The International Writers Magazine: UK Politics
David Cameron has allegedly likened himself recently to Margaret Thatcher, presumably in the belief that the late Maggie remains a vote winner. Given the nature of Thatcher’s legacy in Britain, I am bound to suggest that Cameron is mistaken. I know that she is almost worshipped by a certain brand of Tory, but how might others see her? Not kindly, I believe. If any past Prime Minister can be held responsible for the mess Britain now finds itself in, Margaret Thatcher must be high on the list. Allow me to explain.
Thatcher has been feted on the right as the one who took on the unions and cured the nation of ‘the British disease’. Remember that phrase, and the ‘sick man of Europe’? If you were around during the eighties they should be stamped indelibly on your memory, given the constant use of these labels in the British press. In truth, the disease was a journalistic myth: an excuse to attack the trade unions. Let us look at some facts.
In the decade before Thatcher came to power (1969-1978) the average number of strikes annually in Britain was lower than in the USA, Italy And France, and was only fractionally higher than in Japan, the new ‘workshop of the world’ at that time. If we look at the number of days lost per thousand workers through strikes, Britain’s tally was lower than Italy, Canada, Ireland, Australia and the USA. Furthermore, industrial action was taken by a minority of unions, and occurred in a small number of industries. The vast majority of workers had never been on strike in their lives. It is true that the number of days lost per thousand peaked in Britain in 1979, the year Thatcher was elected, but the facts hardly justify the hysterical headlines in certain newspapers.
If there was no ‘disease’ to cure, we must ask why it was necessary to crush the unions. The answer is now evident. Given the free market philosophy adopted by the British political class, it was thought essential to castrate the one institution that could protect the working class from ruthless exploitation. Because she succeeded in her task, Britain now boasts the worst conditions of employment in Western Europe. That situation was foreseen by those who conspired to bring it about, and by others able to analyse what was happening in the domestic labour market. Writing in 1996 I said of British workers “It is possible that they will not have a contract of any kind. We could see the white-collar equivalent of the old tally system used on the docks whereby workers reported for duty in the morning with no guarantee of work that day.”(Empowerment and Other Myths, The Leadership & Organisation Development Journal.Vol.17.No.5 )
So, it is thanks to Thatcher that today’s much vaunted increase in the employment figures is largely sleight of hand. Not only are people working on zero-hours contracts, but hours are deliberately limited to keep their earnings below the threshold at which employers would have to pay National Insurance contributions. This means that the workers are being impoverished today, and their pension rights in the future are compromised. Others are ‘self-employed’, not because they are the entrepreneurs nominally admired by Cameron and gang, but because they cannot get jobs unless they agree to adopt that label. The national minimum wage does not apply to the ‘self-employed’.
I do not suggest that Thatcher personally foresaw the results of her policies, the true engineers remained in the shadows as advisers. Indeed, Maggie’s actions in other areas appear to show remarkable naivety and ignorance of life at street level. I believe she was sincere in thinking that her privatisation programme would create a broad based share-owning democracy. The slogan of the day, about ‘telling Sid’ (the small investor) when she privatised British Gas would support that view, but how wrong she was. Few of the ‘little people’ who bought shares in BG hung on to them, preferring to take a small profit by selling them to bigger fish. Today, rather than having a state monopoly in energy, subject to political control, we have a private oligopoly over which the government has little influence.
The ‘Iron Lady’ displayed a similar level of naivety with her housing policy, appearing to believe that she was creating a ‘property owning democracy’ when she gave council-house tenants the right to buy. Councils were compelled to sell their houses at knock-down prices, and forbidden from using the ensuing revenue to build new houses. She also introduced housing benefit whereby private landlords could accommodate people and charge the rent to a local authority. Her policy had two affects. Private landlords were able to charge exorbitant rents, often on property that was previously unlettable, and tenants who bought their council house cheaply, flogged it at a profit to people who then let the property off at rents much higher than the council had charged. Because the rents were paid from housing benefit in many cases, the cost of those high rents fell on the local authority. It is largely down to Thatcher’s policy that Britain now has a housing crisis.
That likelihood of crisis was heightened by another of her policies, the big bang and demutualisation of building societies. Before Thatcher, most would-be home owners approached a building society for a mortgage. These outfits, usually a mutual owned by its account holders, were specialists who understood the property market and the value of properties in different neighbourhoods. They also had pretty strict rules about lending and were unlikely to take great risks. One of the largest of these building societies was a client of mine and I can attest to their professionalism and detailed knowledge of their market. With demutualisation many of these societies became ‘banks’, involving themselves in financial markets and practices of which they had little understanding or skill. My client of those days no longer exists. Would-be home owners now seek a mortgage from banks, a wholly different institution from the old, specialist mutual.
Of course, Thatcher’s policies on financial institutions impacted on much more than the property market. Her deregulation was instrumental in the crash of 2008, as was the similar slackening of constraint in America. It is ironic to hear members of the present government blaming their Labour predecessors for the huge debt they inherited. Labour’s culpability lay in not reversing, or at least tempering, the freedom Thatcher gave to the banks.
I do not intend here to make any party political points. Both Labour and Conservative parties have colluded in continuing the process kick-started by a deified Maggie: the transfer of power from Parliament to corporations. As a result we now live in an unstable, volatile economy that depends on speculative whims. A couple of weeks ago Chancellor George Osborne predicted that the British economy could be the world’s largest by 2030. In truth, Osborne cannot predict where the British economy will be next month.
© Tom Kilcourse Jan 22nd 2015
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