Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher - In Memoriam

It would be churlish for someone with an interest in politics not to remark on the passing of Britain's longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th Century. When Margaret Thatcher left 10 Downing Street on November 22nd 1990, it marked the end of more than a decade in office.

Margaret Thatcher's death, as was the case often in her life, has evoked strong passions. Some mourn her passing and hail her, alongside Churchill, as the foremost political figure of the 20th Century. Others are genuinely happy that she is dead and condemn her for all she did and all she was. This dichotomy has in turn evoked a powerful response and many forums (Netweather for one) have descended into rancour and recrimination.

In truth, I find myself this morning in neither camp.

It is one of the paradoxes of democratic politics that while we argue and indeed fight for the right to have a say once every five years, there are all too many people who yearn for "strong" leadership as though once the ballot boxes are open and the votes counted, all debate stops and the elected Prime Minister should have carte blanche to govern as he or she sees fit. The truth is that in a democratic system, the debate never stops and politicians either have to acknowledge public opinion and try to move with it or ignore public opinion and try to change it.

Margaret Thatcher was unreservedly in the latter camp. She was called a "conviction" politician which in essence meant she was right and while she would try to persuade you she was right it would make no difference if she were unable to do so. Indeed, as Hugo Young has observed, she seemed almost to revel in the unpopularity of her position on an issue. The more people told her she was wrong (and particularly if they were experts or academics), the more she believed she was right. Call that a messianic complex if you wish but Margaret Thatcher came to believe fundamentally that not only did she speak for the silent majority of the British people (indeed, not so silent if the election results were any guide) but that she represented that majority and was governing for them.

She was at times thwarted - on the Poll Tax, despite her inherent belief in the concept, it became clear that it was electorally disastrous for her Party and on Europe, she was dragged kicking and screaming into the ERM against her better judgement and frequently found herself at loggerheads with senior members of her Cabinet.

As with so much else, Margaret Thatcher's dominance of the political scene owed much to good fortune. Unlike David Cameron, Thatcher had served a long apprenticeship in Parliament having been first elected in 1959. She served as Education Secretary in the Heath Government from June 1970 until its fall in February 1974.

By then, she had become disenchanted with Heath's leadership and with the narrow defeat in the October 1974 election, it became clear Heath's leadership was under threat but Thatcher was far from being the obvious successor. Indeed, the mantle for the Right was seen as being with Keith Joseph and he was the leading public critic of the record of the Heath Government and a convert to the economic theories of monetarism. However, a controversial speech in October 1974 when Jospeh appeared to argue in favour of selective control of the population (eugenics) ended his leadership ambitions.

Margaret Thatcher inherited that mantle and with the aid of Edward du Cann and others, mounted a successful putsch against Heath in February 1975, She was able to galvanise support and build a decisive advantage before William Whitelaw, the establishment candidate but hamstrung by his loyalty to Heath, could organise. It would turn out to be a prophetic echo of events fifteen years later.

The fact was that the Shadow Cabinet Margaret Thatcher inherited in February 1975 was not filled with friendly faces. Indeed, Thatcher had few allies and it wasn't thought at the time she would last long as Party leader. Once again, good fortune of a sort intervened. The Wilson and later Callaghan Governments lurched from crisis to crisis but even so it was generally thought that with a few months of stability and improving economic conditions from the Lib-Lab Pact, Callaghan could go to the country in the autumn of 1978 and would likely win a new mandate.

He didn't and the ensuing winter saw a catastrophic series of strikes compounded by cold weather to make what is now known as the "Winter of Discontent". Bereft of Parliamentary allies, the Callaghan Government succumbed to a No-Confidence vote in March 1979. The ensuing election saw the Conservatives swept to power with a majority of 43. Indeed, looking back, given the political and economic collapse of the Government and country, it's a wonder Labour still polled 37%.

The Conservatives won only 44%, down on their winning number from 1970, but the mandate in the south in particular weas decisive. The Winter of Discontent had convinced many that the corporatist style of Government, indeed the post-war concensus as a whole, had failed, and that it was time for change.

Margaret Thatcher and her supporters had come to the same conclusion earlier and had followed the ideas of the Institute of Economic Affairs based on the teachings of Hayek and the Austrian Economic School. They advocated lower taxes, deregulation of business and privatisation defined asd the sale of shares in former State-owned enterprises to the public and their conversion to profit-making businessers which in theory (though not often in fact) would face competition.

