If you hated her yesterday, nothing will have changed today; for those people, surely her death is no relief. Margaret Thatcher hadn’t existed as a political figure in years (not since she palled around with Augusto Pinochet in the late ’90s perhaps?) and if dementia was not vengeance enough for her detractors, what could death really offer? Thatcher’s opponents never had the satisfaction of seeing her deposed electorally, as we in Australia did with John Howard — surely the happiest revenge anyone could hope to take against a politician in a democratic country.
So Thatcher is worth considering (and dismissing) today because her ideas and influence are being newly discussed. On that count, I like Jessica Irvine:
Thatcher inherited an inflation-riddled, union dominated, heavily nationalised economy. Her early policy reforms were aimed solely at bringing inflation down from eye wateringly high levels above 25 per cent a year in the 1970s to around 4 to 5 per cent. By the mid 1980s, she had succeeded. Inspired by the ideas of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, she began slashing government spending in a way that would make the modern European troika proud.
But her austerity regime came at a price. That price was the jobs of three million Britons who suffered the indignity of unemployment during her rein. The British jobless rate stayed above 10 per cent for most of the 1980s, even as prices growth sank to a moderate 4-5 per cent. A world recession in the early 1980s didn’t help the jobless situation. But neither did pro-cyclical big cuts to government spending.
She deregulated financial markets – an event remembered today as “the Big Bang” – leading to an explosion of private equity firms and hedge funds in The City. Indeed, the seeds of the 2008 financial crisis were sown in her decision to abolish regulations on borrowing.
Well, there’s a bit of a problem: Thatcher came to power in 1979, and imposed a radical change in policy almost immediately. But the big improvement in British performance doesn’t really show in the data until the mid-1990s. Does she get credit for a reward so long delayed?
This is, by the way, somewhat like a similar issue in America: right-wingers were eager to give Ronald Reagan credit for the productivity boom of the Clinton years, which also didn’t start until around 1995; if Reagan could get credit for events that were 14 years or more after his 1981 tax cut, shouldn’t Richard Nixon be given credit for anything good that happened in the Reagan years?
Anyway, I guess there is a case that the Thatcher changes in taxes, labor regulation, etc. created a more flexible economy, which made the good years under Blair possible. But it’s an awfully long lag. And there’s another possibility. For what happened in the 90s that arguably redounded very much to Britain’s benefit? Why, the rise of fancy finance — which was a huge boon to the country that contains the City.
And, why not, Germaine Greer (h/t Soto):
Thatcher’s strength derived directly from her limitations. If she had been better read, if she had been afflicted with imagination, if she had had a sense of humour, if she had had anywhere near as much insight into the lives of ordinary people as she claimed to have, she would have been unable to pursue her headlong career, riding roughshod over the consensus towards the property-owning debtor economy in which we now struggle. If socialism had been in better shape, she would not have been able to turn it into a dirty word or confuse it with totalitarianism and state monopoly capitalism. If the trade unions had not betrayed their own class, if they had understood the importance of organising all workers, including women, including those in the service sector, if they had not institutionalised inequality, the people might have defended the cause of labour.
Thatcher had her successes — and not just the symbolic, feminist success that was her election. There were markets that needed to be deregulated and industries that should not have been owned by the public. But even these commend her poorly. She deregulated and privatized with the zeal of an ideologue driven not by desire for good governance but by the venom her enemies, in turn, returned to her. “Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul,” she wrote once, the sloganeering of a right-wing social engineer. Tasked with the duty of economic modernization, but unburdened by her fanaticism, Australia’s Paul Keating and Bob Hawke delivered the same successes as Thatcher — greater ones, in fact — without the misery, the nostalgia for empire, the disgusting tolerance of apartheid, or the class warfare. Don’t credit Thatcher’s toryhood for her successes; blame it for her failures.