Wednesday 22 May 2013

In Defence of Margaret Thatcher

After the calm comes the storm, and then the calm again. After years out of the limelight Mrs Thatcher finally died, and there was a predictable burst of emotion that is now calming again, now the solemnity of her funeral is done. Now hopefully people can speak from reason as well as emotion, whether positive or negative. I had hoped that she may be allowed to pass quietly, and be mourned quietly, and that her opponents would maintain some basic decency and decorum. In the end both and neither happened.  Most of her opponents maintained some dignity and decency in the face of the emotion of the event, especially the leadership of the Labour Party, but some people sadly and publicly descended into petty, spiteful hate. Not that Mrs Thatcher would have cared at all, or could be hurt by it. All hate does is poison the heart of the person who hates, doubly so when it is totally impotent.

Margaret Thatcher was always a towering figure in the background of the world I lived in. As I was growing up every single adult had an opinion about her. But I, of course, did not. I was two years old when she left office. I just about have memories of John Major as Prime Minister and the 1997 election but Mrs Thatcher I only knew 2nd hand. I don't have the experience other people have, and neither does anyone else my age, and certainly no-one younger. At this point I should stick my colours to the mast. I am a sort of tory liberal and I always admired Mrs Thatcher, the hard decisions she took and what she achieved: I am a proud Thatcherite. And that is partly why I feel the need to defend her now. But I'm also a historian. She has died and been buried and now her legacy may be discussed without  it being a vomiting of emotion. This is conveniently exactly what her detractors said they wanted or at least was the excuse they gave to justify spitting on her corpse, so in my own way I'm hopefully helping to make everyone a bit happier. I do believe that a lot, but not all, of the criticism that is made of her is unfair, or just plain silly. And I believe the rest does not justify the mindless hate that she uniquely receives.

It is difficult to know where to begin when talking about criticism of Mrs Thatcher. Some, like the complaints about the sinking of the Belgrano, are so silly that they can hopefully be ignored, and can only be evidence for the wider thesis that the sheer vehemence of criticism was motivated by emotion rather than reason. More generally I want to start with the people who claim that Mrs Thatcher was a total disaster of a Prime Minster, or claim they oppose almost everything she did. When I hear such a person I want to ask, which part of the 1970's would they like to return to?  Nobody actually opposes Thatcherism these days unless it is not defined as real policies but rather as a vague moral plague that people can claim to oppose. Almost all the great battles of 1980's in this country Mrs Thatcher won, and won so comprehensively that still, 23 years after she left office, nobody seriously suggest reversing any of her main reforms: The Conservatives, Labour, UKIP, Lib Dems, SNP, all Northern Irish parties, are Thatcherite parties, by any description that would be recognised in the 1980's, as are most governments across Europe and around the world. Of all our serious political parties only the Greens and probably Respect could be described as having any intention of reversing the Thatcherite consensus. But they are about as far from the levers of power anywhere as I am.

Only in two areas can I trace that the criticism of Mrs Thatcher is even vaguely justified, in terms of gay rights, and in terms of failing to appreciate the devastating effects of mass unemployment across large areas of the country. But I do not believe either of these areas justify the bile directed at Mrs Thatcher uniquely among politicians in this country.

First, I want to refute those who claim Mrs Thatcher was an unalloyed disaster. I'm, generally, not entirely sure how precisely she managed to win three decisive election victories in a row if she was such a disaster. Nor can it be denied that she was popular and is still popular. She got a total of 40.4 million votes across 3 elections, an average of 13.5 million votes per election, the best record in UK history. Nor was her success just down to FPTP.  The progressive majority has always been a myth and the anti-Thatcher majority is as much a myth. Actual data on 2nd preferences show voters split 53% to 37% for Mrs Thatcher in 1983, and 54% to 38% for Mrs Thatcher in 1987. And she remains popular today. At the time of her death she topped a poll for best Prime Minister in British history, and the same poll showed 52% to 30% claimed she was a good rather than bad Prime Minister, a better opinion poll rating than any current politician from all four parties, and even in the north of England 49% to 35% had a positive opinion of her as PM. In fact the sheer similarity of those figures from this year and 1983 and 1987 suggest perceptions remain stable, with about 50% in favour, 35% against and 15% ambivalent both now and then. I imagine this is one of things some of those who hate her most bitterly really cannot stand, the fact they are a decided minority, and that most of the country did and does support Thatcherism.

