The Thatcher Legacy

Friday 19 April, 7:00 pm for 7:30, Unity House, Fennel Street Loughborough.

When Margaret Thatcher came to power the economy was in difficulties. She oversaw some massive historical changes which were deeply damaging to many peoples lives. How much of this was inevitable?

She had strong principles, was an astute and hard working politician, a committed parliamentarian and above corruption. However she embraced and imposed the ideas of market fundamentalism.

The person has died, the ideology lives on.

John Greenwood adds:

Here is the figure I showed at the discussion. It shows how the income of the richest 20% almost doubled but that of the poorest 20% hardly changed:

Data came from:–12–december-2008/data–the-distribution-of-household-income-1977-to-2006-07.xls

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5 Responses to The Thatcher Legacy

  1. Thoughts on the apparent inevitability of Thatcherism and its modern equivalent :
    ( Geoff Gay 19.04.13.)

    While there is no doubt that Thatcher’s election victory in 1979 was the watershed in British politics, marking the end of the post-war Keynsian consensus and the start of the neo-liberal consensus, discussion of Thatcher’s legacy inevitably begs the question, “Was Thatcherism inevitable and could it have been avoided ?” Yes I know its easy to talk in retrospect, but if we don’t analyse history, we can’t properly learn and apply its lessons.

    The present Tory-led government ranks with, in fact is probably even more right-wing than the Thatcher governments from 1979 to 1990. In both cases, they were preceded by Labour governments which, although they shepherded some important progressive reforms, failed to deal with the economic crises in any ways which could have been either sustainable or of benefit to the mass of people.

    In 1945, Labour was elected on a landslide on the basis of a commitment to far-reaching social-democratic measures, which, on the whole, even in the face of the aftermath of WWII, it carried through. But, in spite of this, it was not re-elected in 1951 ( The results of the 1950 and 1951 elections were eccentrically distorted by the first-past-the-post voting system, but that is another story ). The Tories resumed their role under Capitalism as “the natural party of government” until they were rocked by internal scandal in 1962-4 . In 1964, Wilson only had a tiny majority. Labour was given another chance in 1966, but they largely fluffed it, paving the way for Heath in 1970.
    The two elections of 1974 were virtually repeats of the 64/6 situation, giving Wilson and then Callaghan yet another chance, but this time they did worse than fluff it – they made a total mess of it, so paving the way for Thatcherism. And then Blair, after a long honeymoon period, gave way to the incompetent Brown, and, yet again, Labour effectively prepared the ground for the return of the Tories. So why does this always happen ? Why is Labour so apparently incapable of achieving anything sustainable ? Why does the electorate keep returning to the party whose raison d’etre is to sustain and preserve Capitalism for the capitalists at the expense of about 95% of the population ? Well, our stupid electoral system and the dominance of the right in the media are important factors, but a large proportion of the blame must lie with the Labour Party and the left in general. As explained before, by Richard Johnson and myself ( with organisations like Compass ), we haven’t got a party which understands the Gramscian position that the capitalist hegemony ( deep and broad penetration of civil society and culture ) must be challenged by a counter-hegemonic strategy.

    There are many policy areas which could act as illustrations/exemplars of the point, not least handling of the economy, but, as education is my field of relative expertise, I’ll use that one :

    The 1944 Education Act was a mish-mash of two conflicting aims, on the one hand the desire that all children in England and Wales ( Scotland and Northern Ireland have, throughout the period in question, had separate systems) should have a proper secondary education, and on the other hand the dominance of ideas of innate intelligence backed by the psychometrics propogated by such as Burt and Eysenck. As a result, we had the dreaded 11 Plus Exam. controlling a tripartite system, largely of traditionally academic Grammar Schools with education up to at least 16 ( unless, like my cousin, you were “bought out” in order to leave at 15 ) and so-called Secondary Modern schools ( “when I was a lad of 15, I wanted to prove myself a man, so like a bloody fool, I decided to leave school for the Raleigh” – actually, SecMod pupils didn’t have the option ! ), with a few “Technical” schools as a sort of half-way-house. After the inhuman use put to psychometrics in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the left should have smelled a very dirty rat. The work of Burt, Eysenck and co. almost immediately began to be discredited and much of it was later shown to be actually fraudulent. The Communist Party amongst others were campaigning for Comprehensive Education from about 1950 onwards, and even the Tory education minister Edward Boyle toyed with the idea. But Labour had fallen into the trap and by the time they came back into government in 1964, the tripartite system was well entrenched and difficult to unravel. Labour decided that secondary education should become comprehensive, but they made an awful mess of the process, initially ( 1965) only requesting local authorities to submit schemes, not insisting that they do so until 1976 when it was too late – the Tories repealed the legislation in May 1979, presaging the even more urgent approach of Gove and co. in 2010. The result of all this was that :
    (a) Although most authorities at least nominally went comprehensive, several have retained the tripartite system up to this day.
    (b) In many places, the changeover was handled extremely badly by local authorities, and often the grammar schools were bought off by giving them all the “rich pickings” of the new system ( I’ll tell you in the pub about my experiences in Nottingham and Worksop between 1969 and 1975, and in Leicestershire all the grammar schools became 14-18 schools and all the secmods became 11-14 schools – in both cases we had a recipes for disaster )
    (c) The English class- ridden system of fee-paying schools, with the “public” (sic) schools at the top of the pyramid, was throughout allowed to continue in its own sweet way.

