Immediately following the announcement of the death of Lady Thatcher, the media has been filled with comment of one sort or another. How do I follow any of it? Well hopefully, with my usual, coming at it from an unexpected angle point of view. I don’t intend to talk about who she was, her background, or any of what has already been said in the media. For me it’s about how we are still affected today by the events before, during and after her time as leader, and the actions her government implemented.
She became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 and Prime Minister in 1979. For a great many people it is simply this that is her real claim to fame, or the thing for which she is admired, being the first woman prime minister. Any other claims that she did this, that or the other need to be looked at with a bit of reality check. Being the first woman PM doesn’t in itself bestow any special qualities on her anymore than being the first black president of the USA bestows special qualities on Barack Obama. Having said that, one has to acknowledge, that to become leader of the conservative party at that time says a lot about her, but I also think it tells us a lot about her fellow politicians. We are looking at a time in history which in many ways set the seal on what Great Britain was to become. Much of the economy relied on manufacturing which was not only still in war time mode but also plagued with industrial unrest and miss-management at an unprecedented level.
Throughout the country, purchasing departments were seeking out the best deals for raw materials and buying in bulk for economy. Now you’ve bought it, you have to find somewhere to put and store it. I suspect much (if not all) of the savings achieved through bulk purchase was lost through spoilage. This was particularly the case with the furniture industries where unknown tons of timber would become unusable through poor storage facilities. Add to this the bonuses paid for securing these deals and the mess just gets messier. Much of industry was structured round the scientific management principles promoted by F.W. Taylor and Frank Gilbreth's motion study methods (look them up). As a result factories across the country were producing work in progress that in terms of tonnage and monetary value must have been astronomic. And then of course, there were the finished goods. It was now the role of the sales department to get out there and sell this stuff. And so often it happened that in order to secure a deal, a reduced price would be agreed to (well, at least we’ll get some money coming in. And anyway, there’s always tomorrow). I guess what I’m trying to show is how pathetic, and I suppose how shit management was. The higher up they were, the more shit they were. As is so often the case (and it has been said so many times), it’s not what you know, but rather who you know. Is it any wonder the unions and their leaders became so powerful? Here we are, with society having learnt nothing about letting donkeys lead lions. Whilst this is going on, we are beginning to see imports of cheaper (and in many cases better) products from the likes of Japan who’s methods of production at the time were revolutionary. (How good of Britain and the USA to help get them back on their feet following the mess they made in WW2).
What has this got to do with M. Thatcher you may ask? Well like I said, it’s important to set the stage for her entry. So hang on in there and you may learn something. In 1964, after the Conservatives had run the country for 28 years, apart from a 6 year stint (1945-51 with Labour’s Clement Attlee), onto the stage steps Harold Wilson as the Labour PM. As leader of the Labour party from 1963 to 1976, he is in my view one of the most underrated PM’s this country has had. Certainly there has not been a leader of the Labour party to equal him since. In his 1969 White Paper he proposed making it law for unions to hold ballots before going on strike. Remember, this was a Labour leader putting this forward, many years ahead of the Thatcher government. Unfortunately opposition to it was led by one who should have known better, James Callaghan. If this one piece had been formulated into legislation the course of political and probably economic history would have been changed. Having said that, I do have to wonder what the consequences would have been. I just can’t believe Labour would have used the police in the same divisive way Thatcher did. Even though he had already closed more pits than she did, there wasn’t the same confrontation. There is in my mind no doubt that he had vision and wanted to change what was happening within the country, not only in terms of industrial conflict and poor management but also the continuing polarising class system. He made his first speech as Leader of the Labour Party at their 1963 Annual Conference. Some feel this is his best-remembered speech in which he put forward the implications of scientific and technological change, and stated that "the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry". He was without doubt a forward looking technocrat. In contrast to the perceived old-fashioned ideas in the Conservative Party, Wilson succeeded in associating his government with technological innovation.
Having sent the unions (and the country as a whole) a clear message that change had to happen, it was left to a female leader of the Conservative party to drag them kicking and screaming into the 21st century. I would recommend reading up on the various pieces of legislation that were introduced during Wilson’s times as PM and I am sure you would be impressed on how far reaching they are. He resigned as PM and retired from politics in 1976. James Callaghan became PM until Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 general election.
Following a period were the country was beset with one strike after another. With first the likes of the conservative leader Ted Heath and then labour’s Wilson and Callaghan unable to find a cure. Coupled with high inflation (above 20% by the time of the election, and rarely below 10%), and rising unemployment the voting public said enough is enough. The country turned its back on socialism with little knowledge of what was going to replace it. The unions had clearly not seen (or didn’t want to see) the writing on the wall and as was to be revealed later, Thatcher was very impatient and unforgiving. Where Wilson had wanted to see a modern industrial revolution with Britain leading the way with technological research and innovation, Thatcher was more focused on establishing a political ideology, her social and economic ideas being influenced by the United States. We now had government pursuing economic liberalism, a free-market approach to public services based on the sale of publicly owned industries and utilities. Above all, sensing the public mood, she wanted to reduce trade union power that was bringing economic progress to a standstill, keeping wages artificially high and forcing unprofitable industries to stay open. She was of the opinion that if industry couldn’t compete in the world economically, then tough titty. Let them shut down. If people were put out of work, it wasn’t her fault. No way was her government going to make funds available to help companies modernise and invest in new technology; it just wasn’t part of her ideology. Putting nationalised industries up for sale and reducing everything to buying shares had a profound effect on society.
Since then to now, there is no doubt; many people have become rich, some beyond their wildest dreams. Unfortunately, many of the poor have got poorer. It seems to me that everything she and her government proposed and implemented is about money. Yes, we have the world’s largest banking sector as our claim to fame but all I see is money making in one form or another, be it profit, dividends, bonus, selling, banks and financial institutions. She took this country down a path where money became and still is the centre of everything. But because human nature always rears its ugly head when money is about it could only lead to disaster.
Way back in the 70’s the Germans were having similar problems with outdated industry. They chose to invest in technology as a way forward and of ensuring high employment. I suspect this was because both their industry chiefs and politicians were made of better stuff than ours. (Let’s not forget we also helped them get back on their feet following WW2). And this would be employment for a wide cross section of society. Not a narrow section of grammar school spivs who were good with calculators (or not so good as it turned out). Yes I know you will say everyone had the same chance but really that just isn’t true. The whole ethos in Thatcher’s time was ‘getting on’. And for one section of society to ‘get on’ some poor sods were stood on. I believe the rapid changes going on at the time blinded many to the way in which they themselves were being changed. Politicians are so bloody good at smoke and mirrors. Thousands of ordinary people stepped forward with their savings to buy shares. Many bought shares in the company they worked for in the belief they would have some influence in the company’s direction etc. The reality was that most shares were being bought in the millions by big investors who had the wherewithal to shift them for a quick profit. I wonder how many of those small investors still have their shares? Today, we have huge debts, both at a personal and national level. The hole where all this money went is enormous. I believe it was Thatcher and her policies that started and allowed it to grow. To their shame, Blair and Brown failed to bring it under control (not that there is any suggestion they tried). And so, 30 years after she first became PM we have a county where the gap between rich and poor has never been so great. The national debt has never been so great. We still have a north/south divide (I did say earlier that she was very unforgiving). Is it any wonder the debate about the pros and cons of the Thatcher era will run on and on for years to come.