Thatcher and Thatcherism – by Eric J. Evans

LeftCentral Book Review 

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This is a bantamweight text, which packs a super-heavyweight punch. And Evans, whose first edition was published fifteen-years ago, has revised his view; granting Mrs Thatcher more significance than he initially credited her with. Thatcherism is not considered a coherent ideology; Evans along with others believes it was (is) an amalgam of neo-liberalism and authoritarian conservatism. He charts Thatcher`s rise and fall, while placing her leadership within a political and historical framework (Peel and Disraeli). He includes a more contemporary analysis of Major`s administration, as John Major suffered from her back seat driving, as the Tories ripped themselves apart over Europe. Margaret Thatcher, who in 1986 signed the Single European Act, paradoxically became the standard bearer of European sceptics, illustrating what a funny world British politics is. As Evans points out the “Single European Act accelerated the process towards wider European integration, ultimately leading to the Maastricht Treaty in 1991 and the establishment of a single European currency in 1991”.

The New Labour project was not immune from Thatcherism and comparisons between Blair/Brown and Thatcher are made. Evans gives credence to a quote from the Spectator that “Margaret Thatcher begat Tony Blair”. Ireland is ignored by Evans and an interesting policy contrast between Blair and Thatcher was lost. Thatcher was viewed by many as a strident Unionist but she did sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985) and without this later initiatives by Major and Blair would have been impossible. 

Mrs Thatcher`s key policies are outlined with reference to an assortment of political and academic opinion. There is extensive detail on Local government (rate capping and centralisation), education (huge rise in HE numbers with a massive dip in funding and a national school curriculum), NHS (target setting and Trusts), privatisation (sadly influencing the former soviet states – the Iron Lady had many fans there) and the special relationship (Britain becoming less relevant and more supine). Thatcher`s attempt at dismantling `big government` led to vast bureaucratic structures and concerns about the constitutional probity of central government. Europe, Immigration, and Crime are also analysed in depth.

The most savage political critique is offered by Ian Gilmour, he sent out an early warning about untrammelled monetarism. Those looking for a left-wing diatribe from Evans will be disappointed; this is a well crafted and balanced analysis. However, Evans provides a meticulous critique and there is much to criticise. While the book can be quickly read, the analysis provides much food for thought.

Mrs Thatcher a conviction politician set about dismantling the post-war consensus. This consensus was not a socialist one, though her contempt for that doctrine is outlined by Evans. And evident in her final leadership performance in the House of Commons on the 22nd of November 1990. The Attlee government of 1945-51 was strongly linked to this consensus. This policy agenda gradually accepted by the post-war Tories while in opposition, via a set of reviews associated with RA Butler called, `The Industrial Charter`. When the Conservatives returned to power in 1951, they had largely accepted this consensus but it seems were never at ease with it. It was a `One-Nation Tory` Ted Heath (1970) that briefly broke with consensus (Selsdon Man). While it is true that in 1976, the Labour Government of Callaghan ditched Keynes, the shift to monetarism was a pragmatic one. Thatcherism must be placed within a wider context and she cannot be held responsible for global change and neo-liberalism, she played her part but she initially followed rather than led.

As Evans outlines a gradual post-war decline in UK economic productivity, forced successive governments to finance welfare measures associated with consensus by printing money. This inflationary approach was linked to a perception that the trade union movement was driving up inflation, through wage demands. Labour introduced a `Social Contract`, which failed as the winter of 1979 demonstrates. Endemic industrial action acted as a back-drop to the 1979 general election. As Evans points out Callaghan stood some hope of winning in October 1978 but his defeat was a foregone conclusion after the winter of 1979. Thatcher`s administration was propped up by North Sea oil money, helping Britain avoid bankruptcy. While she introduced a monetarist revolution and deregulation bonanza, the impact of which we are still living with today. The deregulation of the banking system is perhaps Mrs Thatcher`s most bitter legacy (it`s in the top five) and shaped a new economic orthodoxy that Labour were happy to share. The crash of 2008 and bail out will dominate UK politics for generations. As Evans points out, governments in Britain had from 1830-1970 held capitalism in check through regulation; this was something Mrs Thatcher, “entirely failed to notice” an unfortunate policy line that Labour followed.

Mrs Thatcher entered Number 10 quoting St Francis of Assisi declaring that the nation should unite to “strengthen the country”. But as Evans outlines, Thatcherism led to a “disunited kingdom”. Her economic agenda stimulated Scottish and Welsh nationalism, the break-up of the UK is a real possibility. While the departure of Scotland and Wales provides electoral attractions to the Conservatives, it should be added that that divisions within England itself were also pronounced resulting from her policies. This is illustrated by a comparison of economic growth rates in the South-East and North-West. Such variations are indicators of health and well-being and Evans quotes a EU report which stated, “that British society was becoming increasingly unequal. By 2010, the UK had the second largest regional variation in GDP per inhabitant.”

Thatcherism has made it impossible for any UK political party to endorse an economic programme that stressed taxation or public spending. This new orthodoxy began with Geoffrey Howe`s budget of 1980, its deflationary emphasis outlined by Evans, leading to drops in manufacturing and huge rises in unemployment. Britain lost a quarter of its manufacturing capacity and Unemployment benefits paid with North Sea oil money, a wasted legacy. Ironically, as Evans points out, taxation was not lowered during the Thatcher period in office “taxation accounted for 38.5% of GDP in 1979 and 40.75% in 1990.” Also it was the introduction of the poll tax or Community Charge that ultimately reduced her authority leading to her fall.

Thatcher was a more pragmatic and nuanced politician than many realise. She went to war with Argentina over the Falklands Island (benefiting as we have recently discovered from the help of the much maligned French nation). Though she was less inclined to complain when the USA invaded Grenada in 1983, a Commonwealth country whose head of state Evans reminds us was Queen Elizabeth II. Likewise, Thatcher took on the NUM in 1984 but unlike Ted Heath ten years earlier, she did so with a totally altered legal landscape – various Employment Acts in place and at time when mass unemployment was starting to bite hard. Evans also points out that pay rises to the police and armed forces were quickly introduced and back dated. She also made sure she had stocks of coal piled high and the weight of the state employed in her favour, the free market was as Andrew Gamble explained, combined to a strong state. Thatcherism a paradoxical doctrine remains with us all for many years to come.

Thatcher and Thatcherism by Eric J Evans (Routledge) (Third Edition 2013)

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