One and three-quarter cheers for Mrs. T.
ALLAN POND surveys a mixed legacy
Mrs Thatcher now rests in peace, the crowds have dispersed and the rent-a-mob have furled up their banners and put away their stink bombs for another occasion. So perhaps now is the time to attempt some reflection on what virtually all can agree on – whatever else they thought about her – the transformative effect that she had on our country.
But how transformative was she? Few doubt her single mindedness but many would say that she was fortunate in her enemies: Heath, General Galtieri, Foot, Kinnock and Scargill. In the case of Scargill she faced an empty vessel who, though he made much noise, did more to damage his own side than his purported enemy, the Conservative government.
Also throughout most of her time in office she faced a divided opposition – not simply the internecine warfare within the Labour Party and the Bennites’ unfounded idea that what most people in the country actually wanted was even more state control and direction of their lives rather than less; but also the split on the centre left between the Labour Party and the breakaway SDP, giving the Conservatives a clear run against a divided ‘progressive’ vote.
All this is undoubtedly true and had she faced more canny opponents she might have been in greater difficulties. Had the Argentinians not invaded the Falklands she might well not have won her second election. Had Scargill had a ballot of the miners and won it, the outcome might not have been different but it would have been a far closer thing run thing. But these things didn’t happen and Mrs Thatcher made an opportunity out of the various crises she faced – and as Machiavelli counselled his Prince, she ensured the spin of the wheel of fortune favoured her and not her enemies.
She was transformative in a sense wider than particular policies, though many of these have proved in hindsight far reaching in their effects. The 1980s was a time of great change; in many ways it had a similar feel to the 1960s, especially coming after the rather dull and drear 1970s. There was a cultural excitement and a feeling of get up and go about those times. Of course the technological changes, the mobile phones, computers and so on, would have happened anyway, and so would the wider underlying transformations within the economies of most advanced Western societies. But what Mrs Thatcher helped to do was to push that forward. She created space for these wider changes to work their way through the body politic. She encouraged and fostered the desire for change, even if in many ways she actually really was a rather traditionally minded daughter of the provincial bourgeoisie.
And on foreign policy she really was hugely change-making and largely right all the way down the line. On the USSR she was prescient, far ahead of almost anyone else including initially the American State Department, in seeing in Gorbachev a distinctively new kind of Russian leader from the old guard apparatchiks who genuinely wished to reform the sclerotic Soviet system. On South Africa too, she was right to support and give quiet encouragement to the reformers in the South African Nationalist Party who wanted to dismantle apartheid peacefully rather than those advocating a violent overthrow of the system which in reality would simply have resulted not in black majority rule but a bloodbath from which a far more authoritarian white supremacist regime would probably have emerged.
And of course she did the right thing in sending a task force to retake the Falkland Islands despite the opposition of many in the foreign and diplomatic services who did not think a military solution would be successful. She did this not from any inkling of any possible economic benefit the Falkland Islands might have – although we now know that there are rich oil deposits there that wasn’t and couldn’t have been known at the time – but simply from the belief that it was imperative that any attack on British territory, however far away, by another country must be resisted.
She was even, I think, at least three quarters right over Northern Ireland. Some have seen her agreeing to the involvement of the Irish Republic in the discussions over a peaceful settlement to the ‘troubles’ as a betrayal of the Ulster Protestant majority, creating the situation that now exists of dual power. But I believe that what she was trying to do was to strengthen the constitutional nationalists as opposed to the terrorist nationalists by involving the Irish government. It was Blair who let in Sinn Féin. She might have miscalculated the direction that the peace process would eventually take but her position was thoroughly consistent, similar to her stance in South Africa – to support those who wanted peaceful negotiation and a moderate solution rather than violent conflict.
And finally, despite an early enthusiasm for all things ‘Europe’ in the middle 1970s – she was one of the most vocal supporters of the ‘Yes’ campaign in the 1975 referendum on whether the United Kingdom should become members of the EEC – she was right to oppose the advancing Euroslavian superstate since she saw it as a threat not just to our national sovereignty but as much if not more to our deepest traditions of democracy – that those who wield power over us should be accountable to us and can be removed by us.
Even her poll tax, though one of her most unpopular policies, did have some logic to it, even if it was not the best way of dealing with the problem she had identified of profligate and wasteful elements within local government. It was not just a few ‘loony left’ elected councillors who were causing problems but an entrenched officer corps, some of whom were supporters of the authoritarian left, others merely jobsworths solely interested in protecting their own feather-bedded niches in local government, who were doing their utmost to undermine Conservative policies not just in big cities such as Liverpool, Manchester or Newcastle but even in some more obviously Tory towns. Mrs Thatcher felt that if people had to pay directly for some of the profligate as well as propagandistic policies (eg., “nuclear free zones”!) that these local councils were espousing they would soon grow tired of it all and throw them out.
