The announcement of the passing of Margaret Thatcher on 8 April 2013 gives people in Britain and cross the world the opportunity to once again assess her legacy. She remains a divisive figure: for her supporters, her period in office after 1979 was one of renewal. Her detractors claim that her government’s achievements, and these achievements are heavily qualified, came at too high a price.
The election victory of the Conservative Party in 1979, which brought her into office as Prime Minister, was a watershed moment in British politics. It was seen as a rejection of the post-war consensus by which government was the answer to the problems in a country. Symptomatic of this in Britain was the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-79 in which large-scale strikes by public sector workers led to rubbish being left uncollected and the dead remaining unburied.
Mrs Thatcher saw the problem as did Ronald Reagan, who became President of the United States in January 1981, of there being too much government, too much state interference, in people’s lives.
Ostensibly rejecting Keynesian economic principles, she instead relied on the economic ideals propogated by Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek, namely those of monetarism: control of the money supply, reform of the labour market and reduction in taxes. This was coupled with actions to break the stranglehold of the trade unions, which were perceived to be holding back British industry.
Mrs Thatcher’s success was to frame her economic arguments in simple terms. She likened her government’s policies to that of a prudent person: spend what you can afford, save and be responsible for your own actions. These ideas coincided with the theme of a return to ‘traditional values’ and small government that were also prevalent in the United States. And yet, paradoxically, she remained personally fairly liberal and her government did little to reverse the major social legislation on education, abortion, homosexuality and capital punishment that were enacted by the Labour government of the 1960s.
Though portrayed as the ‘Iron Lady’, one who claimed she was ‘not for turning’, Mrs Thatcher’s legacy was paradoxical. She preached economic propriety, but at the cost of social cohesion. Britain is the most economically unequal country in Europe, but when the financial crisis began in 2007, the banking industry was bailed out by the British taxpayer as if it were a state industry. Privatisation of other state activities have led to private sector profits when things go well, and public sector support when things turn bad.
It is clear that if the election of Mrs Thatcher’s government was a recognition of the limitations and failures of government, the 2007 financial crisis bore witness to the failure of the markets, and the very beliefs that Thatcherism was built on in the first place.
Michael Mulligan is a Political Science lecturer at the British University in Egypt (BUE)