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Reassessing Thatcher’s legacy

by Tina Burrett

In death as in life, Margaret Thatcher is dividing a nation. While hailed by Prime Minister David Cameron as the country’s savior, many Britons recall Thatcher as a force of destruction.

In trying to posthumously turn Thatcher into a national figure by giving her a pomp-filled funeral, Cameron’s Conservative-led government has hardened political divisions over her legacy.

Now that her funeral is over, a dispassionate assessment of Britain’s longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century can perhaps begin.

Among both her most ardent supporters and detractors, Thatcher is a figure of legend. As with many legends, the most popular Thatcher fables are often based more on myth than reality. There are those who remember her as the prime minister who championed aspiration, the prime minister who enabled council tenants to buy their own homes, the prime minister who freed self-starting entrepreneurs from bureaucratic red tape.

But as Will Hutton pointed out in an article published in this newspaper last week, Thatcher relied too much on the invisible hand of the market to deliver sustainable economic growth.

Thatcher took office in 1979 in difficult economic times. Her government quickly identified Britain’s overmanned and noncompetitive industry as the cause of economic malaise. Their answer lay in cutting manufacturing jobs, which would make industrial companies leaner and release labor to expand businesses in the more lucrative service sector. By the end of Thatcher’s first term in 1983, a quarter of all manufacturing jobs in Britain — over 1.5 million — had disappeared. But rather than retraining as computer programmers and leisure center managers, those who were laid off largely ended up in lower-paying jobs or unemployed.

The loss of skilled manufacturing jobs widened inequality, with negative consequences for social mobility. In the 1980s, income inequality between the top and bottom 20 percent of British households widened by 60 percent. Inequality continued to rise, with only minor fluctuations, under Britain’s next three prime ministers, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Thatcher’s successors have all argued that globalization made de-industrialization inevitable, as most manufacturing could be done more cheaply overseas. But no other comparable economy has de-industrialized on the same scale as Britain. Germany and France have maintained their large domestic brands and associated supply chains. As a result, inequality remains far lower than in Britain, which now has the second highest rate in Western Europe after Portugal.

Thatcherism’s devotees point to the boom of the mid-’80s to rationalize the pain caused by her earlier restructuring of the economy. But even during the boom years, growth never rose to more than 2.4 percent, and by the time Thatcher left office in 1990, Britain was heading back into recession.

Despite her rhetoric of “rolling back the state,” Thatcher was less successful at cutting public spending than either her supporters or opponents admit. According to data from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, during her 11-year tenure, public spending rose in real terms every year apart from two. Despite cuts in public services such as the NHS, public expenditure remained high owing to mass unemployment — peaking at three million — and the resulting increase in benefits payments.

Reacting to news of her death on April 8, Cameron said that Thatcher was “a great leader and a great Briton.” His statement belied the fact that she remained widely unpopular in many parts of the United Kingdom, particularly in Scotland, Wales and the north of England — areas hardest hit by de-industrialization and unemployment in the 1980s.

In Scotland, support for the Conservatives declined throughout Thatcher’s premiership. Her decision in 1989 to pilot the much-derided poll tax in Scotland exacerbated Scottish animosity toward the Conservatives. The Tory brand has never recovered. In 1997, the party lost all of its parliamentary seats in Scotland; only one Conservative MP has been returned to Westminster for a Scottish seat in any subsequent general election. More than 20 years after Thatcher’s departure, the Tories remain toxic in Scotland, in part explaining Cameron’s inability to win a parliamentary majority for the Conservatives in the midst of a financial crisis and against a deeply unpopular prime minister in 2010.

Thatcher herself never won more than 43 percent of the vote in a general election, but owing to the peculiarities of the British electoral system, this was enough to deliver three landslide victories.

In the days after her death, many tributes focused on Thatcher’s achievement in becoming Britain’s first woman prime minister. U.S. President Barack Obama praised her as example to “our daughters that there is no glass ceiling they cannot shatter.” But Thatcher’s record on women’s rights is mixed at best. Although it cannot be denied that she reached greater heights in British politics than any women before or since, she was certainly no feminist. In her 11 years in Downing Street she promoted only one woman to the Cabinet: the unelected Janet Young, who served as leader of the House of Lords.

Unlike earlier pioneering women politicians — such as Labour Cabinet minister Barbara Castle, who introduced the Equal Pay Act and child benefit payments to mothers in the 1970s — Thatcher enacted very little pro-female legislation. Nor did she actively seek to close the pay gap between men and women. When she left Downing Street, women were paid just 76 percent of male full-time pay, a mere three points up from when she came to office in 1979.

The attention paid to Thatcher’s passing shows how politicians from all parties remain enthralled by her legacy. Her four successors in Downing Street have all — to a greater or lesser degree — followed her economic orthodoxy. Solutions to Britain’s current economic and social woes — many with roots in the Thatcher decade — are still cast in Thatcherite terms. Her death is perhaps the ideal time to let her intellectual legacy rest. After all, Thatcher was herself a radical, with no qualms about breaking with convention. That is, at least, something on which we can probably all agree.

Tina Burrett is an assistant professor of international relations at Temple University, Japan Campus

  • nobuo takamura

    Bye, Thacher. Done with Destruction of Convention! No discovery of innovation is left. Just a Howling of a woman named Thacher, I guess. A decade was a lost one after all as a result. I earnestly hope some destruction leads to some creation or renovation, or serendipity.