There are several key features of Thatcherism. They include the following.

Doctrinaire adherence to monetarist economic theory:
A belief that ‘public’ is bad, and ‘private’ is good:
A belief that ‘there is no such thing as society’:
Military adventurism.

Monetarism

When the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 election, it followed a time of economic crisis – a loan from the International Monetary Fund in 1976, devaluation of the pound and interest rates around 15%. The ‘winter of discontent’ of 1978/9 saw the worst industrial unrest in Britain since the General Strike of 1926.

Thatcher decided that a particular economic theory, ‘monetarism’, propounded by Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Alan Walters, was the only possible solution. It was ‘supply side’ regulation. If the amount of money was reduced, prices (and inflation) would drop. She said that ‘There is no alternative’ (‘TINA’). The economy was regulated according to various ‘money supply’ figures ‘M1, M2,’ etc.

The effect of this policy was to reduce the size of the economy, and in particular to destroy much of Britain’s manufacturing industry. Margaret Thatcher was willing to see thousands put out of work rather than modify her application of monetarist theory. Unemployment reached 3 million in 1980.

Just as Edward Heath, the previous Conservative prime minister, had inflicted huge economic damage through his imposition of a ‘3 day week’ in 1973 in the face of a miners’ strike, saying that ‘there was no alternative’ because there were ‘insufficient coal stocks to fuel the power stations’ – a claim which turned out not to be true – so Margaret Thatcher’s claim that ‘there is no alternative’ to monetarism was open to challenge, but she was still willing to sacrifice many people’s livelihoods for the sake of her economic dogma.

In fact, far from its being beyond doubt that her theory was right, in March 1981 The Times published a letter from 364 economists saying ‘there is no basis in economic theory …. for the government’s present [monetarist] policies’. For many ordinary people, whose livelihoods had been ruined by these policies, it created lasting distrust in politicians that a government could ignore the fact that there was principled disagreement among those best qualified to judge the wisdom or otherwise of what the government was dogmatically insisting on doing – and that the government preferred to stick to its questionable dogma rather than to maintain stable employment for the majority of the population.

Thatcherist economic policies, for example the abolition on restrictions affecting share dealings (the ‘Big Bang’, or deregulation of the stock market in 1986), harmed manufacturing industry and benefitted services such as banking, insurance and other ‘City’ businesses. This meant that for those without the necessary professional qualifications to work in the service sector, i.e. the vast majority, who worked in factories, employment became much more uncertain and the expectation of a single career for life disappeared. Of a working population only a tiny minority work in the favoured service sector. Apprenticeships have drastically reduced in number. All this has militated against social cohesion, and resulted in serious riots in Liverpool in 1981. People no longer had the ‘wartime spirit’ of working together for the good of the country as a whole.

It is noteworthy that David Cameron is again pursuing classically Thatcherist deflationary economic policies and justifying them by asserting that ‘there is no alternative’. Just as in the early 1980s, public spending of all types is being sharply reduced, and a recession made worse thereby. However, to the contrary, public investment, for example in major infrastructure projects, has been a powerful instrument in reviving economies in recession, for example under President Roosevelt in the USA in the 1930s, when a major road-building programme was undertaken, which created jobs and built useful assets conducive to economic growth – i.e. better roads. By eschewing such public investment, Thatcherist economic policies are still damaging the British economy, and putting many people out of work. There have again been riots.

Margaret Thatcher had never studied economics (she studied Chemistry at Oxford, and subsequently read for the Bar), and she failed to perceive some very important differences between British business practice and, for example business practice in Germany and Japan, with the result that British manufacturing has become less competitive. Industrial loans in Britain typically mature, i.e. have to be repaid or re-financed, over a much shorter period than loans in Germany or Japan, where the repayment period is much longer – typically seven years as against three. British manufacturers are rarely led by managing directors who are engineers, whereas German or Japanese manufacturers usually are. In consequence there is more emphasis on developing and perfecting better products than in the UK, where accountants rule. It is not accidental that most cars bought in the UK are produced by German or Japanese companies, and that although British car factories are producing large numbers of cars, they are not designed here, and the manufacturers are not British companies. Thatcherism has fatally weakened British manufacturing companies.

Public bad – private good

Margaret Thatcher, as a child of a successful shopkeeper, became successful, in the sense that she became prime minister rather than the successor in title to her father’s business, through hard work and application, she believed. She never acknowledged that she had received any public benefit. Her father sent her to a fee-paying, private school, and she did not win a scholarship at Oxford. Although in reality she owed a very considerable debt to her father for the privileged start in life which she received, she developed a strong belief that a person’s success or failure depends above all on their own efforts – every person is the author or their own success or failure, according to her.

