Margaret Thatcher roundup (1): Britain’s growth in wealth and poverty

Listening watching the reams of coverage on Margaret Thatcher, whether you loved her or loathed her, she certainly had impact. I’ll come back to her contentious Irish legacy later, but first a round up on today’s coverage…

– Richard Branson covers his back somewhat over some of the warrior queen’s more extreme social interventions and claims:

She really did set the groundwork for entrepreneurialism and business in Britain. She will go down in the history books as somebody who made a real difference.

– A truly excellent and fair minded piece on her economic (do read it all)…

Narrowly judged, the Thatcher economic revolution was a success. Britain’s relative decline came to an end, although that was more due to slowdowns in countries such as France and Germany than an acceleration in UK productivity growth. The number of days lost through strikes tumbled. Nissan’s arrival in the north-east showed that Britain was no longer the west’s industrial pariah.

On the other hand, growth has been depressed because weak trade unions can no longer ensure wage increases keep pace with inflation. The government’s welfare bill has been swollen by tax credits and housing benefit caused by the labour market reforms and council house sales of the 1980s. Britain’s record on innovation and investment have been extremely poor, while the hollowing out of manufacturing left the economy over-dependent on the de-regulated City. Oil helped Thatcher paper over the cracks, but Britain’s age-old problem – finding a way to pay its way in the world – remains. The last time the UK ran a trade surplus was the year of the Falklands war.[Emphasis added]

– Tariq Ali notes how as an article of political belief Thatcherism has become axiomatic. He notes here this video interview that “She basically won over the Opposition so she is not at all dead in terms of what is going on in this country…”

– Coffee House have a transcript of Charles Moore (author of a forthcoming biography) on BBC Radio Four

I don’t think everybody quite realised that she was a politically very cunning politician, and she knew when to strike and when not to strike and she was extremely good at conveying the message very strongly, so she set herself up in a very clear and defined way which allowed people to understand where she was going and enough people supported it for her to win three times.

– AudioBoo of that Moore interview here

– Simon Jenkins in the Guardian notes that luck as much as ideology played a key role in her success, having paid the public sector unions early claims by 1981 she was suffering her own Winter of Discontent:

What saved Thatcher’s bacon, and revolutionised her leadership, was Labour’s unelectable Michael Foot – and the Falklands war. Whatever Tory historians like to claim, this was the critical turning point. By delivering a crisp, emphatic victory Thatcher showed the world, and more important herself, what a talent for solitary command could achieve. From then on she disregarded her critics and became intolerant of any who were “not one of us”.

– In the FT, Martin Wolf gives a sober rundown of what some of those successes entailed (£); often not quite what her pushy acolytes might have you believe today:

True believers view her as a Saint Joan of free markets, dedicated to rolling back the state in all its dimensions. In reality, however, Thatcher was a pragmatic politician who showed little interest in embarking on politically suicidal attempts to demolish pillars of the welfare state, such as the National Health Service. Under her governments, public spending never fell below 39 per cent of gross domestic product.

Nevertheless, hers was a transformational premiership. The legacies of Thatcher’s governments include liberalisation of exchange controls, a huge cut in top income tax rates, liberalisation of labour markets, transformation of the legal position of trade unions and defeat of militant organised labour, notably in the miners’ strike of 1984-85, sale of a large part of the council housing stock, privatisation of most nationalised industries and the liberalisation of finance, including the “Big Bang” of 1986, which transformed the City of London into the world’s biggest international financial entrepôt.

– As the Blighty blog notes, her short term effectiveness sickened large parts of the country:

Mrs Thatcher was a true Blue Tory who marginalised the Tory Party for a generation. The Tories ceased to be a national party, retreating to the south and the suburbs and all but dying off in Scotland, Wales and the northern cities. Tony Blair profited more from the Thatcher revolution than John Major, her successor: with the trade unions emasculated and the left discredited, he was able to remodel his party and sell it triumphantly to Middle England. His huge majority in 1997 ushered in 13 years of New Labour rule.

– Mathew Engels in the FT (£) scrapes at the veneer of the Britain she left behind (all car parks and out of town shopping centres):

Just up the road is the new Wembley Stadium, temple of the new football: the game that in the Thatcher years lurched into hooligan-led disgrace and has now been sanitised and Ikea-ised beyond recognition. But the Thatcher image was not created without a little sleight of hand in the name of public relations. Technically, this Ikea is not in Wembley but Neasden, a place with a very different image, turned into a long-running joke by Private Eye as the ultimate dreary suburb.

This is part of the legacy too: a mess of pound stores, halal grocers, decidedly non-halal bookmakers and cheap takeaways. Yet even here, the estate agents offer houses at £600,000 apiece. On Neasden Lane it was hard to find anyone who spoke English but I was able to break the news to a Lithuanian woman improbably called Manuela.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said. “She was a great actress.” Which may be the most profound comment of the day.

– Yet, she brought out some intense emotions at the time (too strong and too many to account for in one round up). One of the best round ups of the press coverage is this one which covers a wide range of regional covers…

– In Glasgow, where her party is almost extinct in Westminster there was modest street protests at George Square…

– In Yorkshire too… there was controversy when a local MP provoked outrage with the wish that she “burn in the hellfires”…

– Owen Jones, a young socialist buck at the Indo (who was born in the early to middle stages of the Miners Strike, a scion of the Militant Tendency) argues:

With no unions to stand their corner, workers’ living standards have long been squeezed – driving large numbers to cheap credit.

Britain was one of the most equal Western European countries before the Thatcherite project began, and is now one of the most unequal. Thatcherism is not just alive and well: it courses through the veins of British political life. The current government goes where Thatcherism did not dare in its privatisation of the NHS and sledgehammering of the welfare state.

The challenge ahead is the same as it was yesterday: to tear down the whole edifice of Thatcherism, heal Britain of the damage done, and build a country run in the interests of working people. It’s a fight we must all fight. The champagne is on ice until we win it.

– And finally (for now), my old mucker Mark Weston has pulled together five key indicators on what changed in Britain during Thatcher’s reign. Headline answer: Poverty and GDP BOTH went up sharply between 1979 and 1990:

  • Life expectancy at birth:  Rose in the UK from 72.9 years to 75 years, a 2.8% increase. This compares with a European increase of 2.4% and a world increase of 4.8%. (Source: UN Population Division)
  • GDP per capita (at constant 2005 international $): Rose in the UK from $18153 in 1980 to $23348 in 1990, a 29% increase. This compares with a  European increase of 23% and a world increase of 15%.  (Source: World Bank)
  • Unemployment: Rose in the UK from 5.4% to 6.4%, and in the European Union from 5% to 8% (Source: Office for National Statistics)
  • Poverty: Rose in the UK from 13.4% to 22.2% (Source: Institute for Fiscal Studiesreport)
  • Crime: Hard to find concrete data, but this British Crime Survey report shows a rise in crime during the 1980s, at a rate slightly faster than population growth.

More soon…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty