How much of the social, political and economic change that occurred during and since Margaret Thatcher's time as Prime Minister can be attributed to general national and global trends, and how much to her specific ideals and policy-making?


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Paul Wilson Profile
Paul Wilson answered

Hi Sam, this is a very
good question - for her supporters, every improvement in general
welfare since the 1980s is down to her ideals and policies. 

However, for
her detractors, every social and economic ill of the last 20 years is
a direct result of the same. 

Both positions are patently unsupportable
- you only have to look at other similar countries, sometimes with
very different policies, to isolate the national and global trends
that would have prevailed regardless of who was in power. Here are
some examples...


All rich economies were
becoming increasingly uncompetitive in manufacturing by the 1970s, as
first Japan and then the rest of South East Asia were re-integrated
into the world economy after the war, and as rich country wages
increased without accompanying increases in productivity and/or
weakening of currencies. 

This was apparent well before Thatcher's
time, and a well-meant post-war obsession with full employment put
further pressure on wages and increased inflation, which just
amplified the trend. 

In short, the industries that Thatcher is blamed
with destroying were already zombies, and would eventually have
needed to close, releasing workers and capital for whatever could be
found to replace them. In fact, if you look at rich countries decline
in the share of world manufacturing between 1980 and 1990, the UK's
was no more pronounced than the best performers such as Germany and
the USA. 

Thatcher's contribution was to accelerate this inevitable
adjustment with the profound social consequences we are so familiar
with. Her acceptance of a floating currency also allowed our exports
to be competitive again.

The upside was that the UK was then ahead of
the game in the growing service-based economies such as finance,
which we are now so dominant in globally. The trends were
unavoidable, and every other rich economy has since had to enact
similar reforms to some degree, to face the reality of a changing
global economic landscape.


The UK suffered
particularly badly in the 1970s due to excessive union power pushing
up wages and depressing productivity with restrictive practices, and
the aforementioned full-employment goal, pursued with increasing
subsidies to industry, led to a crisis in government finance. 

creditors insisted on reforms that were already in place before
Thatcher, under Callaghan. It is disingenuous in the extreme to claim
that there were viable alternative approaches proposed by, say,
Labour, when many of the changes were already in place before 1979,
and any government would have found them necessary eventually. 

Unemployment for example was headed skywards before Thatcher, and
many of the most controversial policies didn't really get going until

If I have learned
anything over the last 30 years, it is that all governments have a
lot less impact than they like to think, compared to the imperatives
of responding to events! They can however choose between facing the
inevitable and taking hard, unpopular decisions, or prevaricating and
leaving a future administration to pick up the pieces. We got the
former and reaped the rewards as well as paying the price...

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Yo Kass
Yo Kass commented
That's totally changed my opinion of Maggie, thanks Paul!

Do you think the current coalition government is facing a similar problem? Or would it be scandalous to compare them to Thatcher?

They essentially inherited a lot of problems from Labour and I feel they are very much making budgetary decisions that are unavoidable.

Even the much-maligned concessions they're making to banks and "the rich" are surely only in place to keep balance in the market and ensure there isn't a mass exodus of

Makes me wonder whether it's even possible to implement unpopular financial cuts during times of hardship and still remain popular or get re-elected...
Paul Wilson
Paul Wilson commented
I must point out that as social as well as an economic liberal, there was much that I found obnoxious about the Thatcher government, and she could be incredibly abrasive. I just don't like to see hatred used as an excuse for ignoring inconvenient facts - it is just lazy. Yes, the current coalition were handed a poisoned chalice, and really couldn't win even if they were competent, which doesn't seem much in evidence! Constraints on the banks are inevitable, but will weaken any recovery of course. I personally think that democracy tends to be incompatible with tough decision-making, except when voters can see the bottom in sight, and stop believing a disingenuous opposition - still better than anything else though!
Melinda Moore
Melinda Moore commented
An excellent answer - thank you! Having spent much of my past career working for politicians, you are spot-on when you say that all governments ultimately have much less influence on world and national events than they would like to have.

Also, nothing in politics is ever as black and white as spin doctors and commentators would have us believe. Every policy decision affects different sectors in society differently, and for every person who benefits from a policy change, there is always another who suffers a negative consequence.

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