This led to her despising public investment. She is reported to have said that, if one is on a bus after the age of 26, it is a sign of failure! (Interview on Thames TV in 1976). She despised universities, because she believed that they fostered belief in socialism (irrespective which subject one studied). Similarly she saw no merit in museums or theatres, and she almost never used trains.

Monetarism involved a belief in markets as measures of value. Things were only worth what someone was willing to pay for them. If something could not be bought, it had – according to Margaret Thatcher – no value. This reinforced her antagonism towards the arts, pure academic activity and research.

Her private good/public bad analysis was nowhere more clearly shown than in her policy to sell off council houses. She restricted funding to local councils so severely that they had to raise money by selling off their assets – of which the biggest was their stock of council houses. She forced councils, by various means, to sell their stock of houses at an undervalue, and offered subsidised loans to tenants in order to facilitate their purchases.

She believed that it was ‘better’ for people to own their own houses rather than to rent them. Houses were ‘better’ under private ownership. Of course in turning former council tenants into property owners, she had a gerrymandering objective, to manufacture Conservative voters. She was never censured for this although her close friend and supporter, Dame Shirley Porter, was ‘surcharged’ (in effect, fined) £27 million for a similar gerrymandering policy in the London Borough of Westminster in 2004. The sell-off of council houses, coupled with a policy which forbade councils from reinvesting the proceeds in replacement new houses, was to change the economic outlook for working-class people radically.

When council housing was readily available, people could undertake relatively menial jobs, and accept relatively low pay, and still enjoy a decent standard of living. Council houses were well built according to the so-called Parker-Morris standards, which laid down, for example, minimum sizes for rooms. By contrast, private developments were not subject to the same requirements. By being a council tenant, a worker was to some extent protected from the vagaries of the economic market, whereas once the same person had bought their council house, they were exposed to market forces such as interest rate rises. In order to enjoy the same standard of living, they needed bigger salaries – which employers were not willing or able to pay. The result was ever more unemployment.

The idea that only markets are reliable indicators of value was – and is – central to Thatcherism. Although she herself shied away from introducing marketisation into the National Health Service, her successors, such as Andrew Lansley in the Cameron government, have embraced the ideas of competition between hospitals and other ‘suppliers’ of medical ‘services’ for ‘customers’. This completely contradicts the founders’ idea that the NHS should be a source of treatment and healing for sick people irrespective of cost – and that the cost should be met out of taxation.

The likely outcome of this is to make the NHS more like the American health system – available, and very good, provided that the patient has private resources, in wealth or insurance coverage (itself often prohibitively expensive), to pay for the treatment. In the USA, poor people suffer and die, simply because they are too poor to pay for medical treatment. This is the likely outcome of Thatcherist policy in relation to the NHS.

‘No such thing as Society’

Margaret Thatcher used this phrase in an interview with a journalist from the magazine ‘Woman’s Own’ in 1987, following her third election victory. She believed that individuals could determine their own success or failure, perhaps by working hard. In 1981, her follower Norman Tebbit told unemployed people that his father had tackled being unemployed by ‘getting on his bike’ and seeking out employment. She had no understanding that the majority of working people have very little economic autonomy: far from being able to get on their bikes, metaphorically speaking, they have no bikes to ride, and little of the knowledge or mental ability to do so. They do not have the cushion of capital savings to fall back on which her policy calls for. Tebbit’s saying was, in effect, a cruel taunt.

Thatcher and her followers believed that, if someone was out of work, it was their own fault – they had lost their job because they had not worked hard enough, or they had gone on strike for better conditions. It was not understood that many places of work closed as a direct result of Thatcher’s economic dogma, the policy of restricting money supply, and through that, of restricting investment. The employees were thrown out of work without regard for their diligence or abilities. Although Margaret Thatcher may have thought that her policies were designed to promote self-reliance, in many people they produced only despair and cynicism.

Thatcher saw the protection which trades unions gave to their members, in the ultimate by striking, simply as an impediment to economic growth. She did not value job security for the mass of people, and therefore she passed a number of laws which restricted the ability of the trades unions to take industrial action in order to protect their members’ employment rights. The most damaging of these, the Employment Act 1980, outlawed ‘secondary action’; in other words, a union could strike only in furtherance of a trade dispute in which it (its members) were directly involved.

