There’s no such thing!

What headline fits the announcement of Mrs Thatcher’s death?  Maybe that best-known misquote.

Thatcher was the only prime minister in my lifetime, and (along with Attlee) one of just two in living memory[1] to have done anything substantial and positive for the country.  Like Attlee before her, she came to a country in deep crisis, and took decisive and necessary action to confront the most pressing problems of her time.

For readers too young to remember, Britain in 1979 was in the depths of a crisis not entirely unlike Greece today (imagine yourself a Greek prime minister now)!  Post-war reconstruction had morphed into chronic profligacy, taxes (on everyone who worked) were astronomical, and government spending was mired in corruption.  Yes, an element of that has returned today, but not on a remotely comparable scale (well, except for that deficit).  Digging us out from that mess was never going to be pretty, but against all expectations she had the guts to take on that herculean task[2].

Her defining characteristic that resonated with my generation and social circle was meritocracy.  Born a grocer’s daughter and brought up above the shop, she rose through life on her own merits.  She had no truck with unearned privilege, and that made her many enemies amongst those with power and influence.   Nor with the politics of envy that would arbitrarily “level down”.  She neither supported nor attacked privilege itself, but came down hard on the abuse of privilege.  An ideal role model for my cohort at Cambridge when we voted to disaffiliate from the (then-)loony-left National Union of Students and even elected a paid-up Young Conservative as president of our own students union.  By her time the bastions of privilege included the trade union movement (whose leadership were of a generation brought up in a very different world and still fighting the battles of the pre-1939 era) and the institutions of the post-war state that had become corruption-magnets.  Such an overprivileged leader as Blair or Cameron trying to take them on[3] would’ve been a sitting duck for class warfare.

OK, she had the advantages of her generation: an adult life in the wake of total war, meaning lots of reconstruction work to generate productive economic activity, and the demographics of “dead mens shoes” opening exceptional opportunities for a man (or more rarely a woman) of merit to rise rapidly through the corporate ladder or other walks of life.  By the 1980s that window of widespread opportunity had closed to a tiny crack as a generation that hadn’t had to fight in total war were in the positions above us.  She instead pushed an entrepreneurial culture, which was not easy to get to grips with for those of us who’d been brought up in a culture where a popular word for entrepreneur was ‘spiv’, and emphatically NOT something to aspire to.

She led us out of the disaster of the 1970s, but did she also lay the foundations for today’s troubles?  In part I think she did.  Hers is the culture (reinforced by her successors) that blames the EU for so many troubles, yet could be relied on to veto or sabotage any serious attempt to improve its institutions and practices.  Housing in the 1980s was a disaster, though to be fair the worst of that was a legacy of earlier policy coming home to roost.  She did (belatedly) lay the seeds for improvement and the ‘golden age’ of the mid-late 1990s, but also for the greed and profligacy that followed it (though not for the disastrous outcome).

What about the central accusation, that deregulation of the city led directly to the Blair/Brown bust?  I’d say she’s guilty of that only in the sense that Attlee was guilty of the 1970s bust: a failure to anticipate that the institutions shaped in her time would grow into monsters in the hands of incompetents.  The credit bubble of the 2000s that led to the bust was the very antithesis of monetarism, as is clear from a graph of money supply growth shooting up into double-digit real inflation (albeit masked by the rise of cheap manufactured imports in a meaningless price index, and creating “feelgood” by flattering GDP and other measures of national wealth).

I need to wrap this little piece up at some point.  So let’s finish with a quote from the words of wisdom from which my title is misquoted:

… I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation …

[1] Excluding Churchill, whose greatness (such as it was) was thrust upon him by circumstance of war.
[2] Albeit with serious blind spots: she continued to pour taxpayers’ money into the bottomless pit of the car industry known at various times as British Leyland, Austin, Rover, MG, Jaguar as it came back to the taxpayer for more bailouts every few years just as it had done since the 1960s.  That was indeed obvious at the time, and I can see no explanation for not letting the market work.
[3] Not that either of those disasters would’ve had the guts.

Posted on April 9, 2013, in politics, uk. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. One thing : Tatcher was happy enough to benefit fully from the north sea oil, which represented back in 1980 almost 20% of the UK GDP. Without this miracle, UK would have been in big trouble (Tatcher or not…)

    Anyone would have probably done as well with this insane amount of free GDP that flooded the UK economy for the 4 decades starting on 1975.

    I’m afraid that those good times are all gone now…

  2. The shallow waters of the North Sea also have tidal flows so strong you can see the phase of the tide from space with a satellite such as ERS-1. Now there’s an energy source for the future!

  3. You sum up the Thatcher years pretty well. My abiding memory is of how awful the 1970s were – 3 day week, power cuts, strike after strike, rampant inflation etc. You even had to wait six months for a new phone line, and then had to share it with a neighbour! Thatcher applied uncomfortable medicine to deal with that legacy, and in the main it worked. What a contrast with the half-hearted approach to dealing with the national debt and other problems shown by the current lot!

    To hear some of the loony-left apologists criticising Thatcher in the past 24 hours and harking back to some “glorious” pre-Thatcher era, I have concluded that they must live on a parallel universe.

    Thatcher wasn’t perfect and she made mistakes, but she had clear vision and got necessary things done. The fact that many of her policies and reforms are still in place today, and are accepted by all the main political parties, demonstrates that she was onto something bigger than just pleasing everyone in order to win the next election.

  4. …and for good measure the woman had a proper job before entering politics; she was an industrial chemist, a rare career for a female in 1947. How many of today’s political class, male or female, can claim to have worked in the real world?

  5. … not to mention producing two sprogs …

    John, therein lies an argument that women had it better than men, even before the start of womens lib. She went straight through the education system (just as we did in peacetime) and graduated in 1947. My father, who is her contemporary, had his education interrupted by having to serve his country.

  6. I think your quote aptly sums up what Thatcher did wrong, as well as what she got right.

    Yes, the country needed strong medicine and she brought it. (Up to a point, anyway – as you mention, she was nowhere near as absolutist as both friends and foes have painted her.) But in the process, she severely weakened ‘society’ – and yes, that is a real thing.

    Possibly because of her scientific background, Thatcher liked neat mathematical models. She bought into the economist’s fantasy that everything can be valued by money and a free market will put an appropriate price on everything. (Fantasy because there is not, and never has been, and never will be, any such thing as a free market, and even if there were, it would only work in the long term.) And she also promoted that other mathematical fantasy of the Nash Equilibrium: the belief that everyone acts selfishly all the time, and altruism is, at best, stupid.

    And that belief laid the foundations of the banking crash, the increasing disenchantment with politics (particularly among the young), the country’s perennial Euroscepticism, and the growing alienation of the police.

    I’m not blaming her, really – she did what needed to be done, and I don’t know if anyone else could have done it better. But her legacy is very far from an unmitigated blessing.

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