Those figures reflect the fact that Mrs Thatcher was undoubtedly a good thing for the majority of both the population and areas in the country. Certain critics continue to maintain that Thatcherism only helped 'The Rich' or 'Bankers', or some other unsympathetic group. This is just silly. Millions of ordinary people supported Thatcherism for good reasons. Mrs Thatcher's aspirational free-market capitalism was not a ruse but a genuine and heart-felt belief. Under her premiership home ownership rose from 55% to 67%, an increase of around 2.5 million, and share ownership more than trebled, rising by several million, spreading assets and wealth to millions more than ever before. Nor can her achievements be doubted in other areas. In 1975-1980 inflation was 15.69% on average, in 1990-1995, the 5 years after Mrs Thatcher left office, Inflation was only 4.63%.  Economic growth increased from 2.1% on average in the 1970's to 3.1% on average in the 1980's and stayed at 2.8% on average in the 1990's. The chart below shows the dramatic turn-around in the UK economy relative to a near and similar competitor: France.

Income tax rates fell from 98% and 33% to 40% and 25%. Now, we can argue about whether the top rate of tax should be nearer 50% or 40%, but I presume there isn't anyone who seriously supports a top rate of tax of over 80% or 90%? I also struggle to believe that any person actually wants to roll back any of the other minor changes of the Thatcher years, whether a nationalised trucking industry, not being able to take more than £250 in currency abroad, not being able to get a mortgage from a bank, or being unable to buy things on a Sunday. Days lost to strikes fell from 11.7 million (on average) in 1975-1980 to only 0.8 million (on average) from 1990-1999. I also challenge anyone to seriously argue that the decline in trade union militancy is a bad thing. Does anyone seriously regret the loss of closed shops, or think it a disgrace that trade unions actually have to ballot their members before a strike, or are forbidden from calling entirely spurious strikes in disputes when they don't even have a grievance?

There is also a more fundamental argument. I have a great deal of sympathy for the plight of coal miners and their communities.  But for the trade union movement in general I have none. In the 1970's trade unionists deliberately sabotaged both Labour and Conservative governments and put their face totally against any beneficial economic reform regardless of the cost to ordinary people or the country. In a democracy it cannot be allowed than ANY group believes it has a right to fundamentally over-turn the democratically elected government, except fairly at the ballot box. A coup by the trade union movement is as much a coup as one by military officers, and the Thatcher government was right to crush it. Nor should it be forgotten exactly what those trade union leaders were fighting to defend. Arthur Scargill's bargaining position was clear: The government subsidy to the coal industry was already in the billions of pounds and yet Arthur Scargill would only accept mine closures on grounds of "exhaustion or geological difficulties". In other words he was demanding unlimited subsidy to maintain UK coal mining the state it was in at that time regardless of the economic or environmental cost.

The other great successes that ought to be mentioned are of course those in Foreign policy. Mrs Thatcher led Britain through the Falklands War and successfully defended British territory and citizens from the unprovoked military invasion of a fascist dictatorship, which victory was certainly not guaranteed, and which was itself instrumental in leading to the collapse of that dictatorship and a return to democracy in Argentina.  Not that they thank us for it much. Also worthy of mention was her role in the Cold War. She didn't win the war, but still her courage and determination to oppose the Soviet Union deserves mention. Communism and the Soviet Union in particular are as bad as fascism of any type, but still there were a great many people in Britain, even in the 1980's, who were morally ignorant enough not to recognise that. Mrs Thatcher did and acted as a beacon of freedom to millions of East Europeans and contributed to the strong western Anti-Soviet response that itself contributed to a largely peaceful victory in the Cold War, with the result of freedom and peace for tens of millions of people.

Which leaves me with more difficult territory to cover. It is wrong to say Mrs Thatcher oversaw the collapse of British industry, even more ridiculous to claim that she deliberately and gleefully engineered that collapse. In fact Manufacturing output grew by 7.5% during her time in office, only to then steadily decline under 13 years of Labour government. Neither was Mrs Thatcher responsible for the greatest relative decline in manufacturing: In 1970 Manufacturing was 20.6% of GDP, in 1979 17.6%, in 1990 15.2% and in 2010 9.68%. What did happen under Mrs Thatcher though was that jobs in manufacturing, and other traditional industries like mining, collapsed.  Manufacturing employment collapsed from 4 million to 2 million and mining employment fell from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. This brought disaster across areas of the country that became long-term unemployment blackspots, with undiverse economies and workforces poorly trained to create or take up other jobs. It is fair to say that the government did not foresee how bad this problem would get, how long it would last, or have any plan to solve it that was even vaguely up to the task.

