There are reasons to mourn the former PM – not least her party’s inability to see through her vision, writes Bill Jamieson
Lowered flags and national solemnity; crowd barriers erected and the streets cleared for a cortege through central London; soldiers as pall-bearers; police in their thousands along the route and full-on reverence at St Paul’s Cathedral: thus do preparations build for the funeral of Margaret Thatcher.
MPs are recalled for a special sitting of parliament. Calls are made for a minute’s silence at football matches. Is this not all starting to go over the top? Even for me, a Thatcher groupie, I have an uncomfortable sense that it is. Already there is saturation coverage on the BBC and newspapers have devoted page after page of coverage of her life and legacy. Now comes The Funeral. And I sense a backlash is building over its scale, the tinge of Diana hysteria around its arrangements – and its cost.
For so divisive a figure, someone who was far from universally loved, what explains mourning of this intensity and scale?
Let’s not take anything away from the fact that she was an outstanding prime minister; that much of what she did was necessary and for the better; that she displayed stunning courage and conviction.
Through the many tributes that have been paid and the memories evoked, I detect a deep unhappiness and frustration at the times we are now in and a desire by many for an escape back into the certainties she offered. Across the “home counties”, her premiership has passed into that sepia-tinged hall of faded memory where much of England seems to spend its time, a homeland suspended somewhere between the drawing room of Downton Abbey and the upright Ford car interiors of Foyle’s War. Weren’t the car doors so much better? And what happened to those sweet women portrayed by Honeysuckle Weeks? All gone.
As England wallows in this elegiac nostalgia, even the ration cards seemed to be recalled in soft focus.
It is here that I come to a puzzle, a remarkable paradox in these glowing testimonials to Mrs Thatcher. They speak of her “enduring legacy”, of the “permanent change” that she wrought, of how our economy and society “would never be the same”.
But did she really “change Britain” as permanently as those glowing tributes have asserted?
I suspect the fact that she did not explains this paradox and the desire to retreat into a mythic world she did not, in fact, create. That the “Thatcher revolution” was far from permanent or complete accounts for her powerful haunting of the way we live now.
Ironically, it is her critics on the Left who are responsible for much of the myth that surrounds her legacy. It was said that she “slashed” government spending. In fact, it continued to rise throughout her premiership, at a real-terms average annual rate of 1.4 per cent.
She slowed the rate at which it was rising. That in itself was an achievement. But the tide of public spending continued to flow, causing her guru, Professor Milton Friedman, to pronounce failure in this central mission.
When she resigned, Total Managed Expenditure (TME) for government remained stubbornly high at 41.5 per cent of GDP in 1991-92. That percentage even rose above the 1979 level soon after she left office (though it fell subsequently for a time). Today, in markedly different circumstances, TME stands at 45.2 per cent of GDP. A permanent legacy? Not on this score.
It was said “she transformed the economy”. There was certainly a step-change in our performance. Between 1979 and 1989 real-terms GDP rose by 26.8 per cent, higher than the Germany-driven European Union average of 24.3 per cent.
There was a powerful catch-up in labour productivity during the Thatcher era. But there was no sustained economic renaissance: Britain was heading towards deep recession as the Nigel Lawson boom turned to bust in 1990-91. It was said “she throttled back the frontiers of the state”. Would this were so on a lasting basis. Privatisations, particularly giants such as British Telecom and British Gas, made a significant impact at the time. But it did not bring about a permanent reduction in the government’s tax take. Indeed, tax receipts as a percentage of GDP did not fall below their 1979 level until 1992 – after she had left office.
It was said “she moved Britain towards a share-owning democracy”. That was certainly the aspiration. The privatisation share offers did break the fall in individual share ownership and for a period partly reversed the long-term decline. But the retreat was resumed as millions of small shareholders swapped their shares for cash.
And even before she left office, public attitudes towards privatisation had started to cool. Polls revealed 83 per cent opposition to water privatisation. Within five years of her resignation, support for privatisation was crumbling amid public uproar over the huge pay and bonus packages of British Gas chief Cedric Brown.
It was said that “she cut Britain’s debt”. But this owed much to North Sea oil receipts. It was said “she drew a line under further encroachment by the EU”. But Mrs Thatcher signed the EU Single Market Act, a move she later regretted as the reach of Brussels extended further into many areas of British life. And her successor went on to sign the Maastricht Treaty.
She cannot, of course, be held responsible for subsequent increases in the UK’s budget contribution to the EU, or for the Treaties of Lisbon and Nice. But the encroachment of the EU has steadily continued. Valiant though her efforts were, there is no “line in the sand”.
It was said “she permanently changed the Conservative Party”. Certainly, no leader since Churchill commanded stronger grass roots support. But the “grass roots” counted for little when it mattered. It was members of the Conservative Cabinet who undertook her political assassination and who went on to receive promotion. And it was pro-EU elements in the party who went on to drive the Maastricht Treaty through the Commons.
No Conservative leader since has been able to invoke the same intense feelings of loyalty and support and, indeed, some seemed anxious to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the Thatcher legacy. David Cameron is not so much the heir of Thatcher as of Tony Blair.
The achievements – and the legacies – of political leaders are determined by the circumstances of their time. But times change. The global financial crisis of 2008-9 brought a severe recession and an explosion in government borrowing and debt, dwarfing the figures with which Mrs Thatcher had to deal in 1979.
The point is not that she failed as a prime minister, but that her revolution was incomplete. She pulled us out of a disastrous nose-dive. But to convert that into a permanent step-change required the same vigilance and determination to be sustained by her successors.
They were not. And the fact that they were not explains much of what went so disastrously wrong in recent years.
Her funeral is a sad occasion. But not at all for the reasons many obituaries have cited.