Critique of Thatcherism turned on its head?

March 14, 2009

Bumped into a funny article yesterday in The Guardian, Middle class centre-left UK newspaper. By commentator Simon Jenkins. In a time when everybody blames capitalism, deregulation, etc for all of today’s ills, a refreshing point of view on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, the icon of the 1980s economic liberalization revolution that swept the UK and the rest of the world. Thatcher is even portrayed as a “centralizer” of sorts…. Let me quote:

Margaret Thatcher is now taking her turn in the stocks as an originator of the recession. On the 25th anniversary of the coal strike, it is the fault of Thatcher and her battle with the miners. It is the fault of Thatcher, the deregulation fanatic. It is the fault of Thatcher and the idolatry of greed. Commentators of the left have pitted her against the noble miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, in coalition with Karl Marx, socialism and king coal.

(…) Nobody can seriously hold that Britain would today be better off with the industrial structure and restrictive labour practices of the 1970s still in place. Young people today can have no conception of the collective misery that was the British political economy at the time, of a nation dubbed the sick man of Europe, its commerce enfeebled by subsidies and class-bound management, its government in perpetual funk.


This is only relevant since whatever blame attaches to Thatcher for the financial chaos of the last six months attaches even more to Blair and Brown. In truth, Thatcherism was a consensus, built on the experience of the 1970s as the consensus of 1940s welfarism was built on that of war.

The difference is that Brown, in his semi-independence for the Bank of England, was super-Thatcherite. The Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 established the tripartite regulation that has so conspicuously failed. It went far beyond what Thatcher would have tolerated. Her contribution to the political economy remains hopelessly misunderstood; her impact on labour and financial markets was emphatic, beyond anything attempted elsewhere in Europe. To accuse her of “licensing greed” is mere name-calling. She was an exceptionally cautious deregulator. She opposed Lord Howe’s decision in 1979 to cut income tax from 83% to 60%. She was soft on welfare fraud, indulgent of housing benefit, lavish on health spending and custodian of a public sector that rose in her first parliament from 41% to 44% of gross domestic product.

Meanwhile history is silent on the downside of the Thatcher era. The command structure she created to crush her foes became unrestrained, over-centralised and inefficient. Her evisceration of local democracy bred a cynicism among Britons towards political participation that remains unique in Europe. It also led to her downfall through the poll tax.

Thatcher was one of the great “nationalisers” of all time, taking control of the public housing stock, the rating system, a previously devolved hospital service, the universities, the courts, crown prosecution and, during the miners’ strike, the police. It was Thatcher who turned Whitehall from an elite administrative corps into a demoralised, politicised officialdom which, under Blair and Brown, became besotted with targets, initiatives and useless IT systems.”

Historical interpretations of someone’s legacy tend to take interesting turns at critical junctures of a country’s history…..


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