But it is meaningless to pretend that this entire fall in industrial employment, and the more than 3 million unemployment it lead to, can be placed at the door of Mrs Thatcher. The first point worth mentioning is the 1.5 million already unemployed when the Conservatives took office in 1979. The second is the fact that the recession that plagued Britain in the early 1980's was not just a British event, it was an international recession that did not originate in Britain. Mrs Thatcher had been in government for only a year when the economy slid into recession and unlike Labour in 2008 cannot be blamed for the years of decisions that led up to it. And, more importantly, manufacturing across the developed western world went into serious decline in the 1980's due to an explosion of globalisation and increasing competition from developing world economies. Britain, America, Germany all have their abandoned factories and rust belts. Should Mrs Thatcher be blamed for Detroit, or the abandoned factories of the Ruhr?

It is true that Britain was hit hardest of any major economy but there is plenty of blame to spread for that too. Short-termism by successive governments and Trade union militant pig-headedness meant that much of British Industry was inefficient, untrusted, over-manned and only supported by government subsidy and protection. Industry should have adapted gradually to those changing realities through the 1970's but due to a mix of governments and unions who fundamentally refused to face up to the reality it had to deal with it all at once in the early 1980's with destructive results. But in this case there really was no (long term) alternative. Government attempts to hold back change had already broken down with unemployment reaching 1.5 million and Inflation peaking at over 20%. The traditional Keynesian attempts to inflate the economy were simply not an option as Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan stated in 1976:

"We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession, and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting Government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and that in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step. Higher inflation followed by higher unemployment."

Now I can't deny that the Thatcher government could have done more to stop unemployment rising quite so high. Interest rates were raised higher than was probably needed to combat inflation and public spending was cut to control borrowing during a recession. But these measures weren't spiteful attempts to punish northerners or manufacturing workers or miners or labour party supporters. Mrs Thatcher's own words were "This Government are pursuing the only policy which gives any hope of bringing our people back to real and lasting employment."  They were a conscious choice that 20% rates of inflation were a more dangerous long-term risk to the economy and long-term employment. They were decisions taken in light of an ongoing deficit and the memory of an IMF bailout only a few years before.

There are reasons to argue that these policies succeeded in the long term. Even within the 1980's over-all employment grew by 1.8 million, despite the fall in traditional industries. After 1992 Britain had 15 solid years of falling and then low unemployment, low inflation, and steady growth, totally reversing the long-term post-war trend of higher inflation, higher unemployment and lower growth. And when that period did end we have seen, despite a deeper recession, lower levels of unemployment: 7.8% rather than 12%. And at least a significant part of this difference has to be put down to the Thatcherite reforms that increased Labour market flexibility and allowed wages to take the strain of recession rather than jobs, especially when one remembers unemployment was 6% even when Mrs Thatcher took over.

It is extremely easy in retrospect to deride the policies of those in government in the 1980's, or to throw around accusations of personal malice or evil. It is a lot harder to say what you or I would have done in the same position, faced with the fundamental long-term problems that existed by the end of the 1970's. It is particularly easy in a country with entrenched Thatcherite policies to say the government should have been specifically more moderate on interest rates while presumably pursuing all the rest of the policies we take for granted today. But at the time that wasn't a clear option. All Thatcherite policies received massive opposition, and the main clear alternative was not Thatcherism with more awareness of the long-term damage of mass unemployment, it was the unapologetic big-government, nationalised industry, trade-union dominated, real socialism of Old Labour, attempting to hold on, without compromise, to the world that had already failed in the 1970's, Canute-style, against the tide of growing globalisation. I don't say this to excuse the mistakes that were made at the time by the government, but to put them in the extremely difficult context in which they existed, without a clear better alternative on offer.

