Thatcher’s mission on becoming Tory leader was to dismantle the progressive post-war economic settlement which had been so good for the 99% but was less advantageous for the 1%, who had seen their percentage of the national wealth fall.
The year that Thatcher became Tory leader — 1975 — saw the gap between the rich and poor in the UK fall to its lowest ever level. Thatcherites traduced the post-war period but the reality is that it was a great time to be a member of the British working class.
Governments, whether Labour or Conservative, prioritised on maintaining full employment, real wages kept on rising and there was a great expansion of educational opportunity, which led to higher levels of social mobility.
Culturally too, it was a rich period, with a thriving arts and music scene and British television producing some of the best programmes made anywhere in the world. The British people — to use the phrase of the One Nation Tory Harold Macmillan — had never had it so good. Just how good it was only became fully apparent after Thatcher had radically changed the landscape.
Thatcher may never have got in to power had it not been for a disastrous falling out between certain trade unions and the Labour government of James Callaghan in the winter of 1978/9. Had Callaghan called an election in the autumn of 1978, when Labour was ahead in the polls, things might have been very different.
But ‘Sunny Jim’ made the wrong call and the over-hyped ’Winter of Discontent’ helped usher Thatcher in to power.
Thatcher’s first government, from 1979-83, slashed the top rate of income tax from 83% to 60%, abolished exchange controls, hiked VAT, began a large-scale programme of privatisation and pushed through the sale of council houses.
It presided over a major rise in the rate of unemployment and brought about by the adoption of harsh monetarist economic policies. British manufacturing industry was sacrificed as the economy was radically restructured to suit the interests of finance capital.
Thatcher’s subsequent governments from 1983-7 and 1987-90 carried on with this neoliberal programme, cutting the top rate of income tax to 40%, deregulating the City of London, and selling off our electricity, water, gas, our publicly owned buses — and many other national assets — including our airports, our seaports and the remaining public stake in BP.
North Sea oil revenues which could have secured Britain’s long term economic prosperity were frittered away paying people not to work.
Thatcherism not only meant a significant change in economic policy but our foreign policy too. An ardent Atlanticist — Thatcher despised ‘détente’ with the Soviet Union and adopted a more aggressive stance towards Moscow — actually outdoing US President Ronald Reagan in her hawkishness.
Thatcher left office in 1990 but her capital-friendly neoliberal policies were continued not only by her Tory successor John Major, whose government carried out the disastrous privatisation of the railways, but also by ‘New Labour’ when they took power in 1997. Thatcher herself said that Tony Blair and New Labour was her greatest achievement.
The only major political difference between Thatcherites and Blairites was the latter’s more liberal stance on issues like immigration and gay rights — which conveniently allowed Blairites to pose as ‘progressives‘ and fool quite a few people.
On the big issues of the economy — and on foreign policy — Thatcher and Blair were singing from the same pro-capitalist and anti-socialist hymn sheet.
There was a very slight shift away from Thatcherism under Gordon Brown’s Premiership from 2007-2010 but when the Coalition of Conservatives and ‘Orange Book’ Lib Dems took over in 2010, it was full-steam ahead once again along the path laid down by Thatcher. More privatisation and more tax cuts for the wealthiest people in our society. And of course, more wars and threats of war.
Sadly other countries followed the British ‘example’ and started to privatise their economies. The results were the same wherever Thatcherism was introduced: widening inequality, chronic unemployment and the rising cost of basic services, which had been provided much cheaper by the state.
Back in 1975, when Thatcher became Tory Party leader, the income share of the bottom 90% in Britain was 72.18%. By 2007, the year her New Labour clone Tony Blair had left office, it had dropped to 57.39%.
Back in 1975, you didn’t have to book train fares weeks in advance to get a reasonable fare — now because of privatisation — we have by far and away the highest fares in Europe.
But while we can spend hours citing statistics on the economic effects of forty-years of Thatcherism — the bare figures don’t tell the whole story of the deep changes which took place.
They’re about the way we interact with one another as human beings.
Thatcherism made Britain a more selfish, greedy and individualistic society. Old bonds of comradeship and solidarity were destroyed.
Money-making and ’getting ahead’ became the be-all and end-all. Britain was a kinder, gentler place before Mrs Thatcher came along. Can we imagine a programme like ’The Apprentice’ being made in 1975?
Thankfully, there are signs that the era of Thatcherism may finally be coming to an end. The election of Syriza in Greece, the democratic revival in Latin America, and the growing discontent with an economic model, which imposes wage cuts and austerity on the many but provides ever-greater riches for the few — are all signs that the tide is turning.
There will of course be enormous elite opposition to any dismantling of a system which suits the 1% perfectly, but it’s not the all-too obvious Thatcherite right who will be the biggest block on genuine change.
It’s the Thatcherite faux-left, who talk the language of ‘progressives‘, while continuing with the Iron Lady’s policies.