Unfortunately the policy was not really a solution to this, not least since if it was officers rather than elected politicians often making the running in pushing lunatic policies they could continue to get away with this even when there were Conservative councillors in the majority in the council chamber (as often was the case). Secondly, the cure was as bad if not worse than the disease and simply contributed to attenuation of local government and a decline in interest in what went on in the council chambe – as well as giving an undeserved cachet to some of the left who could pose as put-upon friends of local democracy. A local income tax, or maybe a locally administered sales tax, would have been a better solution and would have given both real financial clout to local authorities as well as real veto powers to voters. The genuine reform of local government remains unfinished business that hopefully a radical conservative government after 2015 can complete.
Let us also not forget that Mrs Thatcher was one of the first political leaders to spot the importance of the environment, as far back as 1988 in a keynote speech on climate issues to the United Nations arguing that far from being freeholders, our species were merely life tenants with a full repairing lease on the planet.
So far then so good. But why grudge her two cheers let along three? Mainly, I think, because whatever her own intentions might have been there was an imbalance in the economic approach of her governments. There was far too much emphasis on the service industries, especially financial services, and not enough on manufacturing things. Much of this emphasis it is true was down to Nigel Lawson rather than Mrs Thatcher, but she appointed him and did not express any reservations about the sort of casino capitalism that he appeared to advocate uncritically.
Of course many of the traditional heavy industries, such as shipbuilding, were already declining when Mrs Thatcher came to power, but there was a tendency to simply accept that, instead of trying to think creatively about ways in which other forms of manufacturing, at the higher end technology sectors, could have been fostered. Instead, there was far too much emphasis placed on trying to make Britain a low tax haven for foreign investors and businesses at the cost of our own indigenous industries and people.
Some of the privatisations were perfectly reasonable, such as telecoms or airways. Others though, such as railways and the utilities, were far more questionable, though to be fair these latter happened not under her watch but under her successors. Nevertheless the climate for these changes had already been set by Mrs Thatcher. Whole swathes of industry were consigned to the scrap heap and large parts of other sectors were left open to foreign carpetbaggers, often Arabic or Russian, to plunder. This has been especially true of the energy sector, where foreign investors get very rich at the same time as many British pensioners face a choice between eating or heating their sparse rooms.
It is sometimes said that the current government, or at least the Conservative half of it, is desperate to be seen as the heir to Thatcher. In fact, in the area of industrial policy it is doing the opposite and endeavouring to reverse the mistakes of the Thatcher/Lawson era by its emphasis on rebalancing the economy by rebuilding the manufacturing base. If anybody continued the mistakes of economic Thatcherism and could be said to be her true heirs on this score, it was New Labour and in particular Gordon Brown with his disastrous spend-now-pay-later approach to the economy. Mrs Thatcher, even at her most laissez faire, would never have contemplated the figure fiddling of PFI, passing on our present consumption as enormous future debts to our children and grand-children. Her Methodist morality of frugality and financial probity would have baulked at such blatant dishonesty and chicanery.
I am sure that she would have regarded the “loadsamoney” antics of some of those who seemed to revel in the new financial freedoms with distaste. But there was undoubtedly a sense in which the whole ‘lunch is for wimps’ mentality that seemed to dominate the new economic order was an inevitable accompaniment to an emphasis on freeing up the market through thrusting entrepreneurship. To argue that the market should have no fetters and that commerce values should be valued above all others is as alien to the traditional conservative surely as much as to the old style socialist. There was much that was good about the economic transformations of that era, including at least for a while a genuine widening of the share-owning base and a more extensive distribution of property ownership. However, we are perhaps less dazzled by the glitz and razzmatazz of ‘big bangs’ and financial wizardry, not least when it results in HBOS, Fred the Shred, and bankers living the cosseted life courtesy of the taxpayer. At least Mrs Thatcher accepted that capitalism was about loss as much as profit. She would have found it a strange reversal of everything she believed in to see profits stay with the bankers in bonuses while the losses are born by the public via state subsidy, which she loathed with all her might.
So the balance sheet is mixed. We should also add to the plus side, though it may seem small, the almost universally reported fact about her that she did untold small private kindnesses to staff along the way. Whatever the forbidding nature of her iron public image, she could in private, it is well attested, be kind, considerate and caring to those who worked for her, even the lowliest, even if she did sometimes bully her colleagues round the cabinet table. That compares very favourably with many other figures in public life who might like to appear caring and compassionate but are arrogant and short-tempered with their staff and those in lower positions.
It was often said of Mrs Thatcher that she came across as a stern nanny, and this was perhaps why she had such an appeal! I think maybe the better analogy is with a strict but caring nurse. Mrs Thatcher imposed on us all a collective enema, painful but necessary in the long run.
ALLAN POND is a former member of the Green Party, and writes from Northumberland