Are we still living in Thatcher’s Britain?

It’s 40 years since Margaret Thatcher first became prime minister. Did she engineer a break with the past? Or did she lead a nation that would have undergone profound change no matter who was in power? Four historians weigh the evidence | Compiled by Rob Attar and complements the five-part BBC Two series 'Thatcher'

Thatcher holds up two shopping bags to show how much less a pound would buy due to inflation under Labour. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Margaret Thatcher’s premiership is widely regarded as one of the most radical in modern British history. How much of a political shift was her election as prime minister in May 1979?

Richard Vinen: Well the extent of the shift was not obvious at the time because I think that most people, including most Tory ministers, were sceptical about the prospects of introducing radical change. In some ways, her first two years in office went so badly that many people thought that the chances of radical change from the left had actually increased. The real turning point was probably her second election victory in 1983, when the Conservatives came in with an increased majority and a clearer sense of what they were going to do.

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Amy Edwards: Our historical understanding of the 1980s has been somewhat overshadowed by the figure of Thatcher, partly because her time in office almost perfectly spanned the decade. The eighties witnessed many political – or at the very least, politicised – events that did not take their lead from Thatcher. For example Live Aid, the Aids crisis, the troubles in Northern Ireland, and the 1981 race riots. So in that sense, 1979 did not necessarily represent a fundamental shift in the politics of race, sexuality or nationality. That being said, the political economy since the 1980s has undoubtedly been transformed by the rhetoric and politics of Thatcher’s Conservative party.

THE PANEL

Amy Edwards is a lecturer in modern British history at the University of Bristol with a particular research interest in Thatcherism and the 1980s

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian, author and broadcaster, specialising in postwar Britain. His upcoming book charts the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite is a historian of 20th-century Britain based at University College London who focuses on social change

Richard Vinen is professor of history at King’s College London and author of ‘Thatcher’s Britain: The Politics and Social Upheaval of the Thatcher Era’ (Simon & Schuster, 2009)

As a prime minister, how different was Thatcher from her predecessors?

AE: The most obvious and immediate difference is that she was a woman. Thatcher’s gender became an important part of political discussions around her style and manner of leadership. Thatcher also liked to stress that she was different because she came from more humble beginnings than most of her predecessors. During the 1979 election campaign the press placed a lot of focus on her background as a ‘grocer’s daughter’, something that Thatcher did nothing to dispel in interviews. This aspect of her upbringing informed the basis of her ideology, shaping her understandings of things such as meritocracy, the welfare state and her preferred classless language of ‘ordinary hard-working families’.

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite: Thatcher’s style – both in public, and in the way she managed her government and her party – was often much more combative than her predecessors. In 1972, Ted Heath, faced with the prospect that unemployment would pass the psychologically significant 1 million mark, allowed his chancellor, Anthony Barber, to increase government spending in order to engineer an economic boom. By contrast, in 1981, faced with a letter to The Times signed by 364 economists stating that her economic policies were wrong, Thatcher refused to change tack.

RV: Thatcher was a much less collegiate figure than her predecessors. In this sense, she marked a change in style that outlasted her premiership and influenced her successors.

Dominic Sandbrook: I think there were three big differences. First, she was much more moralistic. She talked in terms of good and evil, right and wrong, virtues and vices, which thrilled some people and horrified others. It’s hard to imagine Harold Wilson or Edward Heath doing that. Second, she was a patriotic populist, self-consciously appealing to ‘ordinary people’ and promising to revive a lost golden age of national greatness. Finally, and most importantly, she was a woman. That coloured everything: the way people perceived her, the way she took decisions, her relationship with her ministers, even the kind of abuse she got from her critics.

How far was British society transformed during her 11 years in office?

FSB: It changed dramatically. In part, this stemmed from the ways in which Thatcher accelerated the shift to a service-sector economy and undermined the power of the trade union movement. Her flagship ‘right to buy’ policy, introduced in 1980, created a huge new cohort of homeowners – who, not coincidentally, were more likely to be Tory voters – and the relaxation of credit rules helped to create a society much more reliant on debt. But it wasn’t clear that Thatcher had won a majority of people to her values. For example, in an opinion poll in 1988, 55 per cent of respondents said they wanted Britain to be a society “which emphasises the social and collective provision of welfare”. Only 27 per cent of people felt that Britain really was such a society, though.

DS: Britain was clearly a very different country in 1990 from 1979. It was more open, more ambitious, more cosmopolitan and more forward-thinking, but also more aggressive, more individualistic and more unequal. In many ways, it was a much less conservative society. As in any period of rapid change – especially technological and industrial change – there are winners as well as losers, which is why it’s a period that continues to provoke strong opinions.

