Thatcher’s legacy and the politics of blame

by Jonathan Roberts

The past couple of days have been absurd.  As a centrist, I have looked on with quiet respect, but also with head in hands as ideologue after ideologue lined up to offer their views on Lady Thatcher’s legacy.

I say at the outset that, for those so inclined, the time to celebrate was not this week, it was in 1990 or 1997.  Ed Miliband, Neil Kinnock and others have rightly offered generous and respectful words on Mrs Thatcher’s passing, and it is my view that anyone who has expressed joy at the death of this frail old lady cannot realistically claim moral superiority, nor can they claim to be a particularly nice person – regardless of the anger they may still feel.

Like many other commentators, I was merely a child when Thatcher left Number Ten for the last time.  Being the son of two council workers I was not one of those who directly benefited from the Thatcher years, nor was I one of those who directly suffered.  So it is with that relative impartiality that I offer these thoughts.

The fundamental position of the left is that Thatcher destroyed the concept of society and abandoned countless decent, hardworking people to the scrapheap.  The position of the right is that she rescued the country from militant trade unionism and gave people the opportunity to be free from state reliance.

Both of these positions are true.

The blame for the political excesses of the 70s and 80s lie squarely with the stubborn proponents of hard right and hard left ideology.  And the failure to learn the lessons of those years is the fault of present day politicos who refuse to accept the notion that their ideology may, at least in part, be responsible for the mistakes of the past.

With clouded minds, hard ideologues fail to realise the need for counterbalance.  They fail to see that for every positive outcome of their actions, there is likely to be a negative one too.

Thatcher’s belief that everyone should be allowed to buy their council home was not counterbalanced with the understanding that a reduction in housing stock would hit those who were unable to take advantage – and that more would have to be built to replace them.  Her belief that publicly-owned industries were no longer financially sustainable was not counterbalanced by the understanding that closing them would decimate local communities – and that alternative skills and jobs would be necessary to give people a fighting shot at a future.

Likewise in the 70s, Labour’s belief in socialised industry was not counterbalanced by a hard-headed business-like approach to running them efficiently and professionally – and as a result, many industries were heavily overmanned and incurred huge losses.  It gave Thatcher all the excuse she needed to privatise them.

Indeed, Neil Kinnock said of Arthur Scargill this week, that his failure to compromise and negotiate lengthened the miners’ strike substantially.  In the short term, the miners suffered.  But in the long term, the reputation of trade unionism as a concept was so badly damaged by him and other leaders that, to this day, it has not truly recovered.

The harm done to trade unionism may be a substantial part of Thatcher’s legacy, but she was not solely the one to blame.

‘Never again’, I’ve heard some say this week.  Well if we do not learn from our past we are doomed to repeat its mistakes.  Socialism and Thatcherism only become popular when people are forced to choose between them.  Both have had some success, but both have had catastrophic failures too.

When hardline ideologues of both the left and right have their way, somewhere down the line people always get hurt.

In these difficult times, new proponents of old ideologies are finding their voice, and they are never off the television.  Armed with degrees, laptops and deliberately forgetful minds, we are lectured on job creation by those who have never created a job, preached to on economics by those wholly unqualified to do so.  We suffer relentless media appearances from prominent campaigners telling us they have all the answers, when their CVs suggest they’ve never done anything other than politics.  The high level of their confidence masks the low level of their expertise.

When experience of, and respect for the nuances of the real world are absent, hardline, blinkered ideology reigns supreme.  The only remedy is to question yourself as much as you question your opponents.

We may never find the perfect political theory.  But to avoid making the mistakes of the past, both sides must learn from each other.  If Labour does not like Conservative cuts, it must learn to stop running out of other people’s money.  And if Conservatives do not like Labour’s high spending, they must prove that it is possible to shrink the State without hurting the most vulnerable.  I hold my breath for neither.

This is a week for nostalgia – be it for good or for bad.  Noone wants us to go back to the 1970s and 1980s, but if we are to avoid a return to the bad old days, we must accept that both Conservatives and Labour were simultaneously to blame for their worst excesses, and vow never to let it happen again.

Only then can we move on.

