Cartoon by Gerald Scarfe
Guest post by Dr Ian Taylor
Some will say this is too soon, and others will say it’s a bit late, but in my judgement now is probably the most appropriate time to look back on the Thatcher years and decide whether they were good or bad for Britain. I guess it’s fair to say that the title I’ve gone with gives a fairly big clue as to where I stand on this one. Nonetheless, I seize on her incompetence for a reason: Her supporters will often concede that she may not have been the nicest person in the country, but argue that at least she turned this place around. The fact that she made a difference can hardly be disputed. But it certainly wasn’t for the better.
All I really want to do with this posting is present a few facts about the economy which is where her greatest achievements were supposed to lie. I’ve also given the crime figures. If the analysis that follows seems somewhat detached and dispassionate, that too is for a reason. My intention is simply to get a few important facts into the public domain to provide some ammunition against the ‘wasn’t she wonderful’ crap that we’ve had to endure over the past fortnight or so. As a middle-class teenager in the 1980s I can certainly remember her reign, but I am sure that others can speak with far more authority about what it was like to endure record levels of crime, poverty and/or unemployment. If not, I leave it to the reader’s powers of empathy and imagination to figure out what that must have been like.
On average the economy grew by about 2.3% from 1979 to 1990. This is hardly an amazing achievement: Tony Blair (of whom I am no fan) averaged 2.5%; while the average during the post-war Keynesian era was closer to 3%. And of course, Thatcher’s Premiership coincided with a time when Britain was best placed to exploit North Sea oil reserves. In terms of pure economic performance her record is distinctly unimpressive. Nonetheless, growth of 2.3% wouldn’t be so bad were her years in office not bookended by two recessions that gave us unprecedented levels of unemployment.
In 1979 unemployment stood at 1.5 million. Within a year of Thatcher coming to power it had rocketed upwards, and stayed at above 3 million from 1983 to 1987. Thereafter it fell slightly, although not below 2 million – a figure that would have been unthinkable in the ’50s, ’60s or even the ’70s. Unemployment then rose up again past in the 3 million mark in the recession of the early ’90s.
Thatcher’s apologists, like former Telegraph editor Charles Moore, like to point to the reduction in the number of days work per annum lost to strikes during her Premiership: down from 29.5 million in 1979 to 1.9 million by 1986 he says. What he’s rather less keen to talk about is the number of days’ worth of productivity lost in that year (or any other) due to unemployment. 3.2 million out of work that year multiplied by 240 working days a year amounts to 768 million days lost in 1986 alone.
In the 1980s interest rates rose to double figures – higher than they’d ever been before, or since.
This is something that her supporters like to harp on about, albeit without uttering the word ‘poll’. In truth, she cut taxes for the rich, whilst increasing them for the poor with the poll tax and through VAT rises.
This was, apparently, another big triumph of her economic policy. In truth, inflation rose to 18% in 1981, and moreover, was higher when she left office than when she came in: 11% compared to 10.3%. It’s true that on average inflation was lower in the ‘80s than in the previous decade, but then again inflation fell around the world during the 1980s: Given that inflation is largely determined by the price of raw materials the fall hardly seems like a major achievement, particularly in the light of the aforementioned figures.
Where to begin on this one? The proportion of children living in poverty in this country more than doubled under Thatcher: rising from 14% of children in 1979 to 31% by 1990. Meanwhile, according to a recent Guardian ‘Data blog’, the number of people living below 60% of medium income rose from 13.4% to 22.2% under Thatcher. These figures continued to rise under John Major, but when seen in comparative context it ought to be understood that they were far from inevitable. The number of people living in poverty had been falling throughout the 20th Century up until 1979, and, to give credit where it is due, the number of children growing up in poverty also fell slightly during the New Labour years.
In 1979 there were 2.5 million crimes recorded in the UK; by 1990 that number stood at 4.5 million. The 1980s also saw some of the worst rioting in British cities of the 20th Century. You’d think that things like this would embarrass the ‘party of law and order.’
In short, Thatcher’s legacy is a thoroughly shameful one.