Margaret Thatcher died on 8th April 2013 and this has caused quite a stir. Many people look back at her premiership with rose tinted spectacles while others roundly condemn her for ruining British industry, causing mass unemployment and generally creating hell on Earth. On TV everyone has something to say. Ken Livingston said that Britain was in trouble because we had lost our manufacturing base whereas Germany had retained theirs and were doing very well. Sounds reasonable until one considers that France and Italy held on to their manufacturing base and are in a worse state than the UK.
Most Labour MPs condemn the life and works of Mrs. T. but I wonder how things would be if she had died in 2006 with Labour doggedly following her policies toward new heights of hyper-commercialism. The gravy train still rolling. One can only guess at the sycophantic eulogising of Blair and Balls. Of course 2006 may have been too early to judge as the full effects of her policies had not been played out but one could argue that in 2013.
Broadly the argument is that rising prosperity for some was at the expense of mass unemployment for others and people love or loathe her dependent on their place in this picture. A friend complained that she could not get a job after Thatcher came to power in 1979 and I countered that during the 1979 election campaign the Tories ran a poster showing a long queue of people at an unemployment office with a strap line reading “Labour Isn’t Working“. This implied that unemployment was a problem prior to the Thatcher government. Both my friend and I had recounted our memories but anecdotal evidence is always biased. We need dispassionate analysis. We need statistics. Luckily vast quantities of data are now available via The Internet.
So I set about finding a graph showing unemployment from the 1970s onward and it seems to be true that unemployment increased dramatically under the Thatcher government. The graph is shown at the end of this article along with several others. So what else can statistical graphs sourced from The Internet tell us?
Well, the price of crude oil took off in the 70s and this had a negative impact on the British economy but it’s interesting to note that UK North Sea oil production also took off in the late 70s and overtook consumption around 1979. House prices rose substantially after 1979 though we should remember that they rose absurdly fast under Tony Blair’s government too. UK debt dropped substantially under Thatcher but later climbed back again and base rates rose substantially. The one achievement that can be attributed to the Thatcher government seems to be conquering inflation.
It’s also interesting to see that real disposable income rose steadily after WW2 dipping just before Mrs. T was elected, then rising more quickly, flattening off in 2006 and then declining after 2009.
There was controversy when the Labour Isn’t Working poster appeared because it used actors. These days we accept that images used in advertising are not real. Musicians and film stars who were our heroes used to disdain advertising but Brian Ferry worked for Marks and Spencer, John Lydon sold butter and Christmas saw Scarlet Hohanson on our TV flogging perfume. Our heroes have sold out.
Sometime in the 1980s I recall an American friend telling me that England was “so inconvenient” as she desperately pushed coins into one of those idiot public telephones before the pips cut her off. It’s true, it was inconvenient, and inefficient and we were materially poorer. But I preferred the old slam door trains and the open backed buses. You could open doors and windows yourself rather than waiting for some bloody system to do it for you. We seem to have become richer in private material goods but more restricted and poorer in communal resources. Also poorer in space, time and trust. We live in a less gentle time.
This may be mere nostalgia and I expect that were I transported back to 1979 I would rail against the paucity of TV stations, the slowness of road transport, the limitations on pub opening times and the dreadful food.
All this crystallised in my mind the idea that the death of Margaret Thatcher is a perfect opportunity to review post war political, economic and social policy. A chance to cut through the political spin and partisan prejudice and get a long view of the period when Britain morphed from the land of respect for nobility and knowing your place to a dog eat dog free for all.
The BBC should commission a documentary or even a series. Some questions that might be asked:
- Was the country really in a mess when Thatch took over?
- What were the problems?
- What were the alternatives to economic liberalism?
- Was the economic boom unleashed by the Tories and driven to ludicrous heights by Tony Blair anything more than a debt fuelled bubble?
A selection of graphs are listed below. While reviewing these stats it became apparent that the more one learns the more questions arise. For example are we talking about long term or short term unemployment? Each may have different causes and effects. Fortunately numerous excellent resources are available on the web where one can access such data. e.g. Google Public Data, Public Spending, Office for National Statistics, NationMaster.