To what extent can we attribute the major political, social and economic changes in Britain to Thatcher’s political ideology as opposed to broader underlying forces?

AE: As with most questions about causation, the answer is a complicated one. Many features of the Thatcher years – both the Conservative party’s ideology and changes in society – had longstanding roots and cannot therefore be attributed to Thatcher alone. Even Thatcher’s ideology was a complex mix of traditional Conservativism, Christian morality and postwar economic theory. And to take just one example of social change: the rise of 1980s individualism was foreshadowed by greater levels of affluence from the mid-1950s, the subsequent arrival of a mass consumer society and the cultural liberation associated with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. So Thatcher’s time in office was shaped by pre-existing forces and structures as much as it precipitated new ones.

RV: Some of the changes that happened in the 1980s might have happened anyway. Technology would have made it harder to sustain some of the natural monopolies that seemed to justify the existence of nationalised industries. Some changes did not directly relate to things that Thatcher did or even wanted. The spread of the free market sometimes went with a society that was more fluid in other ways.

One little noticed but important change came in 1984 when NM Rothschild & Sons appointed Kate Mortimer as the first ever female director of a UK merchant bank. I feel that would have happened regardless of whether Thatcher was prime minister.

Having said all this, the Thatcher government brought a drive and determination that would not otherwise have existed.

FSB: The social, economic and international context was changing in important ways in the 1960s and 1970s, and many of these shifts profoundly destabilised the social democratic framework of British politics. The collapse of the Bretton Woods system [aimed at regulating and stabilising currency exchange rates] and the spike in the price of oil in the early 1970s stimulated a shift towards a more globalised and free-market economic system. Meanwhile, the combination of high inflation, high unemployment and sluggish growth in 1970s Britain posed clear problems to established Keynesian understandings of the economy [which advocated government action and government spending to stimulate economic growth and combat unemployment in times of economic downturn].

Deindustrialisation had been happening in Britain for several decades, as the production of services increasingly replaced the extraction of raw materials and manufacturing in advanced economies. British society was growing more individualistic, and class identities and solidarities were changing in the 1960s and 1970s. Although this was the high point of trade unionism in Britain, it was also the moment when identity politics exploded, with new social movements built around gender, race and sexuality springing up, complicating the class bases of politics.

This context profoundly shaped Thatcherism, which is not to say Thatcherite shifts were inevitable, but that her ideology can only be understood in its broader context. Thatcher’s reforms were one possible set of responses to this changing background.

Thatcher triumphed in three general elections. What do you think explains this success?

RV: The British electorate was unThatcherite in everything except its repeated willingness to elect governments headed by Margaret Thatcher. People often denounced the values they associated with Thatcherism but a large proportion also believed those values would leave them personally better off. Beyond that, Thatcher was sometimes lucky. This was especially true in 1983 when she benefited from the Falklands War and from the fragmented state of the opposition.

FSB: Again, context is very significant here. In 1979, the ‘winter of discontent’ [when the public sector trade unions went on a series of strikes in protest at pay caps] and the widespread feeling that Labour was divided and lacked new ideas played a big part in Thatcher’s victory. Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system also played a significant role. Thatcher’s performance, in terms of proportion of the vote won, peaked in 1979 when the Tories won 43.9 per cent of the vote and 339 seats in the House of Commons. In 1983, they won a slightly smaller proportion of votes (42.4 per cent), but a massive 397 seats.

What had changed was that the distribution of votes had altered, with the anti-Thatcher vote split in some seats, delivering an even larger majority for the Conservatives. But this doesn’t mean to say that Thatcher’s victories in 1983 and 1987 can be attributed solely to the split in Labour. It’s likely that a significant proportion of those who voted for the breakaway Social Democratic Party in those elections would have chosen the Tories over Labour in a straight fight. Thatcher constructed a vision of ‘ordinary, hard-working’ British people that cut across blue-collar and white-collar workers to build a winning electoral coalition.

AE: Each election had unique characteristics that help explain the party’s success. For example, the Falklands War undoubtedly influenced the outcome of the 1983 election. But across all three the strength of the Conservative party’s political communication was a consistent feature. As party leader, Thatcher oversaw an intensification in the use of marketing techniques. This is best characterised by her employment of a TV producer, Gordon Reece, as the party’s director of publicity in 1978. At his behest, the Conservatives enlisted the services of advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi. The results were palpable. The party produced a number of memorable campaigns, including the infamous 1978 “Labour Isn’t Working” [later “Labour Still Isn’t Working”] poster, depicting a long and winding dole queue.

