Face it: Thatcher Was Right

Opprobrium has been poured on Maggie Thatcher and all her works, especially in Scotland. This last part is understandable because, whatever her vision and commitment and however you view her legacy, she was neither subtle nor broad in her understanding: not only are the Scots bolshie but their culture is as far from the C-of-E-Home-Counties convention that was her mantra as it gets in these islands.

And so you can pick any number of her works that stuck right up Scottish nostrils as if the hectoring arrogance perceived were intentional and, even, the main motivating factor. The phrase ‘Sermon of the Mound’ encapsulates both perception and effect from just one such incident. The Scots were not alone in this: Scouse public service workers and Yorkshire miners were both as incensed and took action to thwart her ideals.

But the Scots have more than just cultural divisions to gripe about. Our North Sea oil money was used to fund much of what she did, rather than benefit the locals (c.f. the Norwegian Oil Fund); our simmering outrage at Polaris was replaced by our simmering outrage at Trident; we were stuck with the Poll Tax before anyone else had to thole it. Worst of all, Scots identity was entwined with horny-handed heavy industry and mass disintegration of indigenous coal, steel, aluminium, car, shipbuilding industries hit not just wage packets but our social structures, pride and self-belief.

Irrespective of who had won the 1979 election (recently broadcast on the Parliament Channel and no foregone conclusion at first), the eighties were going to be tough for Scotland. The alternative to what we actually got would have been more Callaghan or Foote from Labour with the worm of the breakaway Social Democrats burrowing at their soul because they were so unreconstructedly stupid as to think that Britain needed more government control.

Now, even had Labour’s government intervention in industry not have provided such a do-your-head-in crop of union-demarcated, overstaffed behemoths as British Leyland & Steel & Rail, etc; plus the energy ‘companies’; plus post & telecomms; plus the docks; plus most buses; plus water; plus UCS; and…and…and, then the sixties & seventies had seen a roaring increase in industrial action and outright strikes. These had pushed up some wages but that had pushed up inflation, which devalued the pound and made imports expensive. $4 per £ dropped to under $2; DM10 per £ dropped below DM4.

However well intentioned most Labour members might be to make society more egalitarian and provide support for our vulnerable, they were trying to do it on what was effectively a shrinking economy. So reluctant were people to save and invest that interest rates over 15% were offered as incentive. (This didn’t get you much farther when inflation under Labour hit 27%). In the 15 (mostly Labour) years between 1964 and 1979, GDP per head nominally increased by 760%. Take out inflation and real GDP actually increased by only 50% or about 3% per year over a period when automation and efficiency should have quadrupled that.

Indeed, real GDP didn’t regain its 1979 levels until 1983. What were Labour’s ideas to do better than that? They saw their prime goal as to “get Britain back to work”. Their 1983 Manifesto put the following front and centre:

“Mass unemployment costs the country £15 billion, £16 billion, £17 billion a year, astronomic figures never conceived possible before, and they move higher still every month. Mass unemployment is the main reason why most families in Britain, all but the very rich, are paying more in taxes today than they did four years ago.”

This sounds eerily familiar to modern ears. Labour wanted to use NS Oil revenues, substantial borrowing and “the billions saved from dole queues” to fund an Emergency Programme that included much from Labour manifestos from the previous two decades, among which were:

  • “Prepare a five-year national plan, in consultation with unions and employers. Back up these steps with a new National Investment Bank, new industrial powers, and a new Department for Economic and Industrial Planning
  • Repeal Tory legislation on industrial relations and make provision for introducing industrial democracy.
  • Begin the return to public ownership of those public industries sold off by the Tories.
  • Halt the destruction of our social services and begin to rebuild them, by providing a substantial increase in resources.
  • Increase investment in industry, especially in new technology – with public enterprise taking the lead. And we will steer new industry and jobs to the regions and the inner cities.
  • Begin a major programme to stop the waste of energy. We will stop Sizewell and abandon the Tory PWR programme; and open urgent discussions, with the unions and management in the coal industry, on a new Plan for Coal.”

There was a great deal else to demonstrate a laudable social conscience and promote state support for people (must have horrified Thatcher) but my own personal favourite that must sit badly with any Labour member with a conscience (and there are many):

  • “Cancel the Trident programme, refuse to deploy Cruise missiles and begin discussions for the removal of nuclear bases from Britain, which is to be completed within the lifetime of the Labour government.”

Other than that last, the rest of them are policies that only a socialist who had been vacationing on Ursa Minor for the last 20 years could love. It was as if the brutal decline of industry, the repeated ineffectual government intervention, the successively more extensive and damaging wildcat strikes and the bottomless demand of depressed areas for social services and benefits simply had not existed. To Labour in 1983, the answer to the social disaster visited on the country by state bureaucracy was more state bureaucracy. No wonder Gerald Kaufman called it “The Longest Suicide Note in History”.

Now, many may have their reasons for hating Thatcher but the alternative in those pivotal years post 1979 was brain-dead application of more socialist principles to a country that had almost choked on them. Major investment in modern deep coal mines had proved they still could not compete with Australian open-cast shipped in—even in the relatively strike-free and efficient Nottingham pits. Specialist car makers like Morgan and Lotus could turn a profit but the sprawling mess that was British Leyland was a Brontosuarus that had been decapitated but the tail hadn’t heard it was dead yet. Job demarcation in steel or shipbuilding was so severe that Japanese, Korean and even Norwegian yards got the orders because they built better ships faster and cheaper.

Labour was horrified that Thatcher sold council houses but millions bought them and Blair never thought of reversing the policy. Principled pacifists were horrified that she went to war over the Falklands but it boosted pride at a time when it had sunk into our boots. The Miners’ Strike brought bitterness to areas that Thatcher never understood, communities for whom the mine and the jobs in it were at the root of their being. But they were used political pawns in ideological warfare and 1997-2010 saw nothing but charity being offered as a solution to those areas damaged.

Scotland likes to think of itself as more egalitarian and with more social conscience and that is rightly seen as a source of pride. But they should not have such short memories. The magnificently self-sufficient pre-Clearance Highlanders were aggressive and brutal with others, as well as intensely loyal to their own. The affluent greatness of Glasgow was built on the slave trade and enhanced by inhuman hours worked in shipyard and factory by those living in Gorbals slums and worse. Dundee had its Jute mills; Aberdeen had its trawlermen; the carses and howes had their bondagers.

So deprivation and harsh conditions bred socialist thinking. But even Labour’s 1983 manifesto recognises that work is pivotal and that wasting human resources penalises all. Though she may not have had much of a second string to her bow, Thatcher broke the state-run-bureaucratic mould across the board by insisting the market was the best judge of most jobs. She got some of it wrong and was spectacularly immune to  human knock-on effects. But she disbursed prosperity to the late eighties and nineties that Blair was careful not to disrupt throughout the noughties. Real GDP doubled over that period.

Revile her if you will but try not to be further aggravated that she was not greatly influenced by populism. Though her methods verged on the brutal, so do some medicines when disease is well advanced. 35 years ago, Britain had a bad case of state-run sclerosis which is now largely cured (although we may have caught some loadsamoney diarrhea as a result). Her legacy is that there are no main parties advocating managing the economy in a manner greatly different from the path she forged.

Though I doubt Labour yet sees it in this light, the best way to employ people is in well paid jobs that have a future and not by keeping sunset-industry pastures alive artificially. Though I doubt Thatcher saw it in this light, the best way to do right by people through effective social programmes is to generate adequate amounts of dosh to fund them in the first place.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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