10 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher: The Worst PM In History?

First of all, if you want specific reasons why I hate Thatcher - go here for a list.

This post is my deeper philosophical look at her impact.

By "worst PM" I don't mean she was ineffective or wasn't a success. Sadly she succeeded all too well in her aims. Neither was she lazy, I have to admit she worked hard. Nor do I deny her achievements in getting to be leader of a bunch of reactionary Tory men in a sexist country and first female PM in the Western world.

Nor do I claim she was thick, she clearly could think, which makes what she did to this country all the more cruel. She had no excuses, and I think she was the worst PM because she took power when Britain was at its most equal and happy and turned it into the most unequal & miserable it had been since the 1930s.

The question mark in the title is because it is so difficult to gauge the impact of PMs from pre 20th century, and there were bound to be cruel bastards of outrageous vindictiveness that surpassed even Thatcher.

But definitely in recent memory and probably in the last 100 years, no PM did as much damage to society and the economy as Thatcher because no other PM started from such a good base and had such fortuitous times to waste. Which she did in spades. This needs explaining in detail because the myths of the 70s and Labour and the unions of that time are so deep.

First of all, oil! Thatcher had trillions of barrels of the stuff and it was coming on stream just at a time when oil prices were going through the roof. Imagine the disadvantages of Germany & France who had to import this costly stuff. This was an unbelievablr bonus of immense proportions and Thatcher wasted it all.

Secondly, the trillions of revenue created by selling off most state assets from houses to utilities. Prized assets that would have been of benefit to all for generations to come, blown in one decade splurge!

Third, expansion of private credit by abolishing controls. This also provided ammunition for Thatcher to do amazing investment projects if she had directed private investment as such. Not as if this reckless deregulation should have happened at all of course. As we have found out recently with the global financial crash but I'll be generous in saying there was global pressure to do this.

Fourthly the unions. Surely the stifling of innovation, which was indeed the biggest crime they were guilty of, was something Thatcher did well to overcome?

Well the question that should be posed is; did technological change and efficient organisation of industry really need unions completely defeated and manufacturing smashed?

That was certainly the costly route Thatcher took, but could we have took the more co-operative route of Germany & Sweden whose manufacturing is still most advanced & organised in Europe despite being completely unionised?

The answer to this second question is almost certainly yes. The money was there from the 3 massive revenue streams already mentioned to buy off unions and members and invest long term in R&D with a fair share of this wealth.

Don't get me wrong, it wouldn't have been easy, what with acrimonious relations and bone headed union leadership averse to change, but we could have saved whole manufacturing industries and at much less cost in terms of both financial costs of unemployment and blighted communities and cheaper and safer than relying on imports or starting industries from scratch years later.

Of course, maybe this would have needed a Labour government in 1983 or at least a return of a one nation kind of Conservatives a la Heath to see what they could with the oil revenue they both so badly needed earlier in the 70s to save Britain.

And another side effect of non-privatisation and renewed building of decent social housing and long term investment in utilities would have been cheaper costs for workers which has side effect of making work pay. A lot of welfare lifestyles would never of happened. With all the immense economic and social costs of crime and breakdown.

At this point, I can hear a lot of rightwingers sneering that without the break in post-war consensus that Thatcher brought and with it, all the "private enterprise", modernisation couldn't have happened. We would still be paying enormous fees to inefficient unresponsive state owned monoliths taking weeks to install a phone. But this is bollocks!

A lot of technological advances were attributed to Thatcher, yet were completely coincidental. A mobile phone was the size of a car and cost a million pounds in 1979, yet the usable mobiles of the 90s had nothing to do with privatisation. If BT had still been state owned we wouldn't be mobile free.

But the bigger argument is what happened to the much smaller scale industry and manufacturing in France that never went through the "Thatcher revolutuon". State owned companies were supported, they innovated and thrived. Manufacturing was not only protected, it grew in France and diversified. They have a growing successful electronics industry, still have THREE French owned car manufacturers when we have no British owned and more components producers. Like I say, all from a tiny base when we had massive advantages. All the workers skills we had, have been lost. But best of all France did this and paid its workers handsomely and kept its unions strong.

The devastation wreaked on industrial Northern and Midlands Britain was largely avoided in industrialised parts of France which re-invented itself.

And to cap it all France is still managing better growth now. None of the so called handicaps of unions and high wages are making France do worse than us. They manage better productivity and socially and economically are in a much better place.

That was a long digression I know but I hope you understand why it was needed. And there are other examples of how state support for industries in other countries was a success contrary to Thatcher doctrine, e.g. in South Korea and Japan.

So to other advantages that Thatcher had - social cohesion.

Surveys have long suggested the 70s were the happiest times in Britain. There were real communities that were destroyed and crime doubled under Thatcher as inequality spiralled. This community spirit could have performed real good. The fight against climate change and properly funded public transport could have built new towns for the eco age instead of run down new spaced out box estates filled with speeding cars mowing down pedestrians and cyclists.

The doing everything on the cheap and short termism of Thatcher's Britain meant our people got miserable as their quality of life and environment deteriorated.

Then there was the health of the nation. One of the first things I remember is the meanness of Thatcher's decision to take my milk as a 5 year old while she was Education minister. Regardless of the health implications, it was depressing. Then as I left school she removed dentistry & optometry from the NHS, removing the habit of going to the dentist or opticians for millions scared at the cost with predictable results.

The car dependency culture accelerated and exercising got more difficult and unpleasant as open green safe spaces disappeared from working class areas and even schools causing obesity and boredom or stress. Even schools gave up and the food industry deteriorated into pushing the most unhealthy cheap food on our children as Thatcher removed regulations.

Life got shitter for the poor and work was less worthwhile as welfare provided basics workers had had taken away. The counter productive stupidity of all this seemed lost on Thatcher. As she struggled to understand the growth of the underclass she was creating. She turned to moral crusades but her ministers own hypocrisy undermined that.

Finally, the deregulation of finance. This obviously was global and led from the US, but Thatcher could not understand the harm in allowing banks to push debt onto an increasingly desperate poor surrounded by consumerist temptation. As Chris Dillow put it, Thatcher expected the restraint of her dad, not the profligacy of her son.

And the corruption of finance, the cosying up to gangster press barons, and police state of Thatcher told us she was closer to totalitarian Soviets than she ever was to this mythical freedom that the most vicious uncaring capitalists proselytise to the poor about.

So what does all this tell us about how Thatcher changed Britain? (Cos she certainly did). What is her legacy. Can it be summed up with a simple phrase? Well the closest I think is; for all her talk of morality & restraint her philosophy was actually the opposite. Unrestrained immorality. Money over humanity. We need to get back what is really important - people having fun in each other's company. Interactive quality of life, not quantity of possesions! Making money IS important, just not at the price that Thatcher & her next generation of Tories place on it. Nowhere near.


  1. No, Blair and Brown were far worse as they took Thatcherism to extremes.

    John Major was the best. Low house prices, Sunday shop opening and longer pub hours. Complete inactivity on economic policy and he started no wars. What's not to like?

  2. Back to basics? ERM debacle? Cones hotline? Finally closing down mining? Mass repossessions? 3m unemployed again? I feel a list coming on.

  3. Back to basics? ERM debacle? Cones hotline? Finally closing down mining? Mass repossessions? 3m unemployed again? I feel a list coming on.

  4. May I add rail privatisation to your list please, Neil?