Thursday, April 14, 2011

Mrs Thatcher

I have been reading Thatcher's Britain by Richard Vinen. It is now more than 30 years since Mrs Thatcher came to power and I guess it is history for most people rather than news. It might be a suitable time to assess her influence. She is a woman of the same generation as the Queen and Marilyn Monroe. who broke through the glass ceiling, despite being on the 'wrong side'. For the left she is a figure of bile and spleen; for the right she is a heroine, but someone who was never 'one of us'.

Like Obama she attracts accolades for being the first of a kind, but unlike Obama, she has actually done something. The first thing she did was to rein in public spending, risking a recession in order to control the money supply. 364 economists wrote to the Times saying she was crazy; but it worked. Her policies are being repeated now by the current coalition government with the same predictable results.

She then was called upon to fight a war that stretched logistic possibilities. There were many who thought that it would have been cheaper to pay the 1800 Falkland Islanders £1 million each and resettle them in rural Scotland than send and Armada to the South Atlantic. There is no doubt that previous leaders like Wilson and Callaghan would have crumpled. Had she done so Great Britain would have had as much influence in the future as Austria or Greece. She had luck on her side in that in Galtieri, Argentina had a brutal right-wing dictator whom nobody wanted to side with and she therefore had covert aid from both America and France. She also was pitting a volunteer army against a conscripted one and this really showed itself when the helicopters were lost when the transport ship Atlantic Conveyor was sunk by an Exocet, having been mistaken for an aircraft carrier. Paratroopers coined a new word when they 'yomped' across the island and fought a battle uphill against dug in troops.

Although a messy little war of only moral significance, it did a great deal for British morale and confidence. Perhaps it was this that spurred her to take on the miners. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) were the leaders of industrial labor. Immediately after the war there had been nearly a million of them and by 1883 there were still over 100,000. They had taken on the Heath government and defeated it. It was a long running sore for Conservatives. Who ran Britain? The Unions or Parliament?

Truth to tell, the miners were fighting a losing battle. Coal could be produced more cheaply in Poland, South Africa and Australia and in any case it was a dirty fuel that killed miners with pneumoconiosis and residents of towns with polluted air. And then there was North Sea oil and gas. I used to quip, "What do Lord Shaftesbury and Lord Hestletine have in common?" "The first got women and children out of the mines and the second got the men out." Although people admired miners for the filthy job they did and the sacrifice of their health to bring us energy, no-one really regrets that there is no longer any significant coal mining in the UK.

The Miners were badly led by Arthur Scargill who tried to avoid holding a strike ballot. Even his Union friends hated him and gave covert help to the government. Help from other unions was not forthcoming and the strike was called at an inopportune time when the power stations had plentiful supplies of coal with the warm weather coming up. Peter Walker, the very un-Thatcherite Minister in charge played a very straight bat throughout (perhaps because he was a Heath crony and wanted his own back on the miners.)

The Conservatives had enacted stringent restrictions on Union power and it is noticeable that the Blair/Brown governments have not reversed them. The same is true of that other great plank of Thatcherism - Privatization. Thatcher inherited a socialist country. The railways, the Post Office, British Airways, the airports, the gas industry, the water industry, the electricity industry, the telephones, radio-isotope production, the steel industry, and the major car producer were all owned by the government which ran them very badly. It could take 6 months to get a phone at a time when increasing numbers of people wanted to be contactable. The very houses that many people lived in were owned by the state and rented out. There were few private landlords and those that there were, were often crooks.

Thatcher changed all that. The Labor Party were committed to taking even more things into public ownership and the government's response to failing industry had hitherto been to nationalize it and provide it with a heavy subsidy at taxpayers expense. Most of the privatizations have been successful. It is hard to think what the government would have done about cell phones. It would probably take 6 months to get one! The railways is the glaring exception. They are still inefficient and expensive in private hands (but then it was her successor that privatized them, probably using the wrong business plan). The post office is still a nationalized industry but successive governments have shied away from this fence.

The sale of council houses at a discount has been a great success in England; the Welsh and Scots still think the English owe them a living and they remain socialist republics with the Union. Hardly anyone votes Conservative in these 'countries'. They certainly need a dash or private enterprise to shake them out of their torpor. There are middle aged men in Wales who have never worked and don't intend ever to work. They just father children that the State pays for. Independence for Scotland and Wales is what is needed. A few years ago they envied the 'tiger' economy in Ireland. Not now.

Northern Ireland has always been a subsidized state. Monetarism never took hold there. The subsidies were political to keep the Protestants from being unemployed and having to emigrate like the Southern Catholics. In truth tourism, horse racing and farming cannot support even the small population that lives there. It is a fine place for the landed gentry, but there is no future in that even in England.

Nationalism had its heyday under Thatcher. She really was despised by the other nations of the Union. She was hard nosed about public subsidies, but she could not bring herself to jettison the minor countries of the Union. Much of England's success came from the Big Bang, the deregulation of the City of London, which made it the financial capital of the world. This particularly benefited London and the South East and compensated for the decline in manufacturing industry that was taking place in the rest of the country. The government enticed Japanese auto manufacturers to South Wales, the North East and the West country, but not to Scotland. The two Scottish banks (Bank of Scotland and Royal Bank of Scotland) certainly benefited from the Big Bang, but most of the jobs they created were in London with only poorly paid call-center jobs in Scotland.

But Irish nationalism was her greatest enemy. She was blown up by an IRA assassination attempt and two of her closest associates, Airey Neave (who had escaped from Colditz) and Ian Gow, were assassinated. She was not the sort to give in to threats and seemed to regard Gerry Adams as a lesser form of Argentinian. Not for her the more emollient tones of her successors John Major or Tony Blair.

Yet in foreign policy it was she who saw in Gorbachev, 'a man with whom we could do business'. With Ronald Reagan, a man with similar political ideas but a much softer manner, she won the Cold War by holding her nerve. She would have made a fine poker player.

Yet all political careers end in failure and she was deposed by an internal dissatisfaction in the Tory Party. She never lost an election, but in the end she did not win well enough. She had her favorites, usually good-looking younger men who were nor really up to the job, yet she was not well-liked. Even her staunchest supporters in the difficult years, Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe, deserted her. She lacked collegiality. Her legacy remains. Tony Blair and David Cameron would really have been her kind of boys, though neither of them would be up to the job in her eyes. She would have loved to be still in charge, reliving 1980 in 2007. She wouldn't have let Obama withdraw his aircraft from Libya in 2011.

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