What do you see as the greatest achievements of Margaret Thatcher’s time in office?

FSB: Thatcher’s most profound and lasting legacy was the way in which she shifted the ‘common sense’ of British political economy. It is not clear that the performance of the economy was dramatically transformed during Thatcher’s time in power: inflation was 9.5 per cent in 1990, compared with 13.4 per cent in 1979 (measured in terms of the Retail Price Index), but growth was down – a 0.7 per cent increase in GDP in 1990, compared with 3.7 per cent in 1979 (according to the Office of National Statistics). Yet no longer was it possible to champion nationalised industries, high taxes and generous welfare systems, or to denigrate the free market, without seeming old-fashioned or out of touch. Hence Labour’s gradual acceptance of key Thatcherite assumptions about the economy in the later 1980s and 1990s.

DS: I think when you lift your gaze from all the minutiae, two things stand out. First, she undoubtedly revived Britain’s national self-confidence, which was at a very low ebb in the late 1970s. Nobody was talking about the ‘sick man of Europe’ or the ‘British disease’ by the time she left office. Second, Britain was keener to embrace change, less introverted and defensive, and much more open to foreign influence and overseas investment. That brought immense benefits, but for many people it was very unsettling, which is partly why not everybody remembers her fondly.

And what were her biggest mistakes?

AE: In terms of her own political project and longevity in office, the attempt to introduce the Community Charge (or poll tax) was a huge failure. The policy resulted in the London poll tax riot in 1990, mass civil disobedience and cabinet resignations.

In terms of social and political cost, I think Thatcher was mistaken to undermine public belief in the value and power of government intervention. This contributed to a longer term distrust in politicians and ‘bureaucrats’, which can be seen in low voter turnouts in elections throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

DS: Like all prime ministers she made specific policy mistakes, for example not building more council houses or the debacle of the poll tax. But I think the biggest error was one of tone. Because she saw herself as a fighter, she was incapable of being magnanimous. She never really threw off the partisan gloves; she never gave ground, never admitted error; and she never empathised with people who were the losers from social and economic change. She could never rise above conflict and play the national stateswoman, and some people never forgave her for it.

Thatcher has always been a divisive political figure. Why do you think she did, and still does, arouse such admiration and hostility?

FSB: Recently, I’ve been conducting inter views with women from coalfield communi ties around Britain. One thing many interviewees talk about is the stark changes wrought in their areas since the 1980s. Britain’s coalfields were thriving places, with strong local economies and communities. People had jobs, high streets had shops, and whole areas had a sense of pride and prosperity. These things have all been eroded since the miners’ strike of 1984–85.

Even those who acknowledge that the eventual decline of coal was inevitable – very few advanced capitalist economies have deep coal mining industries in 2019 – also point out that in other countries, like Germany, a slow, managed rundown brought much less social dislocation. Most of those who went through the strike felt that the Tory government was waging war on their communities, didn’t care about their livelihoods, and had nothing but disdain for their communities and their way of life.

Thatcher staked her political reputation on her ambition to sweep away the old ‘consensus’, in the belief that the free market would bring efficiency and prosperity. The legacy of her approach is high levels of inequality and, in particular, high levels of regional inequality. This is key to understanding why she arouses such strong admiration from some, and such strong hostility from others.

RV: Partly because she has become a kind of national alibi. At times, particularly in the aftermath of the miners’ strike, people blamed her for policies that they had, in fact, supported. Her sex also has a lot to do with it. One is struck by the misogyny of attacks on Margaret Thatcher.

Was Thatcher one of Britain’s greatest prime ministers?

DS: To some extent greatness is obviously in the eye of the beholder. But you can recognise that somebody was a titanic historical figure – Henry VIII, say, or Napoleon – without necessarily liking or approving of them. And whatever you think of her policies, Mrs Thatcher was the first female prime minister, won three consecutive elections, won a war, became an international symbol of Britishness, transformed both her own party and the main opposition party, and left an indelible mark on the national imagination. If all that doesn’t qualify you for greatness, then it’s time to scrap the category.

FSB: Assessing ‘greatness’ is hard to do without taking an explicitly political standpoint. Thatcher was certainly one of Britain’s longest-serving prime ministers, and her governments changed the direction of Britain’s political economy in a way that only a few governments before had managed. The last prime minister to preside over such a significant transformation was Clement Attlee [in the wake of the Second World War].

