Monday 17 October 2011

Thatcher's Britain

Thatcher's Britain

Richard Vinen

Looking for a book that would either examine the intricacies of Thatcher's various governments, something that Andrew Rawnsley's superlative End of the Party did for Blair/Brown's cabinets, or a social commentary of a passed decade , like the excellent Andy Beckett's When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies, I tried Thatcher's Britain.

Which was a shame. This is an odd book.

For a start it isn't about Britain at all. The people and the events hardly get a mention. The Toxteth riots has a single line.And it isn't really about Thatcher either. Its about..well I'm not sure really. The idea of Thatcherism? Whether it was an idea, a doctrine
, a religion or just a myth.

The book covers chunks of Thatcherism without going into much detail. Economics, Europe, Ireland Nato & the Unions. The book blurb says T
hatcher's Britain tells the story of Thatcherism for a generation with no personal memories of the 80s"

But it doesn't. If you don't already know what happened and who was doing what then this book won't help you much. Ken Livingstone gets just two mentions. John Major, only five.
The person who does get the most mentions, with fifty five, or a reference every six pages, is Enoch Powell.

Now, I don't recall hearing much about Enoch during Thatcher's tenure. I wasn't paying a lot of attention in the 80's but I am fairly sure he rarely cropped up. Yet here he appears twice as regularly as Nigel Lawson, the long time chancellor. Michael Portillo only manages a Gordon Brown attending Parliament amount of appearances. Once.

I can only conclude that the author originally intended to write a biography of Powell, who is incredibly fascinating, but found no publishers were interested, so rather than bin the material he squeezed it into a book not really about Thatcher.

Well...I'm none the wiser. It seems that Thatcher may not have been very Thatcherite after all.

However, having persevered, I'm determined to take something from this book. And that is the conclusion.

1. Thatcher was NOT necessarily a reforming Prime Minister. The manifestos were not full of commitments to change society, despite what occurred later. They WERE full of talk about repairing the economy, tackling inflation {running at 10-20% Per annum} and paying down the debt.

2. Thatcher ended the state subsidies to the nationalised industries that had massively driven up public spending and allowed strong unions resistant to change and wage controls. Sectors that were entirely dependent on the government for cash become less bloated and more efficient.

3. Thatcher made the Labour party become centralists. She forced the old Foot/Kinnock heavy metal Labour party to be abandoned forever. That was a result of her most successful policies being demonstrably correct, even if at a high price. Labour could not go back to clause 4 . Thatcher privatised the 'native' CEGB
and even today, with the leader of the opposition calling for an end to high energy prices, he has no intention of renationalising the energy companies. Labour didn't dig a single extra shovelful of coal in their 13 years of power than a Tory government would have done.

There was another Maggie Factor. She was lucky.

Lucky in timing. Lucky with her ministers. Lucky that her opponents inside and outside the party were inept. Lucky with Scargill falling into the traps. Lucky in war. Lucky with the press. Lucky with Regan and Gorbachev. Lucky that the IRA missed.

Will Cameron be as lucky?


diogenes said...

she had a great team, esp Whitelaw, but Lawson, Ridley,and co were pretty hot. And guys such as Biffen - although a "wet" oiled the wheels of government.

However, who is now calling the tune? It looks as if there is no government - Huhne is allowed to be stupid - not hard for him - and the only policy is to try to rake in punitive move. Build the tax books higher. That is the way to success. Encourage participation by taxing more.

diogenes said...

you guys tend to keep up with the news but....what is special about a massive gas find...near Blackpool, that has possibly caused a couple of insignificant tremors? Why is this not the answer to our dreams?

Bill Quango MP said...

diogenes: Mr Drew, the resident energy expert covered it here.

alan said...

During Thatchers era far more of the cabinet (and Tory MP's) had either worked in private industry, or served in the military.

The CV's of the current cabinet are rather lightweight in comparison and wouldn't be my first choice to run a corner shop let alone a 2 trillion dollar business.

Electro-Kevin said...

The quality of Luck is important in selecting a leader.

Some people are born losers no matter how clever they are or how hard they try. You don't want one of those.

Sackerson said...

The miracle of the Eighties? Monetary inflation.

But people in, or comfortably dining with, the City don't want to know:

andrew said...

Enoch Powell gave a speech at college ~1985 iirc and he was a very old man who looked ill, but his manner of delivery was still exciting/electrifying (in a way that only Hague seems to get near) - even if you did not agree with what he was saying.
Met Norman Tebbit in a hotel 2 year later and remembered thinking that he looked about the same age.

