Margaret Thatcher, 1925 – 2013

So, Margaret Thatcher has died.

I can’t pretend to be saddened by the news. I’m sorry if that bluntness upsets anyone, but I’m pretty sure Baroness Thatcher herself would not have wanted people who didn’t like her politics to pretend they did. She was a creature of conviction and confrontation, and I suspect she would prefer people to be honest, even on the day of her death.

Neither can I pretend to be gladdened by the news. She left office a little over 22 years ago, and all the harm and suffering she caused dates to before that time. All that happened today was that an old lady in frail health died, and I cannot see that as cause for celebration. I may have cheered Margaret Thatcher’s departure from office, but I do not cheer her death.

Politics aside, I unreservedly extend my condolences to her family (whatever the condolences of a pseudonymous internet stranger are worth). Like her children, I have been bereaved by the death of my mother – it’s a horrible thing, how ever unavoidable and expected it may have been, and they have my sympathy. Like Mrs Thatcher, my father suffered from dementia in his latter years. That experience leads me to suspect that her children may have the sense that their mother had been moving away from them for years, and that today’s event is just the final stage in a long process of bidding her gradually farewell.

As a dementia patient struggling with the effects of multiple strokes and other ailments, I suspect Margaret Thatcher will have required a great deal of assistance in her last weeks, months and years. Luckily – as a successful woman in her own right, and the widow of a wealthy businessman – she will have been able to afford the best care that money can buy. I do not begrudge her that, not for one second. But it must be pointed out that not everyone is so lucky, and that many individuals and families in a similar position are immiserated as a direct result of Baroness Thatcher’s policies.

These days we call the problems of looking after our elders a ‘care crisis’, and by that we mean the difficulty older people have paying for the carers they rely on. Back in the 1980s we used different words – we didn’t talk about carers, but about home helps. They were provided by the local council, so no-one had to worry if they could afford them. Then Margaret Thatcher decided that local councils were a hotbed of inefficient and wasteful spending, mainly because they were not subject to her direct control, and some were controlled by Labour.

The right-wing media leapt into action. There were lots of articles about ‘loony left’ councils funding theatre workshops for one-legged motorcycling lesbians, and an insistence that councils should empty the bins, light the streets, mend the roads and no more. No one talked about home helps, or meals on wheels (the council funded, volunteer run service that used to deliver a daily hot meal and a few friendly words to people who were housebound, immobile and lonely). So the funding squeeze on local councils was accomplished.

The consequences were inevitable. Funding for meals on wheels dried up. Councils began to withdraw many ‘non-essential’ services that had been provided by home helps, and to means test for the remaining ones. At the same time – guided by her ideological faith that the private sector was always better, even when it cost more to provide a worse service – Mrs Thatcher was also drafting the legislation that would force councils to contract out the services they provided to private companies. Those private companies, of course, charge the council as much as they can, and spend as little as they can providing the services, in order to maximise their profits.

That’s how, 25 years on, you end up with a ‘care crisis’. Elderly people who’ve worked all their lives terrified about paying for their care, because the services are so severely means-tested that you have to be practically homeless and destitute before you get them for free. Under-qualified and ill-motivated carers, because the private care companies pay minimum wage, and anyone who can gets a better-paid job. Carers who are in a rush, inattentive to their duties and brusque because their employers don’t allow them enough time to get from job to job and they are always running late. A high staff turnover rate, thanks to both of those factors, so some confused elderly people in need of a little reassurance from a friendly face never see the same carer twice in a row.

Mrs Thatcher, no doubt, didn’t have to deal with any of that. Her carers, I trust and hope, had the time to be patient with her, even when she was in a difficult mood, or was just confused and frightened. They had the opportunity, I’m sure, to be kind, and the training to understand how to ease her anxieties. I say again: I don’t begrudge her any of that, not for one second. But I want the same for everyone, and Mrs Thatcher, the politician, emphatically did not. She wanted rich and poor alike to have everything they could afford, even if that meant that the poor had less than they needed.

We’re told so often that Mrs Thatcher won the ideological war, how even the Labour party is Thatcherite now, that we forget just how right-wing she was, and how far beyond the mainstream her views seem now. These days, all but the hardest right of Conservatives talk about a universal NHS free at the point of delivery as the best of British, but Thatcher wanted to abolish universality, so that the NHS would become basic, low quality, and for the poor only. Conservatives these days talk with approval of welfare as a necessary safety net (before going on to bemoan that it has been supposedly abused by a class of ‘skivers’). Thatcher would not have agreed with them: part of her understanding of ‘Victorian values’ was that it was the fear of destitution, just as much as the promise of wealth, that had driven industrious attitudes and ‘made Britain great’ during the 19th century.

We also seem to be encouraged to forget Mrs Thatcher’s failures. Scant attention is paid to the fact that she was toxically unpopular during much of her first term, and that she only won re-election because Argentina invaded the Falklands and the Labour party disintegrated. If she had sought re-election without a successful military adventure under her belt, and facing a Labour party that still counted popular politicians like Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams among its assets, the outcome of the 1983 election would almost certainly have been different. Needless to say, if she had lost power in 83, before she had a chance to instigate most of her far-reaching changes, her legacy and reputation would seem rather different.