RV: I am not sure that greatness is a term that I like. She certainly presided over spectacular transformations and, to some extent, did things that other leaders would have found difficult. Like Winston Churchill – the comparison that she herself would probably like – she became closely identified with a particular time, though one should also stress that much of her style might just have seemed absurd had she comes to prominence 15 years earlier or later.

AE: The answer to this question is one almost entirely dependent on political perspective. Understanding Thatcher’s impact requires us to look not only at national politics and economic change, but also to consider individual experiences of the 1980s and subsequent years. Her policies left a complicated legacy which the term ‘greatness’ doesn’t necessarily help us to analyse. To take just one example, the deregulation of Britain’s financial services sector, combined with technological innovation, contributed to the emergence of new global financial structures. How people experienced the ascendancy of a financial service sector economy centred in the capital varies hugely by region as well as by class, and other analytical categories such as gender and race.

Have subsequent prime ministers sought to follow in her footsteps?

DS: John Major failed to emerge from her shadow. Tony Blair cast himself as her more emollient heir. Gordon Brown invited her for tea at Number 10 as soon as he became prime minister. Like Major, David Cameron tried to find a more moderate Conservative way forward and failed. Most obviously, Theresa May’s supporters tried to present her as the new Iron Lady. The irony is the Thatcher of today’s political imagination is a caricature. She was far more cautious, pragmatic and even pro-European than we often remember.

AE: Historians, journalists and political commentators alike argue that New Labour should be viewed as Thatcher’s ‘greatest achievement’. Thatcher herself is reported to have said as much at a dinner in 2002. It would be disingenuous to conflate New Labour with Conservativism. But certain features of Tony Blair’s premiership shared remarkable similarities to Thatcher’s. For example, there were clear continuities in Blair’s focus on fostering an ‘enterprise culture’ in British society.

In 1999, Blair unveiled his ambitions for New Labour to “be the champion of entrepreneurs”. In the same speech, he reaffirmed his commitment to placing the financial sector and capital markets at the centre of Britain’s economy, informing an audience of venture capitalists that: “We need society as a whole to applaud you… the front-line troops of Britain’s new economy.”

RV: I am struck by the paradox that Labour PMs (Brown and Blair) evoked Thatcher’s memory as a means of reflecting the changes in their own party, and of discomfiting the opposition, while Conservatives (Major and Cameron) often adopted a self-consciously non-Thatcherite style even when continuing with Thatcherite policies.

FSB: Subsequent prime ministers have mainly followed within the basic parameters of the political economy that Thatcher set up. The free market has been celebrated, supply-side economics favoured, nationalised industries broken up and inflation targeted as the great economic ill. Most subsequent prime ministers have looked more favourably on the EEC/EU than Thatcher, but it’s important to remember that, initially, Thatcher was generally supportive of the European project, only turning decisively against it later. In style and tone, though, most have sought to break with Thatcher’s example, seeking a more consensual approach. This was what most clearly set John Major apart from Thatcher.

Do we still live in Thatcher’s Britain?

FSB: Many facets of Britain today have been profoundly shaped by Thatcher and Thatcherism. Some of Thatcher’s policies had unintended consequences, though. Thatcher envisaged a nation of homeowners, but in London, the right to buy has also created a city filled with private landlords and insecure renters. We should also remember that many of our most important national institutions were created long before the 1980s. When we use the NHS and the universal secondary education system, we are still living in the world that the Attlee government created.

DS: We live in a Britain shaped by the changes of the 1980s, but not Thatcher’s Britain. Most of the major changes would have happened anyway. What happened to Britain happened to every other major western industrial country. The obsession with Mrs Thatcher is basically the last relic of ‘great man’, or rather ‘great woman’, history. Blaming a woman who became prime minister in 1979 for everything you dislike about Britain in 2019 strikes me as a self-evidently infantile way of understanding historical change.

AE: There is no question that Britain today bears many marks of Thatcher’s time in office. Most significant of these is the more market-driven, competitive culture of enterprise which now dominates not only business and industry, but also areas previously understood to have purpose and value entirely distinct from issues of profit. Prime among these are healthcare and education. If you want to understand things like the introduction of student fees and the outsourcing of NHS services, then you can do worse than to study the politics and policies of Thatcherism.

RV: Ten years ago, I would have said that Thatcher had secured the free market in economics and her successors had then married this with a social liberalism of which Thatcher would probably have disapproved. Now everything seems up for grabs. Perhaps we will look back on the period from 1979 to 2016 as a parenthesis in British history before a Corbyn socialism or a Tory nationalism that seems to regard economics as being of secondary importance.

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This article was first published in the May 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine