Just before sitting down to right this review I listened to the news. A delivery company went bust on Christmas Day. The venture capital firm that owned it no doubt calculated that this was the most advantageous point in the year to go bust. The positive cash flow of the festive season would have swelled the money in the bank giving them plenty of scope for spending it in creative ways before the receivers moved in. It wasn’t such good timing for the workers who found out that they were out of work via the media. One twist was that the distinctive green and yellow vans were not all owned by the company. Many were owned by the drivers who were technically self employed, subcontracting their services. So that will cut the redundancy bill. In other news it turns out that the UK is poised to regain its economic position ahead of France in the size of the economy.
Both these stories inevitably brought to mind the figure of Margaret Thatcher. The very existence of private mail firms was down to the policies her government pursued. These were justified on the grounds that they would be more efficient than a state run monopoly. And what is this about the French economy being bigger than the British one? Hadn’t Thatcher’s reforms made us much more competitive and stronger than those corporatists over the Channel?
The reality is of course that the Thatcher reforms were a disaster for the UK’s economy from which it has taken decades to recover. Much of this was down to simply not running things very well on a day to day basis. She was a terrible manager of her party and nobody who lived through her last months in Downing Street can be under any illusion that she simply wasn’t up to the job. Her MPs could stand her no longer, and her cabinet was in more or less open revolt. Few UK political leaders have stirred up so much opposition from their colleagues. None since the war have had stirred up so much animosity from the public. The Poll Tax riots were the only time local government finance led to pitched battles in London between protestors and the police. It is worth remembering that the poll tax was supposed to be a vote winner and was brought in in Scotland early because the Conservatives had a popularity problem there. Some political genius that was.
Her biggest idea was the one that has done the most damage and taken the longest to die. Although the selling off of natural monopolies run by the state like railways and utilities have never been popular with the public – who show a good deal better grasp of economics than the professionals do – they have appealed to investors who appreciate a secure return. The rich and powerful rarely find it difficult to secure politicians and journalists who will sing the songs they like to hear. I can’t actually think of any state asset of any size now left to sell. The most recent was the most venal of the lot. The Post Office was sold off at a discount so large it looked more like a Stuart monarch dispensing a monopoly to a favourite than an exercise in popular capitalism. The tv advert campaigns of the eighties encouraging small savers to buy shares in British Gas seem like a different age. But they are part of the same process.
As I said, the rich and the powerful can always rely on support, and Niall Ferguson is a good example. But I have to confess that he is a cut above the average establishment shill. He writes well, and usually has an interesting angle. I always find what he says entertaining and often challenging. I respect him as an historian and even his right wing bias is worn so openly that you can hardly hold it against him. And as an historian, he no doubt realises that history is not proving kind to his hero Margaret Thatcher. As we look back with the perspective that comes from, knowing what happened next the question is shifting. It is no longer a question of whether she was the worst post war premier, and more trying to work out just how bad she was. This is the context to this recent book – though it is more of a pamphlet in size if such a format still existed.
Niall weighs in with the skill of a rhetoritician. His first tactic is to anchor the argument where he wants it by asserting that Thatcher was right about nearly everything. This indeed is the title. It is a bold move, but a foolish one. We all know she was wrong about nearly everything, so the tactic backfires by getting the reader’s back up from page one. The next area is the most tricky. Ferguson is an economic historian and simply can’t ignore the numbers. The British economy under Thatcher suffered from an unholy combination of poor short term tactics and misguided long term strategy. The numbers looked bad at the time and have not mellowed with age. They were so bad that even economists noticed, and sent a letter to the PM pleading for a change of course. Ferguson simply redefines the problem. What we should be looking at he asserts, isn’t how well off people were but how well investors were doing. Returns on the businesses that managed to stay in business during the period when the Howe budget cut demand in the economy were impressive. That was sort of what a lot of people at the time were complaining about. Ferguson explains that you need to judge Thatcher not by her effect on society but by her effect on capital. She needs to be judged by capitalist standards not socialist ones.
It was an argument I had heard before. That was exactly what the Socialist Worker newspapers that were on sale in the streets in the eighties said at the time. It is a partisan way of looking at the world, and a zero sum one. Is it really impossible to contrive things so that private companies and society as a whole thrive simultaneously? Indeed, is it realistic to aim for anything else?
Ferguson gets off the economy and onto social and foreign affairs as quickly as possible. It is harder to be sure of things here, so this is where the bulk of his defence is deployed. Thatcher is portrayed not as the down to earth social conservative she must have seen herself as, but as a punk. There is some strength to this. She certainly stirred things up by becoming the first woman prime minister. And she got a lot closer to bringing anarchy to the UK than Johnny Rotten managed. Britain certainly changed a lot under her premiership, and not all of it was for the bad. But I don’t think you can praise someone for unintended consequences. He goes out of his way to defend her from the charge of believing that there was ‘no such thing as society’. She was misunderstood there, and I think that is a perception that should be corrected. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit in with the notion of Thatcher as pioneering radical and so somewhat weakens his overall argument.
Foreign policy is often seen as a strength of Thatcher’s government. There is no reason that automatically means that a government that was economically incompetent shouldn’t handle other responsibilities better or even well. Speaking personally, I’d be happy to argue that Thatcher wasn’t wrong about everything if only to show that I am prepared to be balanced. Few people are without some redeeming features and you appear churlish if you are not prepared to acknowledge them. Unfortunately redeeming features are in short supply in this case. Her opposition to German reunion annoyed a powerful partner without achieving any balancing benefit. There is something to be said for stridently standing up for one’s country’s interests in the EU, but you really need to do that before rather than after signing a treaty conceding more power to the EU. Even the special relationship with the US couldn’t stop the invasion of the British dependency of Grenada. The funniest Punch front cover ever showed Reagan and Thatcher in the roles of Reb Butler and Scarlet O’Hara with the punchline ‘frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’.
In the end this book does the opposite of what it sets out to do. If even a partial and skilled supporter cannot make a case that stands up in her defence. She was not a hugely successful social radical striding the world stage and shaking up a sleepy country. She was an out of her depth social conservative oblivious to the forces she was unleashing around herself and not well prepared for the changes that the world was delivering regardless.
I never met Margaret Thatcher. I am just an ordinary member of the public, why should I have done? But I wish I had. I doubt she would have been anything like her public image. I wonder if she was a lot more sympathetic to actual human beings she encountered than her image would suggest. People who put on a tough face for the world are often have soft centres. But I am quite sure she was nothing like the image that Niall Ferguson has tried to conjure up.