Margaret Thatcher was buried today, and was given a burial that was consciously modelled on that of Winston Churchill. It was fitting in one way – it was a bit of a jarring anachronism. And that is pretty much what the woman was. The cliché that the media hatched for coverage of her passing was that she was a divisive figure. And so she was, But I wonder if the Venn diagram looks quite how the reports implied. Maybe the division was between the people who thought she did something important, whether good or bad, and those that wondered what all the fuss was about.
You might suppose that if she either saved or ruined the country, looking back from now with the wisdom of hindsight there might be some compelling evidence one way or the other. But the statistics, as they usually are, are ambiguous. Certainly the numbers for the early Thatcher period are pretty terrible. The one that can stand proxy for the rest is the truly shocking figure of just short of 3.5 million in 1983. It has never been that bad again.
As it happens I had direct personal experience of the peak of unemployment. 1983 was the year I became the first member of my family to be awarded a degree. I then followed up this unique achievement with another. I was the first member of my family to ever have to sign on for unemployment benefit.
So it is perhaps not surprising that I have never been a fan of Thatcher’s government. I kept a close eye on current affairs in those days and I find the idea that they were visionary radicals with a plan to transform the country utterly laughable. If the unemployment was a price worth paying for some better future why did they devote so much effort to fiddling the numbers to keep the headline figure down? And if they were fearless conviction politicians why did they spend so much money on advertising agencies?
At the time I was quite sympathetic to the view that Thatcher was some kind of demon intent on wrecking the country. But when I engage my brain I realise that the mirror image view on the left was just that – the same thing in reverse. There were reasons beyond the government’s control, and understanding, that were making a big contribution to the problem. There was a world downturn in trade that a country like Britain was bound to be affected by. There was also what has come to be known as Dutch disease. North Sea oil inflated the value of the pound making British goods uncompetitive. The Thatcher government can be blamed for not doing more about these problems, and indeed probably exacerbating them. But the early eighties were always going to be difficult. (Note this is strictly in terms of employment – Dutch disease doesn’t cause the economy to fall.)
Looked at in context, it was basically a pretty weak administration that took longer than most of them to get the hang of managing the country. It compares rather badly with earlier Conservative and Labour governments. If you measure success by economic growth delivered the out and out winner in performance terms is the last Labour government. It may have been boring, but you can’t argue with its numbers.
So I think the media have sold us a pup. The country ran pretty well before Thatcher. People had jobs, started businesses, got educations and generally lived their lives well enough. Thatcher presided over a bad patch which wasn’t of her making. Since then we have done pretty well. There wasn’t anything for Thatcher to save the country from. She didn’t wreck it either. Her management style was dictatorial, and in my experience dictatorial managers rarely get the best out of their team. Thatcher didn’t get the best out of her country, which is a shame. But can we move on now?
You might also be interested in my post on whether you should vote.