Thursday, 11 April 2013

Lady Thatcher: draft two

So I've been thinking further about my judgement of the Thatcher era (above) that I wrote here the other day. I was trying to be detached, cool, dispassionate; skills the historian abandons at his or her cost. But there's so much to say, so much to go over, that I'm going to have another bite at the cherry. Call it the second draft of history. Here's one thing you can be sure of: there are going to be a lot more.

There's obviously a lot more than could be said in her favour. Things she got right. Messages sent; decisiveness deployed; good done. On balance, council house sales were a good policy, allowing Britons who had never before had the chance to own their own property to feel a sense of place, of ownership, or agency. That's why many (though not all) people who did buy those houses feel such a visceral sense of loyalty to the Iron Lady still, all these years later. She made them feel as if they belong. After years of petty council regulations, and years of poor management (the GLC didn't even know how many properties it owned, let alone what state they were in), there was something here to be valued. The cardinal error, of course - as with so much else in Thatcherism - was not to use the money to invest, in this case in much more social housing. So now we're left with a massive, massive housing shortage - not entirely the fault of this policy, but certainly made worse by the reckless lack of building during these years.

And then there's the Falklands. To be honest, if you're not going to use your navy to fight back when a fascist dictatorship invades what remained British sovereign territory, you might as well not have one. I know what you're thinking. Defending a few thousand Falklanders was a madcap adventure out of the nineteenth century. That it was: and it cost many lives, of course. It would have been cheaper just to have rehoused the Falklanders and left the Argentines do what they wanted with all those frozen penguins. But that's not the point. It was never practical politics to do that - any government that tried would have imploded immediately - and Thatcher took to her task in those vital few weeks with verve, courage, skill and (yes) some luck. I didn't like any of it all that much, but it's true.

But let's look again at what I called the debit side of the ledger in my last post. It's just much, much longer, and it contains a doleful list of mistakes, evasions and errors.

Where to begin? Well, here's one: the union of Scotland and England is in peril today, and that's partly down to the fact that Thatcher developed a remarkable tin ear for Scots' political philosophy. Most Scots came to loathe her. It's that simple. The much-abused 'sermon on the mound', during which she lectured Scots (of all people) on thrift, self-reliance and charity, is one reason. The misguided 'test' of the Poll Tax north of the border is another. But worse, much worse, seems to be the fact that she just didn't seem to listen. Most Scots opposed the very rapid run-down of their staple industries, and she did nothing to sweeten the pill - not rhetorically, and not financially. It was a cardinal error for a politician who was actually rather better at listening than her image now suggests. And it has put one of the most sacred of all Conservative (and conservative) sacred cows - the Union itself - at risk.

Here's another: the nationalisation of Britain, as well analysed long ago by Andrew Marr among others. I know that looks and sounds strange, but the greatest paradox of Thatcherite rule was the 'strong state' part of 'the free economy and the strong state'. Mrs Thatcher rolled forward the frontiers of the state in almost every area of social and economic life, drawing those boundaries back only in terms of industrial subsidies and regional spending (and hardly there, either). Universities. The NHS. Local authorities. All were subject to a culture of top-down authoritarianism, auditing and set-everyone-against-each-other performance measurement that took most of the vocation, and a lot of the joy, out of working away at something you love. Want to pinpoint the real culprit for stagnating public service productivity and a kind of creeping paralysis among workers in these supposed 'caring' sectors? Look no further. Whitehall in her time wrested even detailed agendas away from teachers, lecturers, doctors, nurses and councillors, and allowed civil servants and outsourced business consultancies to draw up hard and fast rules that probably made a bit of sense on paper, but didn't mean anything out in the field.

And lastly, there was the tone. Triumphalist, sometimes crowing, always drawing up dividing lines and inviting enemies to take their best shot, Thatcher seemed to revel in being fired at. Fair enough: but she also seemed to revel in pounding other Britons' faces in the dust. You can't say that about any other Prime Minister as long as the memory stretches back. Even Lloyd George, that mercurial wizard of Liberal politics, used to smile at people as he betrayed them. Some of the job losses were inevitable. Some of the collapsed companies were always going to go down anyway. But to say it was good; to say that you didn't regret it. Well, that's why so many people ended up opposing Mrs T. And it assisted with that atomisation, that disintegration, which so many mourn. Who'd have thought I'd end up echoing Russell Brand, of all people? But he's right: if you end up saying that there's no such thing as society, soon there might not be.