The main political issues at the end of the 1970s were high inflation and unemployment dubbed 'stagflation', over-powerful trade unions, the Cold War, relations with Europe, poor educational standards, third world immigration, excessive public spending, inefficient nationalised industries and the belief that Britain was in terminal decline. So how did Margaret Thatcher address these problems, and what were her successes and failures? Alas, the results are mixed.
To control inflation she relied on monetarism, which prioritised controlling the money supply. Combined with the strong pound and high interest rates, this strategy sent unemployment sky high peaking at over 3 million, devastating British industry in the process, and increasing public spending still further. Although both inflation and unemployment dipped in the mid eighties, by the time she left office they were again both rising, this time due to the misguided policy of her chancellor Nigel Lawson in shadowing the Deutsch-mark.
Margaret Thatcher was undoubtedly right when she claimed that 'you cannot buck the market', but by the time she discovered what Lawson was up to the damage was done. However, the fact that inflation did fall substantially in the mid eighties as a result of monetary control, brought an end to the advocacy of an incomes policy (i.e government control of wages and prices), a modish dirigiste panacea to supposedly control inflation, supported by the 'progressive' politicians of the time, most notably the Liberals and SDP. In conclusion, her economic record was patchy, with growth lower than under Macmillan, Wilson and Blair. Today inflation has been relatively low for some time, indicating that monetary control, not an incomes policy, has been the key to this success.
The privatisation of nationalised industries was the most radical element of the Thatcherite agenda. The most successful transfer to the private sector was undoubtedly that of British Telecom. Under nationalisation consumers had to wait months for a phone line to be installed. The technological developments in telecommunications since the mid 1980s have been spectacular, so full marks to the Conservatives for facilitating this outcome. Another obvious privatisation candidate was British Airways. It now seems incredible that this airline was once a part of the British public sector. The benefits from some of the other privatisations are less clear cut, most notably the supply of electricity, gas and water. Given the level of complaints these privatised utilities continue to attract, the jury is still out on whether privatisation of such natural monopolies has necessarily been entirely beneficial. Nationalised industries are not necessarily inefficient, for example, the London Passenger Transport Board and the Central Electricity Generating Board were highly regarded. Nevertheless there is no case to be made today for renationalisation, so Margaret Thatcher’s legacy on this initiative is likely to remain secure. Moreover, she is to be commended for ending the ratchet effect by which trade union dominated Labour governments were ideologically committed to bringing more industries under public control. Another plus is that she created a climate where private enterprise and entrepreneurship could flourish, which continued even through the New Labour years.
Both Harold Wilson and Edward Heath failed to reform the trade unions. Margaret Thatcher was very much more successful. Adopting a gradualist approach she handed trade unions back to their members by requiring elections for union officials and for industrial action. Abolition of the closed shop (which compelled all employees in a company to belong to a union) was a necessary measure that was long overdue. Her most spectacular success on this front was facing down the year long miners strike in 1984-85 led by the unreconstructed Stalinist Arthur Scargill. Her victory in this dispute brought an end to trade union militancy and henceforth the trade union movement was largely sidelined in the decision making process.
Ironically the 'progressive' militants who were then rooting for a miners’ victory would within a decade be championing policies that would lead to pit closures, as they became converts to the global warming hoax. Trade union influence and importance is today only a shadow of what it was in the 1970s. The upside of this is the nation is no longer held to ransom by Marxist militants, the downside has been the growth in McJobs and short term contracts, resulting in much more job insecurity.
Margaret Thatcher was dubbed the Iron Lady by the Soviet Union even before she became prime minister. She was implacably hostile to the global menace from this source that was rightly branded the 'evil empire' by President Ronald Reagan. The stationing of nuclear armed cruise missiles on British soil provoked violent opposition from the political left, demonstrating their true colours and sympathies by their appeasement towards the Soviet threat. The militant feminist Marxist commune outside the Greenham Common air base was the most visual public embodiment of this one sided pacifist naiveté. The inability of the rigid Soviet economy to compete with the US 'Star Wars' defence strategy led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Margaret Thatcher can claim full credit for her part in ending the Cold War and the nuclear threat from a totalitarian communist super-state.
During the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) Margaret Thatcher was one of the most prominent supporters for a yes vote to stay in. At that time the Conservatives were proud to be called the party of Europe, and anyone in the party questioning the validity and purpose of the European mission was given short shrift. Membership of the EEC was seen in a positive light and contrary views were largely suppressed.