Jonathan Roberts was Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Thirsk and Malton at the last election

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4 Responses to “Thatcher’s legacy and the politics of blame”

  1. Nick says:

    The harm done to trade unionism may be a substantial part of Thatcher’s legacy


    That was the unions.

    Now look. Green power is a must according to the left. Yet another way to stick the costs onto people who can’t afford it. And what’s green power? Well its certainly not coal.

    The left would be screwing the minors now if it hadn’t been for Thatcher taking on an organisation that was so self centered it was prepared to subvert democracy and and bring down an elected government.

  2. Robin Thorpe says:

    Well said Jonathan; I too was only a child in 1990. I don’t agree with what was done to the industrial north in Thatcher’s name. It is, however, necessary to say that a majority believed that the Conservative Party would improve their lives because the Labour Party were perceived to have failed.
    I think it is particularly important for MPs to have practical experience of commercial/industrial life. It is otherwise too easy to forget that the decision ministers take have a profound impact on people’s lives.
    On your penultimate point I think it is worth emphasising that for all Thatcher’s bluster about individual freedom and small state; her government stripped power away from local government and hoarded it all in Whitehall. The central state apparatus grew enormously in the 80’s despite privatisation as a result of this. Our democracy is the poorer for this.

  3. Steven says:

    “Armed with degrees, laptops and deliberately forgetful minds, we are lectured on job creation by those who have never created a job, preached to on economics by those wholly unqualified to do so…. ”

    This is nearly a perfect description of the new generation of careerist politicians. They go straight from university to a lobbyist/’communication’ consultancy/Westminster bag-carrying opportunity and, with perception blurred by feverish ambition, commence to issue forth a blather of pomposity.

    They should withdraw, preferably to a far distant province and get stuck into some hard work for a decade or two. After that, with luck, they may be able to make a sensible contribution.

  4. I voted her in on the basis of the shopping list / cut waste idea but never again.
    I know she did some good things like freeing up the amount of money you could take out of the country, sale of council houses etc Her response to the Falklands issue was good but the foreign office caused the problem by neglect -sending out the signals that we weren’t bothered. But!!!
    She put thousands of men out of work – some of the industries might have survived. This meant that many other trades went bankrupt as there was no money in many towns
    She had to pay unemployment which made the social security bill enormous
    She missed the point that manufacturing had made this country great (Primarily in the north) New innovations should have been pursued but she relied on gas and the city
    The ‘easy in easy out’ policies meant that English factories were shut before French and German ones. Good old reliable businesses moved to the continent.
    There was no enterprise system to re-employ these men
    thousands were told to go on the sick to make the unemployment figures better
    She started mixed sex hospital wards which at last are illegal
    She mishandled the Northern Ireland issue
    She took the tax breaks off apprentice training schools. ICI and Thorn shut theirs straightway so that many skills could not be passed on.
    She shut as many ship yards as she could including naval ones then after a word from our union boss she opened two again.
    Many companies were dinosaurs -I think the managements were as stupid as some of the union bosses. Quality was crap which was due to greedy bosses – Previously we made some of the best quality products in the world. Not her fault but the management didn’t get their fair share of the blame
    With no jobs unions couldn’t strike anyway – some of the big unions were totally irresponsible – the voting system was often a show of hands
    They privatised all sorts of jobs for instance hospital cleaners which meant private firms took over who had to pay profits to shareholders and managers.
    I reckon it’s easier to get income tax from an employer than the countless self-employed people for instance at the BBC
    Council houses were sold to people after only 5 years tenancy – the hope was to convert these people into Tories.
    Councils weren’t allowed to use the money they got off these houses to build any more.
    She shut coal mines that could have been converted to clean fuel then imported coal
    The pole tax – mansion owners paid less – ordinary houses paid more.
    The first slump hit the north
    The second slump hit north and south and by did the south complain about it.
    How much extra money has been spent by competing train and energy companies?
    The opposition was divided into SDP and Old Labour
    Major, Blair & Brown followed her policies
    None of the watch dogs seemed to have been any good.
    How many people were living on the streets during her premiership. At least Major made a lot of effort privately to house London’s homeless
    Can’t remember everything – I’m sure there were more good things.

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