Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Lady Thatcher: for good and for ill

Well, she's gone. The woman who defined my first political memories. Who elicited so much love and so much hatred. What's left? For a while, the silence of the empty battlefield; to some extent, the quiet that falls after the long battles that brought great swathes of the country to impotent rage or joy (and an intellectual standstill) long ago. For what more is there to say? No doubt you made up your mind about Lady Thatcher (above) long ago. Most people did. She was that sort of politician.

But with death comes detachment and, perhaps, a first attempt at analysis.

This blog does not really hold with the kind of policies that the Thatcher governments were supposed to stand for - though these were observed more in the breach than in reality (of which more later). But there were, let us be clear, some enormous successes to her name while she was Prime Minister.

How long have you got? Well, let's start with the privatisation of what should have always remained private trading companies - Cable and Wireless, Rolls-Royce, British Leyland, British Airways, British Telecom and the rest. This undoubtedly raised their efficiency and their performance, even if much of that happened in the run-up to the sell-off rather than because of it, and even given that some of these new companies got bought up or collapsed later in the century. Let's go on to a not-insubstantial record on environmental policy, with Thatcher-as-scientist personally interested, warning against climate change and leading the way towards a ban on CFCs, which were helping to cause ozone depletion in the atmosphere. Or let's go on to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, which helped bring the police under control after all the terrible scandals of the 1970s - an act, in its way, as important as the placing of the trade unions under the rule of law themselves. Above all, perhaps, she recognised the potential of Mikhail Gorbachev as the coming man in the Soviet Union, and set out - in a pattern historians are coming to recognise as 'Thatcher Mark II' - to do a deal with him.

We don't actually have time yet to consider her role in smashing trade union power, a not-unmixed blessing that did only some of the work that Harold Wilson's In Place of Strife proposals might have done in 1969 and which Ted Heath's Industrial Relations Act tried to do in 1972. Let's face it: social democracy and technocratic conciliation had been tried, and found badly wanting. But we also have to say that the torture inflicted on British workers was misdirected. Labour relations badly needed rapid reform not so much because the trade unions were too powerful, but because they were old-fashioned, segmented, obsessed with their 'rights' and demarcation lines, and too small - locally, regionally, nationally. None of them dared reach an overall deal with any government when they had to look over their shoulder at each factory's shop steward. Thatcher set out not so much to solve that problem, but just to ignore it and sweep it away in a welter of body blows that left bruises all over the body politic - not just on her targets among union 'militants'. Her 'solution' was the destruction of whole swatches of manufacturing - sectors of the economy that, re-equiped and straightened out, might just have given Germany a run for its money today. But that's another story, for another day. We'll come back to that one.

In other areas, she was a pragmatist - cautious, instinctive, careful not to push on too far ahead of public opinion. And there's nothing wrong with that. She pumped money into the National Health Service. She refused to privatise the railways, (rightly) convinced that their inefficiencies could be dealt with in the public sector. There was an enormous amount of personal kindness under that thick public skin - partly caused itself by being a women from a middle class background, despised by Tory grandees, who helped sweep the culture of bone-headed rich-boy inefficiency out of the City as much as she assaulted the traditionalist views of trade unionists.

But there's probably more red on the debit side of the ledger book than there is black on the credit side. She gave us the cult of leadership and 'conviction' that we have today, in which the public is supposed to look to their leaders for 'belief' and 'commitment'. I'd settle for calm deliberation, formality and problem-solving myself - something in the style of Harold Wilson - but this column is (as ever) in a minority on that one. Shorn of Lady Thatcher's rather formal sense of Cabinet government and accountability - even while bringing in the Poll Tax - later Prime Ministers, such as Tony Blair, were to make a hash of whole policy areas because they 'just knew' 'in their guts' that they were right. Think of Iraq. I could go on.

And remember: behind all the bluster of 'hard choices' and 'cold baths' in and for British industry, a fifth of it was destroyed over just two or three years. That was never meant to happen. What in fact did happen, in a completely haphazard and unplanned manner, was that the hyper-monetarism of her first three years in power pushed sterling up far too high, a process that was accelerated by surging oil revenues and incoming 'hot' money after exchange controls were abolished. Nothing was done to alleviate that crisis. Whole industries that were perfectly viable in more normal times were allowed to go to the wall. It was awful, and worse than awful: it was an avoidable policy error, of the like a government led by Denis Healey or Roy Jenkins would never have made. It made the economy very unstable, subjecting it in 1979-83 to an accidental shock therapy that even Nigel Lawson's and Gordon Brown's more broad-based approaches have yet to rescue it from in parts of the UK.

I'm not sure what History will say. It's too early for that. But this is what this historian is saying right now: despite a huge record of achievements on the supply side of the economy, the vast damage done to Britain's economic future by the creation of an army of disaffected, apathetic, damaged and deskilled workers, and the country's depleted infrastructure - in short, by very badly designed macro-economic policies - outweigh the good done in detail. It was Thatcher who first 'parked' millions of workers on Disability Benefit - something to recall when next those workers are themselves under assault for being 'lazy' or 'workshy'.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this balanced and measured opinion. Much as my recent and now serendipitously timed coursework essay concluded too: http://jockcoats.me/does_thatcherism_mark_radical_break_british_politics