Thatcher also faced the powerful vested interests of the Trade Unions but the Winter of Discontent had destroyed much of the support the Unions had enjoyed and by a combination of legislation and economic rebalancing, the manufacturing and industrial base on which the Union movement had been built was systematically undermined. The closed shop and secondary picketting were ended freeing up workers from the tyranny of having to join a union at all.

The first term of the Thatcher Government can be split into two halves - pre and post-Falklands. The seminal event proved to be the Argentinean invasion of the Falkland Islands on April 2nd 1982. Margaret Thatcher tapped into the groundswell of public anger and international outrage and wasd able to dispatch a military force which, not without some good fortune of its own, swiftly defeated the largely conscript Argentine forces and in mid-June, the islands were liberated and Thatcher reaped the political benefit.

Prior to the invasion, however, it had all been very different. The economic measures brought in by Chancellor Geoffrey Howe to undo the damage of the Labour Government proved to be shock therapy of the most extreme kind. Inflation rose briefly but then so did unemployment especially in the North and Scotland which had never voted for Thatcherite Conservatism. Economic discontent spilled into political and social discontent and the summer of 1981 was marked by rioting in inner-city London and Liverpool, a precursor of the events of 2010. Politically, the seemingly abrasive nature of the economic policies was causing discontent within the Conservative Party with men such as James Prior and Ian Gilmour opening voicing their concern while the Labour Party was in a process of schism which would lead to the creation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

The SDP, whose legacy has arguably been more influential than Margaret Thatcher's, came to be seen as an attractive home for non-socialist voters concerned by the stridency of Thatcherism. In the autumn of 1981 and early 1982, the SDP won in Crosby and Hillhead and polls showed them tearing vast chunks out both Conservative and Labour votes,

The Falklands changed all that - Margaret Thatcher was able to ride the wave of patriotic fervour to a landslide vistory in the June 1983 election though the party's vote share fell by 1.5%. The landslide was down to the almost-evenly divided vote on the centre and centre-left which enabled the Conservatives to win a raft of unlikely victories.

With a majority of 144, the second Thatcher term would turn out to be the most radical since Attlee's Labour Government in 1945. Privatisation was advanced with vigour with telephones and utility companies all swept out of public ownership. The economy grew strongly as the international economic situation became more benign yet the benefits of that wealth seemed to be accentuated toward the wealthy and those living in the south. As the second term advanced, Europe began to come on to the political radar. Margaret Thatcher spoke atrongly against a federal Europe but was always a supporter of the Single Market.

Closer to home, the Thatcher Government had always taken a very firm line on Ulster. This was the result of the botched Heath negotiations at Sunningdale as well as the murder of Thatcher's close political ally, Airey Neave, just before the 1979 General Election. The hunger strikers such as Bobby Sands had caused considerable unrest during 1981 but the Thatcher Government had stood firm and even when the IRA blew up the Grand Hotel at Brighton during the Conservative Conference (an attack which Thatcher was fortunate to survive unscatched), there was only defiance.

The benign economic conditions, aided by the individual wealth gained from privatisation dividends (the shares always opened well above their asking price ensuring an instant profit of the majority who immediately sold their shares to banks and other institutions thereby creating not a shareholder democracy as proponents of privatisation wanted but institutions run by and for the benefit of banks) as well as the sale of council houses which had allowed many to own their home for the first time as well as triggering a large-scale property boom which meant all homeowners saw the vlaue of their assets rising well above inflation, augured well for a third election victory and so it proved.

In 1987, the Conservatives won a second landslide with a majority of 102. The Conservative vote share again fell marginally but Labour's small recovery enabled some of the more fanciful results of 1983 to be reversed. Nonetheless, re-election enabled Thatcher to recast the Cabinet even more firmly in her own image. Howe had long since been replaced by the more reliable Lawson and while "favourites" such as Cecil Parkinson and John Moore had not lasted the course, the 1987 election marked (arguably) the zenith of Thatcher's power.

The fall has been well documented in many other places. The years from 1987 to late 1990 saw an increasing series of crises and problems with the economy flagging under high inflation arguably the response to the financial crash of 1987 (and again echoes of Quantitative Easing today). Thatcher's own political position was undermined by dissent over Europe and the Poll Tax and in the end the Party realised that they stood a very good chance of losing the next election were she to still be the leader. As she herself had done in February 1975, Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe orchestrated her fall and she left Downing Street, not as a result of the democratic will of the people nor even as a result of losing an election for the leadership (she won the first ballot 204 to 152 if memory serves) but because the rules of the Conservative leadership game meant she hadn't won well enough.

