Why Margaret Thatcher was bad for Britain

Ian Jones looks back at Margaret Thatcher's tenure as prime minister, arguing she was bad for Britain and that her policies continue to influence the country today.

When Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street for the last time as prime minister in November 1990, she told the press: "We're very happy that we leave the United Kingdom in a very, very much better state than when we came here 11-and-a-half years ago."

Judged against certain criteria, she had a point. Few enjoy paying tax: her time in No 10 saw the basic rate fall from 33p to 25p and the top rate plunge from 83p to 40p. Everybody enjoys more disposable income: during her premiership, the average salary rose from £5,427 to £15,252. She also oversaw a decline in the annual number of working days lost in strikes from 29.5m to 1.9m.

Dig beneath the surface of these statistics, however, and a different picture emerges. In order to achieve constructive changes, Mrs Thatcher subjected Britain to a sequence of destructive upheavals. Her cure for the UK’s ills was attractive enough for a portion of its population to vote her into office three times, but the medicine was so objectionable she never received majority support.

In short, the apparatus she used to achieve her goals harmed just as many - if not more - than they helped. This was because her policies tended to involve short-term pain for many, but long-term gain for only a few.

Inflation doubled

Rather than stimulating the economy through investment and tax cuts, she tried to control the amount of money in circulation. Mrs Thatcher thought this would reduce inflation from its 1979 level of 10.3%. It didn't. Inflation doubled within a year and only fell to present day levels of 2-3% in 1986.

By this point, the damage had been done. To get to such a low level, indirect taxes had been hiked (VAT rose from 8% to 15%), as had interest rates (topping 17%). Subsidies for industry were reduced. The result was a massive rise in unemployment from 1.4m in 1979 to 3.5m by 1982, or one in eight people out of work. "I knew that when you change from one set of policies to another, the transition is very difficult," Mrs Thatcher later reflected, "but benefits would come in the longer run."

A disunited kingdom

Benefits did come, but not for everyone. Long-term unemployment blighted an entire generation in Northern Ireland (where 20% of people were left out of work), Scotland and the north-east and north-west of England (16%). Supporters insisted work was there to be found; critics argued it was unreasonable to expect people to leave homes and families to take a job 100 miles away.  

A disunited kingdom emerged, as some parts of the country flourished while others faltered. Industry declined in the north; new sectors such as financial services boomed in the south.  Mrs Thatcher went further, advocating both economic and moral belligerence. There was "no such thing as society, there are individual men and women and there are families." People should look to their own and not rely on the government for help.  

This crystallised into her observation that the only reason the Good Samaritan did any good was "because he had money". Fine: everyone wants money and some made a lot during the Thatcher years, but what if you happened to live in a place where you couldn't earn any?

Selective prosperity

The prosperity Mrs Thatcher brought to Britain was selective, antagonistic and temporary. She did indeed leave Britain "very, very much better", but only for some. She also left it in recession, with unemployment, inflation and interest rates rising.  

Above all, not only was she bad for the country during her premiership, she continues to be bad for the country today. The causes of the present slump - unrestricted credit, deregulation and too much financial speculation - all date back to the 1980s. No successive government dared reverse these decisions: a blessing to her legacy, but a curse we must now all share.

The Free Economy and the Strong State: the Politics of Thatcherism; Andrew Gamble
One of Us: a Biography of Margaret Thatcher; Hugo Young
A History of Modern Britain; Andrew Marr
The Prime Minister: the Office and its Holders since 1945; Peter Hennessy
The British General Election of 1983/1987/1992 (all David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh)
The People's Peace:  British History 1945-1990, Kenneth Morgan Hansard, June 8 1989
The Office for National Statistics
Halifax Building Society

(This article was first published on MSN in 2009)