    Comprehensivisation was not a complete disaster and, on balance, combined with the merger between O level and CSE to form a single assessment at 16+, led to some progress in improving the education of many young people who would not previously have had any opportunity other than to “leave school at 15 and go to work at the Raleigh” ( or, latterly, more likely be unemployed ). But it has also been, in many places, a terrible mess, basically because it was never done properly.
    As early as 1974, the backlash was unleashed with the first of the notorious “Black Papers”, and,
    in his 1976 Ruskin speech, although Callaghan bemoaned “those who claim to defend standards but who in reality are simply seeking to defend old prejudices and inequalities”, the thrust of his speech was that the Black Paper writers had a point. So the way was paved for the education part of Thatcherism which stopped any further progress towards a truly comprehensive system and, with open enrolment, began the process of marketising education. In a very similar way, the Blair/Brown government has, by starting the process of taking schools out of local democratic accountability, paved the way for the Gove full-blown onslaught.

    The lesson is that, if the hegemony is not challenged in a very organised, concerted and analytically-considered way, the Tories, the right and the growing inequality of our society will always win because they support, live by and control that society. Until we have a political party based on that premise which can seriously challenge for power or a large share in power, Thatcherism/ neo-liberalism ( and Goveism) will continue to be the natural follow-up to interludes of governments a bit to the left of the Tories.

    GG 19.04.13.

  2. The Thatcher years saw the income of the richest 20% nearly double while for the poorest 20% it hardly changed.

  3. Martin Sears says:

    ‘Thatcherism’ in context.
    Where to start. I do not claim to have any particular expertise, relative or otherwise, other than merely having survived for nigh on 70 years. My perception is that whilst Britain is not perfect i can not think of a better country in which to live – for many reasons.

    I do recall the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Britain, and its role in the world in the 21st century, is in a very different place.

    Scientific and technological innovation has brought forth new products and services completely beyond the stereotypical and sterile imagination of the early 19th / 20th century political ‘thinkers’. The increases in productivity across the ever widening variety of endeavours of human economic activity potentially confounds both the Malthusian and the Marxist nightmares. Life for the mass of the British public has been transformed. We are all interdependent now.

    Full employment was the common strategy of the post war UK governments. In my personal experience, in engineering, the medium and large companies (1,000 to 30,000+ employees) were also run along paternalistic lines. Unfortunately, as one elderly works superintendent put it to me in the 1970s: “Kindness is often taken as weakness.”

    ‘Thatcherism’ was borne out of the the chaos that increasingly consumed much of British industry in the late 1960s and 1970s. While West Germany appeared to have cracked the problem, Britain became embroiled in a descent into endemic industrial strife that caused massive inflation, balance of payments deficits, continual pressure on Sterling and ultimately culminated in the ‘Winter of Discontent’.

    By 1979 the average Joe had become increasingly exasperated by firstly the interference of government in ‘negotiations’ between the employers’ organisations and the applicable trade unions (prices and incomes board etc) and subsequently the irresponsible attitude of leading trade unionists. The Conservatives, under the ‘mentorship’ of Keith Joseph, offered the reinstatement of ‘free collective bargaining’ and were voted in. What the electorate had not twigged was that ‘free’ collective bargaining that did not take account of an increasingly economically competitive world, meant that jobs would be lost if wage increases outstripped productivity increases. The rest is history.

    Between them Scargill et al on the one side and Thatcher et al on the other, created a hell across many parts of Britain that has left deep scars to this day. Irresponsible ‘Intellectual’ idiots like David Starkey played their destructive part using language at the time that inflamed the situation just when common sense and cool heads were required.

    Despite all of that modern Britain is not a static society where everyone ‘knows’ their place (‘Deference’ is not the same as ‘Respect’ and the ‘Educationalists’ made a very bad error of judgement when they proclaimed that ‘respect’ has to be ‘earned’).

    If you want it badly enough and take actions consistent with your aims, have the ability (and yes, inevitably, some luck) you have a very good chance of fulfilling many of your aspirations over your lifetime.

    It is a fact that many hardworking families and individuals have seen their lives transformed for the better over the last 70 years. It is definitely not the case that 95% of the people of this country are ‘victims’ of ‘the system’. Quite the reverse – probably <5%?). And billions of people across the world still look at Britain and aspire to have the same standards of living.

    The transitional production methods brought in by Henry Ford, scorned by many 'academics' (but who, ironically, are amongst those who have benefited the most from the philanthropic dispersal of the wealth directly generated from those techniques), and now superseded by ever greater automation have provided the opportunity for subsequent generations to enjoy an unrivalled standard of living.

    The modern world is increasingly complex and requires the flexibility of everyone. Intergenerational fairness and full strategic co-operation with our EU partners are major factors for ensuring that the increases in standard of living enjoyed by those fortunate enough to live in geographic areas with thriving, very diverse, balanced, local economies are passed on to our children and grandchildren..

    Political dogma of the 'Left' or the 'Right' will not cut it.

    But Mrs Thatcher did not get it all wrong. A property owning, share owning democracy (excluding no-one) is the objective still worth pursuing and most definitely still achievable.

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