Moving on from actual policy, the other main accusation I want to mention is that despite the actual historical evidence, Thatcherism (and the lady by extension) were unacceptable sources of evil purely on some moral basis. They stress the "spiritual or "moral" damage that Thatcherism supposedly did to Britain, by preaching individualism, greed, selfishness, blah, blah. Some even draw a direct line to the financial crash of 2008. The thing is that nobody can actually factually explain this. The charge of individualism is true: Thatcherism was unashamedly pro-individual achievement, pro-aspiration, pro-freedom, and I don't apologise for that in a world where collectivist ideologies have left an unequalled legacy of death and human misery. The charges of greed and selfishness are less clear. Mrs Thatcher obviously never stood up and said "greed and selfishness are good". I can only presume that people mean she correctly pointed out there is no shame in wanting to earn money and do better, and society is based on people striving to achieve that for them and their families. If they mean anything more I presume they can quote some actual evidence for the accusation of vague moral malevolence?

I presume they are also expressing moral outrage at the fact Mrs Thatcher oversaw the failure of the post-war socialist consensus without any particular sadness, and assume this could only come from some sort of personal evil. This is nonsense because, as previously discussed, Mrs Thatcher did not dismantle the post-war consensus because it was already failing, and she did not choose to end full employment because it had already ended, and there was no way to realistically turn the clock back. What she could try to do was reverse the long-term trend of decline, which is what she took pleasure over. I just don't recognise privatising an airline, to give an example, as a promotion of selfishness and vice in society.  Moreover, it is morally ridiculous to judge someone on the basis of how sad they looked about something happening, as opposed to by their actions.

Even more over, what Mrs Thatcher supposedly did or did not personally morally promote is utterly irrelevant to the moral health of society. Whatever that state may be, to blame the PM in a limited democracy for it is cowardly, incompetent and crazy. Individuals and communities are responsible themselves. To pretend otherwise is a deliberate abdication of personal responsibility on a massive scale. Even more ridiculous is to pretend that some direct chain of blame can be traced over 20 years to events that weren't even a glimmer in anyone's eyes in 1990. People and politicians are responsible for their own actions over a generation. Attempts to project guilt back into the past instead of blaming the people who are actually responsible for the actions is stupid.

The one concrete example that is often given to support this idea of some moral plague emanating from Mrs Thatcher is the "there is no such thing as society" quote. This quote has been taken out of context. Mrs Thatcher was specifically opposing the idea of 'society' as an abstract entity that should solve all people's problems for them:

"people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!” [...] and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people must look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business"

The fact she evidently did believe in society is demonstrated by a range of other quotes: "We cannot achieve a compassionate society simply by passing new laws and appointing more staff to administer them'." "'the basic ties of the family are at the heart of our society and are the very nursery of civic virtue'. " "we learn our interdependence and the great truth that we do not achieve happiness or salvation in isolation from each other but as members of Society'." The fact is not that the initial quote proves anything but that for those who blamed Mrs Thatcher uniquely and personally for the breakdown of the society of the post-war consensus "there is no such thing as society" was too good to pass up. It just confirmed all the things so many people thought they already knew.

The one final subject is that of Gay Rights, and particularly the notorious Section 28. Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 banning local authorities from "promoting homosexuality" or "the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" was a nasty piece of legislation that made life unnecessarily difficult for countless young gay people by effectively banning schools from supporting them or promoting tolerance or acceptance of homosexuality. Mrs Thatcher had been an early supporter of decriminalising homosexuality in the 1960's, and the Section was not introduced by the government but by a private backbencher. But that is small defence. It was accepted and passed by the government, for party political ends, which is a disgrace. Another quote illustrates her attitude, taken from a speech on Education: "Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay." This clearly reflects the traditional view that being gay is a 'choice', a moral failing, as much as anything, that people need to be strictly cautioned against. This idea is ridiculous and wrong, and the only defence that can be given is that it reflects, not personal animosity or evil, but the generation Mrs Thatcher was from. This is a woman who grew up before the 2nd world war, and her thinking on this issue sadly reflected the prejudice of an almost bygone age.  But it is one sadly still shared by millions of people who grew up in that time and shared those widespread social assumptions before awareness of the real nature of homosexuality became widespread in society.

