Thatcher cannot be judged on the 1970s

The panel for the 11th April 2013 Question Time: Menzies Campbell, Polly Toynbee, Kenneth Clarke, presenter David Dimbleby, David Blunkett and Charles MooreBBC Question Time from Finchley, north London, 11th April 2013 (available in UK until 11th April 2014)

Last night the BBC’s weekly Question Time programme was filmed in Finchley, the area of north London represented for more than thirty years by Margaret Thatcher, and focussed on her legacy, featuring Polly Toynbee (a Guardian columnist who was a member of the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s), David Blunkett, Charles Moore (former editor of the Daily Telegraph and Thatcher’s biographer), Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader, and Kenneth Clarke, who served as a cabinet minister throughout Thatcher’s time in office. A stark distinction was obvious: those who lauded Thatcher talked about the past, the 1970s, before she came to power, and those who were against her usually talked about the time during and after.

The Tories, along with their press (especially the Sun, which targeted the working class) for years used the memory of the “Winter of Discontent”, a wave of public-sector industrial action in the winter of 1978-9, the most notorious of which were by rubbish collectors and by gravediggers in Liverpool and Tameside, a district of east Manchester (the claim “we couldn’t even bury our dead!” is often used to typify the whole period, but in fact affected only those two areas, not the whole country, although the binmen’s strike was more widespread). They generally paint the 1970s as a time in which the country was falling apart and becoming a laughing stock, and insist that Labour could not control the unions; a strong hand was needed to do it. Kenneth Clarke also referred to the types of industries that were in public ownership at the time, including British Road Services which owned the Pickford’s removal company, which was making a loss; most of those concerns have since been closed or privatised. Their motto is “things just had to change”.

The problem is that what did change was often harmful, and Thatcher did not attempt to reform the industries that were inefficient and overmanned but simply closed them or allowed them to run themselves down. The upshot is plain to see in the motor industry: French and German motor companies own companies outside their borders, such as Daimler (Mercedes) owning Chrysler and the American Frieghtliner truck company, and Sweden’s Volvo Group owning truck makers in the Far East, India and the USA (as distinct from Volvo Cars, which is Chinese-owned). The British truck industry, or what is left of it, is entirely in foreign hands: Leyland was subsumed into DAF, which has now been acquired by Paccar, the American truck giant which makes Kenworth and Peterbilt, and engines as Cummins and under its own name; Foden was also sold to Paccar and ceased production in 2006; ERF was sold to MAN and ceased production in 2007; Seddon Atkinson was sold to ENASA, a Spanish company (best known for the Pegaso brand) which became part of Iveco, and it too has disappeared.

I was 12 when Thatcher left office, and I’m really too young to remember much about her time other than what I was told, and my personal experience is probably too particular and Thatcher probably didn’t have too much to do with it. But people who were a bit older than me tell of crumbling school buildings with huge class sizes of much more than 30 (I’m pretty sure I remember a class of 40), although I do remember the stories of long hospital waiting lists (though not through personal experience). Some of these problems were righted by the Major and Blair governments because large and ungovernable classes and long hospital waiting lists were electoral liabilities, but her enduring legacy is the economics — the laissez-faire approach when things are good, using state funds to bail out banks (but never any other industry) when things go bad, the welfare state for corporations represented by PFI, the ham-fisted attitude to regulation for the public good (in everything from the disability rights laws that the Tories talked out in the 1990s to the refusal to tackle sexualised images or advertising aimed at children).

The upshot of eleven years of Thatcher’s government, and 23 more years of government based on much the same set of principles, is a country which relies on imported goods for just about everything — for clothing, for technology, for vehicles, even for the plates and knives and forks we eat with. It was reported that 40% of this country’s energy needs last winter were met by coal, yet we import almost all of that. Our capital and the countryside around has become the playground for the super-rich from around the world, with the younger generation of ordinary British citizens, in the south especially, scrabbling for shoebox houses and flats on old industrial land. And it has become a country where ordinary people are suspicious of each other, where newspapers peddle a mixture of smut and sanctimony and cheer on mean-spirited benefit cuts for poor and disabled people while still extending open arms to wealthy gangsters and oligarchs. In short, we are a much less powerful country because we are nothing like self-sufficient.

Do we want to go back to the 70s? Nobody under 40 even remembers much about the 70s. It is not an either-or between accepting that Thatcher did a world of good or wishing to be back in the 70s, any more that there is an either-or between supporting the Bush wars or wanting Saddam Hussain back. We want an end to the baggage of a failed ideology, and we want a fairer society where people look out for each other rather than enviously looking over each other’s shoulders.

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