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Excellent analysis of paradoxes and contradictions of Thatcher and Thatcherism
on 8 March 2014
This book is not about Thatcher the person but Thatcher the project. But the word ‘project’ implies a coherence of aim and method that Thatcherism did not have. Vivien examines some of these paradoxes. He examines some of the assumptions that were made about Thatcherism at the time, and since. People assume that she shattered the post-war consensus of a mixed economy and the welfare state and rolled back the state. But public spending was higher at the end of her term than it was at the beginning. This was not merely on account of having to pay high unemployment benefit. Much of the welfare state was left untouched – above all the NHS. In Northern Ireland, monetarism was never applied. The 1970s never ended as far as economic policy in Ulster was concerned, like subsidies to over manned and inefficient smokestack industries to keep them going to wall (compare and contrast the approach to coal mines in the 1980s).
Thatcher did nothing to reverse the social changes of the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed she herself voted for liberalising divorce laws and homosexuality as a backbench MP. The government’s approach to tacking AIDS was informed by medical advice, not Mary Whitehouse; these examples demonstrate that the government at the time was not a doctrinaire upholder of Victorian Values.
Perceptions have been distorted by retrospect or by the lingering influence of contemporary polemics. Thatcher’s first term saw a ‘radical’ experiment in monetarism but previous wage agreements under Labour were honoured, and the government backed down from several industrial confrontations. During the Thatcher years, economic policy seemed to favour services over manufacturing and the decline of manufacturing. But Thatcher’s economic acolytes, speaking and writing in the 1970s about Britain’s ‘decline’, were thinking, among other things, of this country’s industrial decline. But manufacturing decline continued nonetheless (as it did in most advanced capitalist countries) and Nigel Lawson insouciantly remarked that a pound earned by services was the same worth as a pound earned by manufacturing. Few among his party seemed to notice the shift.
The same observation applies to Europe. Thatcher became synonymous with Euro-scepticism and the issue was to tear the Tories apart in the 1990s, as it threatens to do so today. But in the early 1980s, Thatcher was broadly pro-European, Labour was firmly opposed. Its opposition to Europe won it no credit in 1983 (I recall a Tory party political broadcast in 1982/3 that featured Labours anti-EC stance prominently, claiming that Labour taking the UK out of the EC would cost over 2 million jobs). Thatcher changed her tune in the late 1980s but in the first part of the 1980s, it was Labour who challenged the consensus over Europe, not the Tories.
It has often been observed that Thatcher never commanded an absolute majority of the popular vote. But the conclusion often drawn from this, that if only the anti-Thatcher vote had united, then she would never have had a taste of power, over simplifies the difference between those who voted for her and those who didn’t. It is based on a fallacy that the people who voted against her were all voting for the same alternative. In 1983, they were not. Labour, SDP/Liberal Alliance were voting for different alternatives, not the same, and in some aspects there were overlaps on Tory positions. On Trade Union reform, the SDP and voters were broadly sympathetic to Tory aims (as were most Tory wets, many of whom were to overstate their ideological differences with Thatcher on the essential issues). Labour’s unilateralism was a minority position. British people expressed sympathy when polled for collective values but voted differently.
In the last analysis, however, Thatcher did alter some aspects of the post-war consensus. And even if she did not remake Britain in the image of a property-owning, share-owning democracy, as the council house sales and privatisation was supposed to do, then she refashioned the post-war consensus that modified but did not overthrow the old one. But she could only go so far. Once a new consensus had been settled upon, she found herself superfluous and lost touch.
Overall, the book is a solid thematic overview of the paradoxes and contradictions of Thatcher’s government, without any overt ideological axes to grind. It mostly covers politics and to a lesser extent economics, with no little discussion of culture. It is not a complete history of the 1980s and it is not a ‘verdict’ on Thatcher or her government. She and her administration are neither vindicated nor condemned. Some readers may find the author seems to sit on the fence. But I think that the author, after having perhaps examined ‘Thatcherism’ for a neat definition, found that there is no such easy definition. This is fine by me. Life is messy and books should not necessarily be written to impose tidy explanatory schemes on the vagaries of human experience. If this makes people rethink some of their preconceptions about Thatcher then this is no bad thing. It makes things more interesting. Five stars.