Thatcher

So, I return to my blog after a break that has come alongside research leave at work. I had planned to post regularly during my research leave but then someone gave me all seven series of the West Wing so I had something to fill my spare time. Incidentally, I thought the West Wing was good but dated (in a good way — the things that make it dated, for instance the non-concessional dialogue driven set up, are dated because they’ve subsequently become a standard part of how a certain type of TV is done), though it goes down hill after Sorokin’s departure.

Anyway, the subject of today: Thatcher. I have mixed feelings about her. Unsurprisingly, I have no truck with her politics but she shaped both the early years of my life (I was born at the time she came to power) and my first experiences of politics as I gradually started to become aware that there was such a thing. Blair was the first politician I had a strong political connection with, in that I could vote for him and I felt attached (and therefore disappointed) to his time in office, but Thatcher defined what politics was all about as I grew up.

Anyway, there’s been lots of talk about Thatcher’s legacy in the past week. This is quite understandable. We talk about that when any PM who dies and Thatcher is someone who can reasonably claim to have had substantial, long-term impact on the UK. As someone put it at the funeral, she wasn’t just a person but an -ism as well. I don’t think there’s much to added to the analysis of her time in office (especially not the ongoing rumble about whether she saved the country) but the conversations I’ve had with people, including parents and parents-in-law, during the past week helped clarify a couple of things for me about Thatcher and the 80s. Here’s one of them.

 

Basically, what’s clear is that is that argument about Thatcher isn’t simply about whether she saved the country but whether the country she produced — and she did produce a different kind of country, there’s no doubt about that — was better than the one she left behind. The brute economic facts are only one aspect of that because it’s an argument about a certain type of economic progress. That progress was symbolised by all kinds of policies and the sale of council houses is one I’ve heard most about during the past week. I find that policy interesting because it symbolises a lot what I don’t like about Thatcherism.

 

So, the idea of home ownership isn’t and shouldn’t be problematic for any of the things I believe in politically. And the policy of allowing council tenants to buy their homes was immensely popular with those who bought them, as well as in a more general sense because it represented the idea of government empowering people to get on in life. What’s problematic about the policy is not the principle of people buying their homes (even at a relatively knocked-down price — these are people who had rented them, often for many years) but the failure to build more social housing. That’s a problem because it helped create many of the issues that dog the housing market and housing policy to this day. Because the stock was sold off and not replaced, it was a significant contributing factor to the shortage of social housing that we now have. That’s a big part of the picture when it comes to understanding the massive housing benefit bill in this country. The bill massive because social tenants were forced on to the private market, with the government paying private rents in a crowded market, rather than social tenants deliberately seeking outlandish properties.     and troubling for lots of different reasons.

 

Of course, people who bought their houses (and know many people who did) ended up doing very well out of the deal as houses prices rose sharply from the 80s onwards. There’s nothing wrong with that — it’s a free market, after all — but the knock on effect is that some people, twenty years down the line, aren’t doing so well when they’re looking to buy their first home. And, realistically, that represents the crux of the problem that I have with Thatcherism and helps explain why she’s so divisive: a lot of people did very, very well and got on off the back of her policies but lots and lots of people — some at the time, more so twenty years later. In fact, when I analyse what happened twenty years ago, it feels like a situation in which certain sections of a particular generation (or generations) were able to climb a ladder but then pulled it up behind them. That’s the crux of what I don’t like about Thatcherism — that and the scant regard and thinly veiled contempt for the people who got left behind. As if, somehow, those people somehow don’t want a good life.

 

Anyway, that’s rusty and rough round the edges but it’s a start.

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