Although for most of her premiership Margaret Thatcher fully supported EEC membership, her enthusiasm for Europe was far cooler than that of Edward Heath. This became apparent at one of her first meetings with European leaders when she ruffled quite a few feathers by stridently demanding that Britain’s contribution should be renegotiated and our money returned. Although her viewpoint was eminently reasonable since Britain was proportionally the largest budget contributor, she was heavily criticised both at home and abroad for being out of step with the spirit of European co-operation - in the euro-jargon she was perceived as being insufficiently communautaire.
After protracted negotiations her government succeeded in obtaining a rebate which Britain retained until it was diluted by Tony Blair. During her period in office Margaret Thatcher signed the Single European Act, which further strengthened the powers of the European Community (EC) over our affairs. During the late Eighties the Conservative party became more critical towards Europe. Margaret Thatcher, in her Bruges speech was the first Tory leader to question the drive towards greater European integration and the creation of a European super-state. She had finally woken up to the threat to British sovereignty, and since then the Conservatives have become the most euro-sceptic of the main parties, although shamefully still continuing to support British membership.
Margaret Thatcher was the education secretary who closed down the most grammar schools, and as prime minister she did nothing to restore them. She did however introduce the Assisted Places Scheme, which allowed children, whose parents could not afford the fees, to obtain free places at schools in the independent sector, provided they could pass the entrance exam. However, although this was a welcome move, the numbers taking up such places were relatively small. At the same time the Tories also introduced the 'Parents Charter' which gave parents more rights on the choice of school, along with some other measures. Although a step in the right direction such limited action did little to address the mounting concern about the standard of education provided in the state sector.
It was not until the late 1980s that the Tories started to address the problems of education more forcefully, but alas not necessarily more effectively. Tory reforms introduced from the late 1980s included establishing a national core curriculum, replacing O levels and CSEs with a single GCSE examination; giving schools more control over their own budgets, allowing schools to expand up to their physical capacity; establishing 'City Technology Colleges' supported by industrial sponsors and allowing state schools to opt out of LEA control, by applying for grant maintained status funded by the Education Department.
Unfortunately, these proposals sent out a mixed message. Those that encouraged parental choice, and freed schools from the dead hand of LEA 'progressive' educational orthodoxy, were welcome. But the introduction of the national curriculum and assessments were highly prescriptive measures, which can now be seen as precursors of the managerial and interventionist approach that was later developed to a fine art by New Labour. GCSE assessment included a large element of course work, unlike O-levels which were purely examination based and thus appreciably more rigorous academically. This confusion demonstrated the lack of will by Margaret Thatcher to implement the radical policies that are essential if educational standards are to be raised.
During a television interview shortly before the 1979 election, in an uncharacteristically unguarded moment, Margaret Thatcher spoke about the fears of being 'swamped' by people of alien cultures. This was widely interpreted by many voters, without any real justification, that the Tories might actually have been thinking seriously about taking some action against open ended large scale third world immigration. In reality, over the period of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the number of third world legal immigrants averaged about 50,000 per year.
However, during the eighties the issue of immigration went off the boil, despite several instances of rioting. This was partly due to a media blackout on the numbers of third world immigrants still entering the country, despite the Tories’ supposedly 'firm but fair' immigration policies. There is plenty of circumstantial evidence that Margaret Thatcher was personally hostile to third world immigration into Britain, but it is an inescapable fact that when in office she did virtually nothing to deal with the problem. This must be judged as her biggest lost opportunity. Strong action at that time would have help address what many consider to be now an intractable problem, the full consequences of which have yet to be played out.
It was during Margaret Thatcher’s government that the insidious growth of political correctness first became apparent. It first came to widespread public attention with the antics of the 'loony left' councils and Ken Livingstone’s GLC, with its 'rainbow' coalition between racial, religious and sexual minorities and hard-line Marxists. Margaret Thatcher has been reviled by liberals for introducing the 'Section 28' regulation, which prevented local authorities from promoting homosexuality, particularly in schools. Although no prosecutions followed as a result, it probably acted as a brake on some of the more pernicious 'gay' propaganda that was then beginning to be targeted at young people. Section 28 has always been intensely loathed by the left, but the public largely supported it, as was shown by the results of an unofficial referendum held in Scotland some years ago. Needless to say, now that Section 28 has been lifted, the gay propaganda machine has gone into overdrive and we now have a gay history month in schools.
This then is a brief overview of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy as prime minister. She could be very radical on some subjects such as privatisation and the sale of council homes, but overcautious on others, for example large scale immigration and education reform. Nevertheless there is no doubt that she was the most dominant politician during the final decades of the twentieth century and her importance and stature will long be remembered by posterity. It is clear that the politically correct class still detest Margaret Thatcher, which suggests that she must have been doing something right.