The result has been a decline in union membership and the perception among employers that the UK offers workers the least protection against loss of employment of any European country. Recently the Cameron government commissioned a report from Adrian Beecroft, an entrepreneur and Conservative Party donor, which recommended that employment protection regulation should be watered down so that the UK would emulate the USA, where employers can hire and fire at will. There is no evidence that reducing job security even further would in any way promote economic growth. In the strongest European economy, Germany, unions are represented on the supervising boards of companies and employment is strongly protected.

Where, as a result of their being able to exercise leverage despite the removal of much of their power, unions can maintain a credible threat of industrial action, as the RMT Union under Bob Crow does, its members enjoy much better rates of pay and job security than similarly-qualified people in industries where there is no powerful union to protect them. Thatcherists forget that there are many more potential victims – workers – than employers. Union power benefits society rather than the other way round, as Thatcherists would have us believe.

Thatcher’s nostrum that ‘There is no such thing as society’ has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In removing statutory protections and emasculating collective organisations who could stand up to those who threatened the security of ordinary workers, Thatcherism has further weakened the bonds of society. The emphasis is on individual success: there is no real concern for the weak, the poor, the ill and the old. Again, the change from the caring society enjoyed during the 1939-45 war and its aftermath is striking, and disastrous.

Military Adventurism

Margaret Thatcher’s electoral fortunes were waning badly in 1982. She embraced the Falklands campaign despite the following:

British foreign policy over the Falklands towards Argentina had for several years been directed towards negotiating handing over sovereignty, but leasing back the islands in a similar way to what had happened between Britain and China over the New Territories in Hong Kong in 1898. The ‘polar research’ ship (effectively, a warship) HMS ENDURANCE was to be scrapped under Thatcher’s cuts in public expenditure. The Argentine government could be excused for misreading the signs, and drawing the conclusion that Britain cared little for the Falklands.

Having decided that it was a matter of principle that the Argentine invasion was to to be contested, just as in other spheres Thatcher was willing to risk people’s livelihoods for the sake of a dogma, here she was willing even to risk lives. Every ship which went to the Falklands was hit by Argentine bombs. By luck, all passed through the hulls of the target ships and, their fuses having been set incorrectly, exploded harmlessly on the sea bed. The BELGRANO was effectively a sitting duck which was turning away from the Royal Navy – but Margaret Thatcher personally ordered her to be sunk, with the loss of hundreds of lives. Thatcher relied on the bravery and military expertise of the British forces to draw the public’s attention away from the disastrous effects of her economic policies, and give her a war leader’s halo.

This has had a terrible effect. Thatcher’s successors, Blair and Brown, and now Cameron, believe in military might as an instrument of policy. Countless Iraqis were slaughtered through Blair’s willingness to adopt GW Bush’s doctrine of a ‘war on terror’, even despite the lack of any UN mandate. Britain went to war against Iraq in breach of international law – but in the mind of the Thatcherists, this did not matter, so long as the war was ‘successful’.

Similar bloody logic has applied in Afghanistan. Originally our forces were committed as peacekeepers, and the mission was sanctioned by a vote in the UN. We were assured by a government minister that there would be no need for bloodshed and that our troops would be home soon. That was in 2002, and hundreds of British troops have been killed and maimed since. The government puts out the line that our military activity is allowing the development of settled government and education for women – that, in the face of hundreds of years of history, Afghans can be persuaded to change their beliefs by the use of force.

The war in Afghanistan is useful for the Cameron, Thatcherist, government, in distracting attention from the dire economic situation at home, which their dogma is making worse. There are parallels with Thatcher in 1982. The sight of the British Paralympians, missing limbs as a result of being hurt in Afghanistan, was appalling. These brave people had been maimed in a completely futile cause – but the Thatcherists do not care, preferring to stick to spurious dogma about ‘achievement’ in Afghanistan.

Now as our troops are finally being pulled out, the US Ambassador to NATO, Mr Daalder, has argued that the money saved should not be put towards relieving the hardship caused by economic failure, but to more spending on arms. Thatcherist orthodoxy is that ‘might is right’.

Conclusion

Thatcher and her successors destroyed the post-war consensus between the haves and the have-nots. She destroyed the idea that the strong had a duty to protect the weak in society. Her analysis of the parable of the Good Samaritan was that the Samaritan was only able to be charitable because he was rich. The obscenity of this is breathtaking, but the damage goes very deep. Uncritical acceptance of Thatcher’s TINA has become so ingrained that few perceive how repellent her morality was. As a result, our society has no stable basis any more. The guiding principle, set by the market, is dog-eat-dog.

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