Having said that, at the time, Tebbit was in the news constantly and Powell was the old bloke who did rivers of blood 20 years ago.

Old BE said...

I think that Thatcher did have an underlying set of beliefs though: such as egalitarianism, ladders of opportunity, breaking down barriers and taking apart vested interests. Unfortunately Cameron either hides his underlying beliefs very well or, more worrying perhaps, has none.

Thatcher wouldn't have put up with the way the National Trust and friends are trying to scupper housebuilding, for example. She would have won the argument rather than go "ooh, I wasn't expecting this much opposition, back-track back-track" as Cameron has done.

Thatcher wouldn't be all defensive over the deficit, she would be on the attack and taking the battle to the "Plan Bers".

Sebastian Weetabix said...

@Sackerson - I totally agree. Thatcher did some good things (unions, Falklands, miners) but also some terrible things. The biggest mistake was to allow the financial sector to completely take over.

Her real miracle was oil/gas revenue from the North Sea, which partly made up for the decline of our traditional industries, but having a strong petro-pound led to most of our remaining manufacturing industry being gutted. If I had a better memory I would be able to recall the name of the industrialist who begged her to "leave the bloody stuff in the ground"

Bill Quango MP said...

Alan: Thatcher was always slightly defensive that she had no war record. She was studying at Oxford during the war. {There is an argument that if the men hadn't been fighting, she would not have got in.} All the cabinet and close advisers had WW2 or military service experience. She was, unusually for her, unsure on defence issues. Until after the Falklands, when she felt she had now had her own war experience.
BTW - Michael Foot was a great supporter of the Falklands war. Not one to tolerate invasions by fascists that old communist.

Ryan said...

I'm not sure manifestos are a good guide to what a government believes - they are a good guide to what the government wants you to believe.

Thatcher wasn't lucky. She bought votes by selling council houses. She also appealed to the working class in the pricate sector that saw themselves outflanked by their public sedctor neighbours who were union members forever striking for more pay. She was the recipient of Labour votes where working class people claimed in public that they were going to vote Labour but actually voted Tory because they knew which side their bread was buttered. Consequently Thatcher didn't need to kow-tow to the fickle "floating voters" like Blair and Cameron - she could do and say what she liked.

I think it is important to consider that most of our PMs have won by appealing to the floating voter. Often falsely considered to be the "middle ground" these people have no real interest in politics at all but insist on voting anyway. They are wishy washy by nature and like wishy washy leaders with wishy washy policies that don't frighten them too much. Democracy in Britain is all about what these wishy washy voters prefer even though they make up only 6% of those that bother to vote. The rest of us don't matter a toss. Thatcher and Atlee were the only two PMS that bucked that trend - Atlee because he was the recipient of post-war desire for radical change and Thatcher because she circumvented the floating voters to make a direct appeal to the lower middle class and working class Labour vote (which is why the left have a particular hatred of her).

Mostly people in politics and the media don't understand Thatcher and what she did because they are too posh to appreciate the impact she had on the working class and lower middle class. In any case they know that a politician that rises to power by uniting the working class and the middle class is a very dangerous politician indeed to the existing establishment, and must be stopped at all costs.

Bill Quango MP said...

EK - Napoleon was a great believer in luck. He was a tactical genius but he feared that an opponent would get lucky and beat him. In the end, Wellington defeated him, with only a small amount of luck, and a large amount of skill.

Sackerson: Miracle of the 80's was we all got through it. I haven't ever quite removed that image of Maggie as the Victorian Nanny insisting we take the horrible medicine.

Andrew: in that book there is a quote from EP on almost every page. Much of it is pertinent, such as his iron lady speech, which Maggie enjoyed so much it was framed on her wall.They all looked much older than the current crop, because they were?

Bill Quango MP said...

BE: Thatcher did have a set of beliefs. But these changed, understandably, as the world changed. She came to power at the very end of the analogue age left at the start of the digital.

The 1980's Tories were very practical. Mrs T was happy to talk about values,savings, women's rights, but didn't act much on them. What they were was determined on the possible. There's a quote somewhere that all government s talk about what they'd like to achieve, instead of what they have achieved. She was focused on the possible.

You're right about her language though, very very strong.

"The right hon. Gentleman is afraid of an election is he? Oh, if I were going to cut and run I'd have gone after the Falklands. Afraid? Frightened? Frit? Couldn't take it? Couldn't stand it? Right now inflation is lower than it has been for thirteen years, a record the right hon. Gentleman couldn't begin to touch! "

No wonder all her opposition leaders dreaded PMQs.

