Labour Party member, Will Matthias, looks at Thatcher’s enduring legacy on today’s politics, and ponders whether the tough medicine was worth it in the end.
Throughout history, the United Kingdom has often been a forerunner in world revolutions. Breakthroughs in every element of academia and indeed, societal change, have often first appeared on the shores of our country. Stretching back to the Magna Carta and the Industrial Revolution all the way up to Dolly the Sheep and the three person baby, Britain has long been a hub of human advancement. But there is one breakthrough in particular that completely flipped the UK and modern politics in Britain on its head. Yes, Britain’s Marmite change came on 4th May 1979, with the election of its first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Love her or loathe her, the Iron Lady’s impact on the UK is undeniable. Her 11-year reign saw war, strikes, redundancy, privatisation, celebration, bombings, several scandals and numerous resignations; amongst the drama of her neo-liberal carpet bombing Thatcher brought sweeping economic and social change to this country. Prior to 1979, a significant proportion of Britain’s workforce were in primary or secondary sectors of work; the most stereotypical career in the ‘80s that you’ve almost certainly about Thatcher’s impact upon was coal mining. Though not actually an extremely large part of Britain’s working make-up, it’s true that coal mining in the UK was useful in meeting the energy needs of Britain during this time.
Whatever your opinion of Thatcher’s actions, her shift towards the free market saw her inadvertently close a number of Britain’s industrial powerhouses. This had enormous effects on Britain’s working people; many were unemployed for years to follow and some lost their homes and families. Strikes are an effective way of getting the government’s attention, but this wasn’t at all the response the unions were after. Thatcher continued her consolidation of the economy and her own political power by stripping back the power of the trade unions to prevent any serious revolt against her policies and she continued to bring change for years to come.
Perhaps you’re wondering how any of that affects you. After all, you may not have lived through Thatcher’s terms as Prime Minister, you may not have lost anything because of her policies and you may be thinking, “Well, she’s dead now and certainly not still shaping modern politics.” Wrong.
The Conservative Party in the modern era has shaken off its former leader and redefined itself from the ashes after numerous defeats, unlike Labour who are still wondering aimlessly after their favourite boy, Blair. But despite this disconnection from party politics (perhaps excluding certain Thatcherite factions), Thatcher’s political actions back in the ‘80s still have enormous effects on Britain’s political landscape.
One of Thatcher’s greatest changes came indirectly from her style of leadership; this has been mentioned before by my colleague Henry Davies in his article on “Presidentialism” in the UK which can be found here. Though Harold Wilson arguably started the shift towards “Presidentialism” in the UK through his so called “Kitchen Cabinet,” Thatcher’s form of controlling her Cabinet was equally dominating, but a great deal more brutal. She was well known for shouting down her colleagues and forcing her own opinions into major decisions so that she effectively ruled as a dictator. This method of leadership caused much dispute in her party; aside from her ungracious removal as leader, the most notable display of disparity amongst the government came from her deputy PM, Geoffrey Howe. His resignation is widely remembered, especially because of his tearful, [in]famous speech in the Commons: “It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find the moment that the first balls are bowled that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.” He refused to work with his Prime Minister after she totally overruled a significant number of Cabinet members’ decisions and many recognise this as the point at which Thatcher lost her footing as party leader. This dominance by Prime Ministers has continued in Britain, pulling us away from the traditional “first among equals” role of the Prime Minster to the over-arching supreme overlord of government decision making.
Even geographically, Thatcher has changed Britain. We often hear of the North-South divide, the clear divisions between land value, economy sizes and social conditions between cities and towns in the South and those in the North. This divide in economic power continues to shape politics in the UK by influencing the way people vote; many remember Thatcher’s impact on the North and subsequently, the majority of Northern working class voters tend to vote Labour (not that they didn’t already, but Thatcher solidified this as political fact) or, more recently, Ukip, and those in South, still feeling the glorious economic effects of Conservative privatisation, tend to vote Conservative. This pattern had been consistently true until the election just gone (although arguably a northern Conservative shift could be seen in 2010, with large numbers of working class voters switching to the blue side of politics in protest of the Blair/Brown administration). The most crucial voting stronghold that Thatcher secured for the left however was Scotland; the crippling “poll tax” introduced in 1988 in Scotland left many with a bad taste in their mouths and the people of Scotland have religiously placed Conservative MPs on the endangered species list ever since.
During the 1980s the economy in the North was ripped apart as industry collapsed under Thatcher’s iron fist, and the Southern economies flourished under intense privatisation and a big push for the services sector in places such as London. The left is fairly united in their hatred of Britain’s first and only female Prime Minister and it’s clear to see why if your family’s income was suddenly pulled from under you and everything you’d ever known was stripped from you. However, Margaret Thatcher saw a very real crisis in Britain – the enormous walk-outs and continuing industrial action enforced by oversized and overpowered trade unions brought Britain to its knees. It’s true, even with Thatcher’s overwhelming reforms Britain did not see prosperity for some time, but the extent to which this country relied on such a volatile, strike-prone sector for its main economic output was ludicrous and wholly unsustainable without innovation, which Britain had under Thatcher.
To put this into a modern context, consider rapidly industrialising China. If one were to suddenly drop nationwide strikes and power shortages on this economic powerhouse, China’s economy would be decimated and a considerable hole would be left in global markets. Thatcher ensured that Britain’s untameable lion was kept under wraps and our economy was kept stable allowing us to remain a leader in economic strength. I feel the deepest sorrow for those that had their livelihoods destroyed by Margaret Thatcher, but the fact cannot be avoided; her actions saved Britain’s economy and brought us to where we are today… economic ruin.
Yes, Thatcher did good things in the short term, but it is unfair to say that her legacy is the sole reason Britain has been propelled to the fifth largest global economy. Indeed, there are many factors that play into Britain’s success, but we are suffering from one of the largest recessions to ever reach our shores and as you’ll often hear from those on the left, making something once in a while wouldn’t hurt.
On the whole, Thatcher’s policy implications were both positive and negative, but in terms of Britain’s current position we have her to thank to a great extent. Without our expansion into the free market and our “special relationship” with the Americans, Britain would’ve been caught up in and tossed aside by the rapid growth of Asian economies. Our place in the G7 now rests almost entirely on a strong foundation of capitalist policy implemented by the baroness. In political terms we still see the effects of Thatcher in our elections and policy making – our “presidential” shift and the grip of neo-liberalism on our decision makers. Most notable of the neo-liberals is Thatcher 2.0, Tony Blair. Softer and more working class-friendly perhaps, but Blair’s 13 years in Number 10 were fuelled by intense acceptance of neo-liberal policies. Attempts by Brown and Miliband to pull Britain away from this political mind-set have ended in crushing defeats so it seems to be the case that people actually like neo-liberalism (after all, Thatcher and Blair remained in office for a total of 21 years). You’ll often hear “All politicians are the same,” and if you’re engaged in politics, you probably disagree with that statement, but in this sense, neo-liberalism has infected all parties, left and right.
As for my opinion of the Iron Lady, I have also found it difficult to accurately say whether or not I like her outright or otherwise, but I will say this; I recognise that Thatcher did many unpopular things and had somewhat of a negative impact on the North of the UK, BUT, I have absolute respect for her incredible intellect, her phenomenal leadership and the way she carried herself in public office. Equally I deeply respect her positive attitude and how she smashed the glass ceiling. Neo-liberalism has many positive attributes and without Thatcher’s innovation, Britain would not even be close to being the fifth largest economy. She was a necessary evil, and she was most definitely not for turning.