That finishes my defence of Mrs Thatcher. I do not want to claim that she was perfect, far from it. She made mistakes,serious ones, her attitudes to homosexuality was a serious moral failing, if a partially understandable one given the age she grew up in, and her governments should probably have acted to bring inflation down more slowly and keep unemployment lower (though possibly for longer). Though to what extent that would have been possible, or beneficial in the economic long term, is hard to judge, even retrospectively. What I think is unarguable is that she did a great deal of good and that a lot of the criticism she does receive is simply undeserved. On economic issues a lot of that criticism and hatred seems to reflect the childish view that she could have just flicked a switch to make the unemployment and suffering of the 1980's go away and chose not to.  That view is idiotic to the extreme. Criticisms of general incompetence can only reflect ignorance about what she did achieved and the situation she inherited. She was right about 9 issues out of 10, and her accuracy, motivated by a passion for personal freedom, is reflected by the ongoing adherence to the Thatcherite consensus, both in Britain and around the world. In extremely difficult times I believe her record was was certainly no worse than that of any other politician and does not justify the ugly hate that is thrown at her. It is easy to feel good because you have a bogeyman to despise. It is hard to face up to the fact that the world is a complicated and difficult place and there are no simplistic explanations or solutions to our problems.


Oli Norwell said...

I really enjoyed this! A great piece. I found it as I was thinking of writing something similar myself. I hope at the time you were able to get some news outlets to publish it for you. It's a sad fact of history that even after over a decade of successes she is remembered for harsh interpretations of a couple of mistakes. It'll be interesting to see how Blair is remembered in 10 years time, he made one or two questionable decisions himself after all.

Stephen Wigmore said...

Sadly not at all. I am not nearly famous enough for that. And I feel my style is too long and detailed to be of interest to popular media outlets. Perhaps I should have tried.

Thank you very much for your kind remarks. I hope I covered the most important issues.

Anonymous said...

Hello. I have only today (20:07:14) come across your Web Log.

I will be brief.

Like all Thatcherites you never mention the most important thing about her term of office, although it is simple and obvious for all to see. Thatcher was the first PM in a position to take advantage of North Sea Oil, and she did so with a vengeance. Her economic policies were not very successful but their failure was disguised by oil revenues. She stimulated much economic activity but it was mostly of the wrong kind, and was concentrated on simple money-making rather than wealth creation. The time was typified by Tiny-Rowland-type asset-strippers and the loadsamoney artists of the Stock Exchange: that is, people who were able to make themselves rich but contributed little or nothing in terms of goods and services. In the eighties these forms of semi-parasitism became glamorous and sexy. Meanwhile, in the beleaguered world of real work, a large slice of British industry disappeared forever and another large slice fell into foreign ownership, and Thatcher’s government seemed happy to let these things happen. Wealth-creating work became unfashionable but it didn’t matter because we had North Sea Oil. Incidentally, I am not entirely anti-Thatcher but your barely-critical eulogy is enough to get on the tits of anyone who lived outside the favoured south-east. I could write a great deal more but will conclude by saying that Margaret Thatcher is the most over-rated PM since WW2.

R. V. Ashley 20 July 2014

Stephen Wigmore said...

I could hardly be said to be 'barely-critical'. But I am recognising the difficulty of what the government had to face up to in the 1980's. The economic growth and employment growth that did happen in the 1980's was no less 'real' than the old heavy industry in the same way an email is no less real than a letter. You still seem to be assuming that Thatcher just chose to replace heavy industry with the London financial sector. This just not true. Industry collapsed around the western world despite what British, French, German, American or any other desperate government did to stop it.

The Thatcher governments could probably have slowed this process, with lower interest rates and greater public spending. But that would have come at the price of higher inflation and higher debt. There is no simple answer to that one. The idea that Thatcherism only helped bankers or the south-east is nonsense. I live in the West Midlands, and as the figures I quoted show, even a clear majority of northerners think she was a good PM.

Do you think Callaghan was a vicious pro-banker south-east weasel when he said:

""We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession, and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting Government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and that in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step. Higher inflation followed by higher unemployment."

That is the reality the Thatcher governments faced.

Anonymous said...


I will be briefer.

You did it again.
You avoided mentioning oil.

R. V. Ashley 23:07:14

CH said...

A very interesting, informative, and thought provoking piece. Thank you. May I ask how you gathered the poll data and statistical evidence for this essay? I'm just wondering where you went for the hard numbers you used.

Stephen Wigmore said...

From all over the place to be honest. Data comes from the ONS (Office for National Statistics) mainly and also from other blogs and articles. I trust the ONS and I mostly trust other blogs and newspaper articles, but if I get any data wrong I would be glad to have someone point it out to me.

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