Sebastian Weetabix: Michael Edwardes {googled it}.And a very good point you make.

Ryan: i can't agree on luck. There can't have been many luckier PMs. Lucky that North Sea oil came along just as the receipts were desperately needed. Lucky that the Ark royal didn't take an Exocet and so end the invasion.Lucky Hesseltine picked an obscure and almost irrelevant issue over Westland to resign, instead of something that the very anti-government CofE would have leaped to his defence on, like poverty rates.. Lucky the EU leaders were in awe of her transformation of the UK, rather the Heathite consensus of the UK being in awe of France and West Germany's growth.
Lucky with Regan being the most popular US president ever, making her the most popular non American world leader over there since Churchill.
Lucky with the SAS raid on the embassy..Lucky the miners decided not to have a proper ballot and to strike in the spring, rather than the winter.
Lucky that the big bang worked. Up until then the UK was a backwater in financial terms. A doddery old Mary Poppins tuppence-a-bag sort of finance centre. The liberation of the city was untried. It might not have worked at all. Nor might privatisation. It hadn't been done before. Lucky that England embraced the council house sale. Scotland didn't. Neither did Northern Ireland.
Another 'lucky' PM was Blair.
He wasn't called teflon for nothing.

Both benefited from an opposition in disarray, with weak and unpopular leaders. if anything, Blair was even luckier.

That's not to say they didn't make their own luck. They did. But they also had some guardian angels.

Brown should be considered unlucky.As was John Major.

Old BE said...

I'm afraid we now have a PM who is so scared of being unlucky that he won't push for anything.

If ever the word "frit" was designed for a sitting PM, Cameron is it.

Old BE said...

And of course the saddest thing about Blair is that he was lucky and had everyone on his side for a very long time and yet tried to achieve virtually nothing, leaving him wide open to be sat on by Gordon Bloody Brown.

Budgie said...

Ryan said: "She bought votes by selling council houses."

Presumably, then, Labour bought votes by building council houses?

James Higham said...

Thanks for the tip - shall give that one a miss.

Sackerson said...

I remember news broadcasts from the 50s/60s where politicians of both stripes were competing to announce how many housing "units" they had built, which I suppose is how we got those awful stack-a-prole blocks.

Red or blue, that's your choice and it suits both of them. Now me, now your turn.

Old BE said...

Budgie well yes, who was it who said "we'll build you out of London"?

dearieme said...

She didn't start any wars, did she? She expelled the Argie invaders. and prepared to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait, but she didn't start any aggressive wars. Compare with Clinton, W, Blair, Cameron....

Lesson: beware lefties and "compassionate conservatives". Bloody warmongers.

Anonymous said...

Thatcher, the tough military leader, was actually visiting the US, when Saddam Hussein waged war on Kuwait. She strongly urged President George Bush Sr, to intervene. She told President Bush that, “This was no time to go wobbly!" Thatcher sent British military forces for the build up of the Gulf War, lead by the US and UK against the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq.

Nick Drew said...

not to say they didn't make their own luck

The miners' strike was in fact a rare example of politicians actually planning ahead strategically (here is another). During the period of opposition 1974-79 Nicholas Ridley was given the task of devising a strategy. It included building the A14, and a national police coordination system, and a large stockpile of coal, and several detailed aspects relating to the CEGB system, all of which took time

the miners nearly went on strike 'too early' - 1981, from memory, when the preparations were not ready. A rather humiliating government climb-down took place, which was taken for a sign of weakness by miners and commentators alike

when everything was ready the actual strike was deliberately provoked in the spring of 84

of course, it was a close-run thing and as you say, the fact that Scargill & McGaghey didn't call a ballot ("we won't be constitutionalised out of our strike") was a fantastic stroke of luck

Anonymous said...

Cameron has already had amazing luck in being elected Tory leader by an atavistic membership who put appearnce before substance. He then had even more luck in making it to PM without winning an election. Whilst you can't rule out his luck coming to an end, the rest of us are of course having to pay for his luck.

Ryan said...

& Budgie "Presumably, then, Labour bought votes by building council houses?"