In fact, the idea of Margaret Thatcher as an entirely successful prime minister is mistaken. It only seems that way because we don’t dwell on the fact that she came to power promising to control inflation, but it peaked at almost 22% during her first term in office, and was only below 3% for four months during her entire premiership. (We’re also encouraged not to reflect on how much of the increase in economic output during her time in office reflected an actual increase in production, and how much reflected spiralling price increases instead.) Our attention is carefully directed away from wondering how much of the ‘economic miracle’ of the 1980s can be attributed to her decision to float nationalised industries at substantially below their true value, and to sell council houses to their sitting tenants for far less than they were worth. Both decisions short-changed the taxpayer, but made sure that both shares and house prices would seem to be soaring in value. Take away the soaring stockmarket and the housing bubble, and the miracle would seem rather less miraculous. Take away North Sea oil revenues, too, and it might have started to seem wholly forlorn.

In truth, the seeds of a lot of our current problems were sown under Margaret Thatcher. It was under her government that the idea of the government borrowing money to cut taxes during a boom took hold, and that approach has contributed to the current debt crisis. Her policy of selling council houses (and refusing to let councils build replacement properties) led directly to the current shortage in social housing, and triggered the hysterical boom in house prices that has left prices beyond the reach of many. Both of those factors – the shortage of council houses, and the impossible cost of buying a home – have also stimulated the demand for private rented property, thus driving up the cost and leading directly to the scandal of billions of pounds of public money being handed to private landlords in the form of housing benefit. Supposedly Margaret Thatcher’s dream was of a property-owning democracy, but her policies, as continued and expanded by her successors, have created the conditions for the precise opposite.

There’s no question that the country changed under Margaret Thatcher, although some of the most profound changes had been gathering steam for a while, and only came to fruition under her leadership. Most obvious amongst those is that the country finally gave up on the idea of a planned, collectivised economy. We’d only ever pursued it in a relatively half-hearted way (many industries were only nationalised at the point it became apparent that they’d go bankrupt if they weren’t) and the policy had been running into serious trouble for decades, but the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher’s premiership was the time when the idea was finally abandoned.

In my view, that was an inevitable and necessary change. As a libertarian socialist, I’m entirely comfortable with the idea of businesses being collectively owned, but I believe they should be collectively owned in the way that John Lewis is – by their employees, not by the state. And planning economies just doesn’t work: all that happens is that bureaucrats end up in charge, and as anyone who’s had experience of a bureaucracy knows, that’s bound to end badly. In the UK, we gave state collectivism and central planning a decent crack of the whip, and we decided they didn’t work. Margaret Thatcher was at hand to deliver the killer blows.

But we’ve also given Thatcherism a decent crack of the whip, and that hasn’t worked out either. Margaret Thatcher believed that the precise opposite of state collectivism and planning – individual entrepreneurship and deregulated markets – would be a panacea. In her philosophy, we had only to close down the nationalised industries, cut ‘the burden of taxation’ and get rid of the ‘dead hand of the state’ in red tape and regulation, and the country would naturally bounce back to prosperity. That hasn’t happened.

Deregulation led directly to the recent economic crisis. Killing the nationalised industries without planning any kind of transition has led to near-permanent recession in some regions, destroyed the social fabric (the thing that allowed us to feel collectively good about ourselves), left the economy over-reliant on services and retail, and the country as a whole unable to manufacture and export our way out of trouble in the current crisis. Cutting taxes didn’t boost government income as claimed, and we had to borrow to make up the shortfall, with disastrous consequences for the national finances. Most people didn’t get more prosperous at all, they just took on more debt, and when the credit dried up suddenly they felt broke, and the retail sector started to struggle. All of these chickens came home to roost at once, in 2008.

The truth is that Mrs Thatcher didn’t solve any of the long-term problems of our country. She was the towering figure in British politics of the last quarter of the 20th century, but she ultimately failed to regenerate the country. When she came to power in 1979 we were a struggling post-industrial country (with a number of zombie industrial enterprises being kept un-dead by national ownership). In 2013 we’re a struggling post-industrial country with a massive consumer debt hangover because we thought we could spend our way out of trouble even though we weren’t earning enough to do so.

It’s a trusim that all political careers are failures. Margaret Thatcher’s certainly was. The economic medicine she gave the country didn’t work, and we’re still facing the same underlying problems we were when she came to power (only now we’re doing it while North Sea oil revenues are drying up, too). She gave us a world of pain for very little gain. She failed to persuade us that there was no such thing as society, and the emblematic figure of Thatcherite Britain – the yuppie estate agent in red braces, quaffing champagne in a city-centre wine bar while he ignores the homeless person outside – is as despised now as he was then.

Margaret Thatcher never even won a majority in a general election. The closest she came was 1979, when 43.9% of votes were cast in her favour (even with the boost of the Falklands victory her share of the vote fell back in 1983). Keep that in mind when you’re thinking about her legacy: she never even persuaded the majority of voters to back her in an election. That’s how out-of-step she was with the country she led.

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2 Responses to Margaret Thatcher, 1925 – 2013

  1. blackberryjuniper says:

    This is way more articulate than the blog I did on the same subject today! As usual, you are more measured, and more factual. I don’t agree with all of your analysis, but I agree with most of it, and thankyou for saying it so clearly.

  2. James Harper says:

    Last paragraph is disingenuous. No prime minister in recent times has persuaded a majority to back them. So is the ‘no such thing as society’ quotation – there’s a reason why left-leaning media don’t reproduce it in full.

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