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What Margaret Thatcher really did to Britain

2013 April 12
by Paul Vallely

Margaret Thatcher saved Britain, or destroyed it, according to which commentator you choose to read. The truth is that she did both, in different ways. There can be little doubt that she reinvigorated an economy which was hidebound by excessive government regulation, restrictive trade union practices, a weak currency and an enfeebled business culture – problems to the previous generation of politicians, of both parties, had lacked the vigour or vision to find answers. But she also accelerated the decline of British manufacturing industry, created mass unemployment, destroyed entire communities and instigated financial deregulation in the City which paved the way for the global recession of recent times.

Yet the real truth about Lady Thatcher does not just lie somewhere between these two polarities. It is to be found somewhere different.

Someone with her fondness for reducing national issues to domestic metaphor might begin by quoting the proverb that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. To those enjoying the meal the Thatcherite omelette was undoubtedly a tasty dish. Those whose lives were broken would tell a different story. Her supporters shrugged that this was an evil necessity. Rising unemployment and recession were “a price well worth paying” to get inflation down, as a Tory Chancellor. Norman Lamont, was later to succinctly put it.

Such a view is at heart utilitarian. It holds that a society’s purpose must be to maximise the greatest happiness of the greatest number.  But, as the recent debate between church leaders and government ministers on welfare reform has shown, Christianity has fundamental questions to raise about any system which assumes that it is necessary for one man, or one minority, to suffer for the good of the people. The insistence of Mrs Thatcher in 1983 that “the denial of personal choice is an outright denial of Christian faith” reveals a selective and rather eccentric notion of the values embodied in the gospels.

The British economy may have been on a sounder footing when she resigned but it is incontestable that in her time the poor got poorer and inequality increased. Traditional industries like shipbuilding, coalmining and steelmaking may have been in long-term decline but Thatcherism’s acceleration of that process disproportionately affected particular communities. Germany shows a different approach was possible. That is why those who, like me, live in the North of the country will have noticed a markedly different response to the news of Lady Thatcher’s death to the tone struck by our largely metropolitan national media. One shopkeeper told me he had opened a bottle of champagne the day the ex-PM died.

The unskilled working man in places like the North of England has been particularly badly-hit by the Thatcher revolution which later governments, of both parties, have failed to reverse.  The urgency of welfare reform is a consequence of the depletion of Britain’s manufacturing base on a scale which not even the Luftwaffe managed. The number of people in out-of-work benefits trebled in the Thatcher years, from two to six million, and today’s “underclass” of unemployables is its legacy.

So too is a recession, now more prolonged than that of the Great Depression, which was triggered by a banking crisis rooted in Mrs Thatcher’s deregulation of the City.  So too is a housing crisis which grew from the Thatcherite prohibition on councils building more houses to replace those she sold off.

For all her rhetoric about prudence, saving and hard work Margaret Thatcher has bequeathed us a culture which is hedonistic and debt-laden. Her insistence that “there is no such thing as society” has left us atomised as well as acquisitive. It has made selfishness respectable.  That was the underbelly of the entrepreneurial spirit she so effectively unleashed. Her legacy has left us paradoxes we must now struggle to resolve.

Paul Vallely is a policy and communications consultant at He is currently writing a biography of Pope Francis for Bloomsbury.

 from the Church Times


One Response leave one →
  1. Chris Beeson permalink
    April 13, 2013

    While I agree with much of this, the expression ‘today’s underclass of “unemployables”‘ makes me uneasy. While unemployables clearly exist, I doubt their numbers are large enough to qualify as a ‘class’. Most able-bodied people claiming working-age benefits are either in low-pay jobs or actively looking for work. There’s a danger here of reinforcing the rhetoric of ‘strivers versus skivers’.

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