Yes. Worse than that, they tend to claim they invented council housing (and the NHS) but they didn't. But in the 70s they failed to build enough houses for the baby boomers, private home builders rose to fill the gap and the era of home ownership by the working class was born creating the new lower middle class of the kind leftists despised. Thatcher saw and understood that rise of the aspirational working class and took full advantage of it, whilst Labour continued to pretend that real power lay with the working class. Not really luck at all. She really knew what she was doing. Labour didn't have a clue. Most of Labour is still living in the past. They only live on as a workable party because no new credible party that would appeal to current Labour voters has risen to replace them and our first past the post system discourages such innovation.

Ryan said...

@Bill: Can't agree with your analysis:

Heseltine: important to a media fond of seeing issues as "conflicts". He was of no interest to the general public, either at that time or since.

Ark Royal: Didn't take an Exocet because the RN protected it well. Not luck. The Argentine invasion itself was lucky however - really cemented her image and made Labour look really weak. Without that conflict she may have lost the next election.

EU: Nobody likes it and the few that do don't really care - Thatcher benefitted more from kicking its ass and telling it to give more of our money back. Not luck.

Reagan: Popular in the US but not so popular - except with the right of the Tory party. Thatcher would have made the best of whatever President was in office. Anyway, I think she may have driven Reagan harder than he drove her - not luck

Lucky Scargill didn't call a ballot: Also a media issue not an issue with the public. Thatcher took on the unions because she knew the public were already behind her. They hated the unions by the time of the winter of discontent. Thatcher didn't reduce union membership by 50% - they did that by their own actions: Not luck - Thatcher knew exactly what she was doing.

SAS raid: Lucky. But probably not a big voter issue: Helped her image though.

Council house sale: Yep, it didn't work well in strong Labour areas. Big deal. Thatcher knew it wouldn't. She was aiming at those borderline seats where it would work and she was right. Again. Not luck.

Freeing the City: Well thought out policy that worked as expected. You might as well argue that Edison success with the lightbulb was "lucky".

Tony Blair: Yes, he was unbelievably lucky. How he won 3 elections is beyond me. Not having to get many people to vote for him helped I guess.

Gordon Brown: Not unlucky. If ever a man was author of his own misfortunes it was he.

John Major: Bit unlucky. Was a much better PM than Blair on reflection. Was the unfortunate recipient of growing public disenchantment with the Tories and a small majority which was begging for the media to take it apart just for the sport of it if nothing else. Turns out the BBC and Guardian would happily resort to outright lies to get rid of him.

Bill Quango MP said...

Ryan: Pretty conclusive. I don't mean that it was luck, not planning in what occurred. I mean that events that were a matter of chance tended to go well for Margaret.

The Argentine invasion could have finished a lesser government, just by the invasion. Then the decision to invade was largely luck. The Admiral marched univited into no 10 and told the PM, against the prevailing counsel, that a liberation invasion was possible.
Lucky that the USA quickly came around to granting the UK whatever it needed, especially Ascension island dock facilities, without which it wasn't possible.
The Argentinians stuffed the islands full of fairly useless conscripts, who they couldn't feed or supply properly. They defended Stanley, not the beaches, so allowing the foothold.
They set their bombs to explode at the wrong height. They sent their major warships back to port after Belgrano. They treated the American negotiators appallingly, leading the US to conclude there was no chance of peace between their two allies.
The Argentines kept their crack troops on the borders of Argentina, fearing neighbours taking the opportunity to invade.

And so on..

The Falklands were not won on a lucky throw. But they were a very, very risky undertaking. {something leftwingers in the 90's, who felt cheated out of an election victory in '83, tried to present as a forgone conclusion.It wasn't. It was knife edge until the troops were ashore.}

But by luck, I mean that her opponents and enemies, Galtieri,Foot,Scargill, Kinnock, Hatton,William Whitelaw, and so on, made plenty of mistakes that better people might not have made.

Lady Thatcher's luck ran out in about 1988. Her speech to Bruges, about the EU socialising Britain was about Delors promising to introduce much greater union powers to the EU.
The bad luck was it was reported as an anti-europe, we're better than you tirade, which it wasn't.
That was a big nail in her political coffin.

Look at Brown. If he had faced IDS, he might still be PM. But he didn't.
He was unlucky in that by the time he did things that should have been favourably reported, he had expended his goodwill and no-one cared.
No one was even listening. Undoubtably the great financial calamity, which he has to bear a very large responsibility for, actually saved his premiership.

Now that's 'lucky'. If the crisis broken 18 months earlier he might not have been PM at all. A year later and he'd already have gone.
He was a truly terrible PM, all on his own, possibly even the very worst Post war PM, but he was unlucky too.