Her influence over the Party remained strong for years after her departure - her tacit endorsement for both John Major and William Hague were factors in their election but by 2001 she mattered much less.

Her legacy or rather the legacy of the policies that she adopted remains in UKIP and the anti-Coalition Conservatives but ironically I would argue that the politician of the 1980s who has most strongly influenced today's leaders is David Owen.

Do I mourn her passing? Not especially, no more than the passing of anyone not immediately known to me though I understand the sadness of friends and family and those who knew her personally.

Did she change Britain? Inasmuch as the Britain of 1990 was very different from the Britain of 1979, yes, but how much of that was down to her? I think a lot of what happened in the 1980s was driven by technological innovation - personal computers, video recorders and mobile phones were all products of the 1980s and from them the smartphones, ipads, dvds and the other gadgets of today can all be traced.

It can, I think, be argued that her Government's policies facilitated those changes but I think they would have happened anyway. There were global economic forces which meant that old-fashioned manufacturing was no longer viable and that State ownership of many institutions was no longer affordable. As Bob Hawke showed in Australia, it was a question of recognising the end of the post-war concensus and knowing how to respond to it. Monetarism provided one response - it probably wasn't the only one.

I suspect some form of modified monetarist economic policy would have implemented in the 1980s by whichever Government or Prime Minister had been in office - there really would have been no alternative. All of that said, Margaret Thatcher came to embody that doctrine in its purest form.

The problem with analysing Margaret Thatcher's record is that however much you might conclude that her policies were "right" and her leadership "strong", the fact remains she only carried just over 40% of those who voted with her. She was fortunate, as I've argued, not least in that she never faced a formidable leader of a united Opposition with a coherent alternative policy. She enjoyed a largely friendly press though her Cabinet were much less well treated. Mrs Thatcher herself was beloved by Fleet Street (as it then was) primarily for overseeing the destruction of Union power.

There were large areas of the country, such as the North and Scotland, which never liked her or wanted her. Hers was a Government of the suburbs and the countryside rather than the inner-city. Indeed, it's possible to argue that the Thatcher years did wonders for the cause of Scottish independence though some lowland Scots were among her staunchest admirers. Yet she did divide and provoke and if that's the mark of "strong" leadership, then it's a false quality in my view.

Those who celebrated Margaret Thatcher's death yesterday were only doing so becuase of the impact of what she did on them or on their families. I don't condone but I don't condemn. Those who did well out of the Thatcher years may huff and puff but the fact remains her policies were divisive in a way that those of Tony Blair for instance weren't.

Were they the necessary policies for dealing with the problems facing Britain at the end of the 1970s? Arguably, yes. Was it possible for these to be implemented without drastic social consequences? Again, arguably not, but I would contend that the worst of the consequences of the twin drives for economic growth and the desire to destroy Union power combined to devastate communities with consequences that we live with today.

Thatcherism has not endured as a political doctrine. Its very confrontational nature ensured its downfall and its replacement by a modified form of social democracy yet key tenets especially relating to the curbing of union power remain. The privatisations have remained though they are a long way from that originally envisaged.

So, an era has ended. Margaret Thatcher will be buried next Wednesday but the arguments and recriminations will endure for a long time to come. It is perhaps the fire of the debate that is in many ways her greatest legacy. The truth is that Thatcherism was neither wholly positive nor wholly negative - it played a part in changing the economy, society and politics of the country and of course the people too but not as much as its proponents suggest. Nor was it wholly malign - the end of traditional manufacturing was inevitable and prolonging the agony would have done no one any favours.

Margaret Thatcher recognised the importance of the environment and recognised the potential damage of climate change - her remedies were not those of the Greens but have perhaps turned out to be more relevant. Where she did fail and fail badly in my view was in not recognising the demographic timebomb of an ageing population. This was known in the 1980s and economic policies to encourage savings should have been followed but Thatcherism was all about consumption and the current problems with pensions have their origins in her tenure at Downing Street.

I regard her record as mixed - slightly more positive than negative. I think she changed society less than is supposed and the legacy of her policies is perhaps less clear than stated. Through longevity, she became a major international figure though her role in ending the Cold War, for example, is nothing compared to that of Mikhail Gorbachev for example. She was a divisive figure but the necessary policies were inevitably divisive as they recognised the fundamental economic unviability not just of industries but whole communities. Attitudes to Government changed under her leadership as did attitudes to society and the obligations we have as individuals within that society.

As to whether that represents a positive or negative legacy, time will tell.

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