the North-East where the impact of her policies had been most adversely felt.

As Journal political editor from 1997-2004, much of my work revolved around the question of how the region should tackle the North-South divide which, if not created by her, was certainly sharply exacerbated during her long premiership.

So in the unlikely event that anyone has come here expecting to read another syrupy paean of praise to the Iron Lady following her death this week, it’s probably best to look away now.

Many millions of words have already been written and spoken about the woman who led Britain for 11 tumultuous years, but ultimately the debate seems to come down to the question of whether she saved the nation, or destroyed it.

Probably the answer is a bit of both.  Looked at in the round, the Thatcher legacy suggests a strange ambivalent power for good and bad which seems to run through most of the policies with which she is most closely associated.

Take the iconic right to buy scheme, for instance.  Yes, it enabled council tenants to buy their own homes, and the dramatic increase in social mobility it fostered helped break down the class barriers which held Britain back in the post-war years.

But the downside was that housing policy ceased to be a debate about who could build the most homes, and became instead a question of who could do most to artificially inflate the value of the increasingly limited number of homes available.

Then there were the employment laws.  It is beyond question that prior to 1979 the power of the union barons had got out of hand and that Mrs Thatcher’s changes helped restore a measure of democracy to a nation in danger of becoming ungovernable.

Yet in smashing the unions, she also ushered in an era of job insecurity which has had a baleful effect on the national psyche.

I could go on.   Deregulation of the City of London made it a world financial centre that spawned untold riches for Britain’s financial services industry, but led directly to the banking crisis that caused the 2008 crash and the subsequent recession.

Even the Falklands War, by rolling back the post-Suez defeatism in which British foreign policy had been enmeshed since 1956, paved the way for Tony Blair’s disastrous intervention in Iraq twenty years later.

When assessing the Thatcher legacy, therefore, the key question becomes could we actually have had the good without the bad?  Was there, despite what the Iron Lady herself said, an alternative?

I would like to think so.   While the challenges of globalisation would eventually have forced British industry to become more competitive, the impact of this would have been slower and less brutal than the wholesale destruction of our manufacturing base in the early 1980s.

It has to be remembered that, far from being an historical inevitability, Mrs Thatcher was in fact a very lucky Prime Minister. 

Labour in 1980 put itself out of serious contention for power by choosing the wrong leader and then splitting, while a couple of Exocet missiles in the wrong place in 1982 might have sunk not just the Falklands task force, but her premiership with it.

For me, the most interesting counterfactual question about Mrs Thatcher is what would the country have been like had she never become Prime Minister or, alternatively, been ousted in 1982-83.

Had a Tory wet like Jim Prior or a Labour moderate like Denis Healey run Britain in the 1980s, and invested the proceeds of North Sea Oil in social reconstruction rather than tax cuts, would we have ended up with Swedish-style social democracy rather than US-style neo-liberalism?

Since those days, we seem to have become a politically more united country, but a much more economically and socially divided one.

And if forced to make a judgement, I think I like the Britain she created rather less than the one which she destroyed.

1 comment:

The Half-Blood Welshman said...

'While the challenges of globalisation would eventually have forced British industry to become more competitive, the impact of this would have been slower and less brutal than the wholesale destruction of our manufacturing base in the early 1980s.'

I wonder if that's an entirely fair remark. While I'm no fan of Thatcher, her major economic problem in 1979 was that Britain's economy had already been challenged by globalisation in heavy industry since at least the early 1960s, possibly even the early 1950s, and had done precisely nothing to modernise because of the overweening power of the unions and the vacillation of her predecessors (especially Wilson, a man who never took a decision unless a gun was pointed at his head).

So, for example, shipbuilding, aircraft production, steel making and coal mining had all been going backwards in absolute and relative terms - Britain produced 60% of the world's ships in 1945, just 15% as early as 1961 - and what had been done to help? Nothing. As a result, she faced a very difficult situation - industries that were economically speaking past saving, but socially and politically had become iconic to the population and were considered sacrosanct.

What happened to these industries during her premiership would have happened anyway, at that time and probably at that pace, whoever was in power, and I am afraid that you are not allowing for the limited room for manoeuver that any PM would have had. It would even have happened under Michael Foot - or at least, would have caused his fall and replacement by somebody who would do it.

The totally different question, and here I entirely agree with you, was what she did to the people who depended on them. Thatcher was beyond careless in abandoning them to their fate, and it is difficult to believe that any other Prime Minister in history would have been quite so callous. Even some of her own ministers defied her orders to try and help (Stevens in South Wales, for instance, or Heseltine in quiet ways elsewhere) but it really needed big pressure from the centre, and big investment in new infrastructure (possibly as you said, utilising oil revenues) to make their efforts effective. She failed to provide that. She will, I think, be judged accordingly.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that the one nationalised industry that did have meaningful investment in the 1970s due to squabbles among the unions that left them relatively weak was the rail industry. Thatcher never even considered privatising or removing that, and not merely for social reasons - it was because she felt it was doing OK under the circumstances and might come good again. In that, she was proven right. Would coal or steel have come good again, with global warming and the growth of plastics? With hindsight, no.