Thatcher's economic legacy

Margaret Thatcher's economic legacy was prompted by the 1976 Labour government's capitulation to the IMF – but she took it much further.

It is ironic that Margaret Thatcher’s funeral is to take place at St. Paul’s in the City of London. The world around Wren’s great monument is beginning to unravel as a result of the liberalisation forces she helped unleash. Banks are bankrupt, thousands of jobs lost, and the City’s hard-won reputation for honour and fair play is now in tatters.

The most fundamental economic action of the Thatcher era was to intensify the liberalisation of the financial sector. This was dictated by the City and endorsed by early monetarist economists.

The 1970s inflation was caused originally by this liberalisation and expansion of credit, at domestic and international level: too much money chasing too few goods and services. The Lawson boom of the late 1980s in the wake of attempted government retrenchment came as the money supply again became unhinged. Since the start of the liberalisation of finance at the end of the 1960s, the world economy has been on a roller-coaster, driven by repeated cycles of financial excess, inflations, economic failure and retrenchment. The almost unanimously celebrated 1992-2007 boom was an illusion made possible only by a debt inflation of a more severe kind than that of the 1930s.

As the debate over her legacy rages, economists are loud and united in the claim that Thatcher "fixed" the economy. Economists like Professor van Reenan of the LSE make vague assertions about improvements to the supply side, or to competitiveness. These hark back to arguments deployed by the original monetarists – Samuel Brittan of the FT; Brian Griffiths now of Goldman Sachs and an adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury; and Peter Jay, ex-economics editor of the BBC. They were arguments used to justify liberalisation, and these policies caused the economy to deteriorate in every conceivable way.   

An examination of the post-war economic experiences of Britain was included in a 2010 PRIME report, "The Economic Consequences of Mr Osborne". 1976 is a key date: the point at which the Labour Government allegedly yielded "Keynesianism" to the IMF’s "reforms" that preceded and anticipated Thatcher’s policies. 

The most obvious economic headlines pre- and post-1976 are:

  • Unemployment averaged 2.3 per cent a year before reform and after 1976 rose to average 7.7 per cent a year;
  • GDP growth was 2.7 per cent a year before reform and 2.2 per cent a year afterwards; and
  • Income distribution narrowed almost every year before reform. 

And then the real transformation occurred. "The scale of the rise in inequality over the '80s was unparalleled both historically and compared with most other developed countries" according to the IFS in a 2011 report.

It is also a myth that the Golden Age that preceded liberalisation was burdened by an overreliance on the state, or the public sector. 

Before Thatcher came to power, the UK had a thriving manufacturing sector. In 1970, 33 per cent of the economy was accounted for by manufacturing. Today that proportion is 10 per cent. Before Thatcher, the owners of firms felt confident to invest: in real terms, capital investment grew by 4.6 per cent a year before her reforms and only 2.6 per cent afterwards.

Economic activity extended beyond the state and traditional manufacturing; there was a golden age of theatre, of design and of course of popular music. Britain could afford healthcare and education for all; secondary and higher education was free; a safety net protected the few that had no work, and a working pension system looked after the old. 

Contrary to the economic profession’s consensus, since reform, the size of government has grown as a share of the economy:

  • The broadest measure of the size of government, general government expenditure as a share of GDP, grew from 37 per cent to 41 per cent, post Thatcher.
  • In terms of the public finances, public debt measured as a share of GDP fell by an average of 5 percentage points a year in the period before Thatcherism. It rose by 1.3 percentage points per year in the period afterwards. 

This growth is of course not the positive result of more government spending on goods and services or of government investment. Rather, it represents the costs of the failure of reform. As the economy deteriorated, the cost of welfare and interest payments rocketed. 

In all this debate economists forget what the economy is for. It is not for the rich, or just about "growth" or "competitiveness". Rather, it provides an outlet for human creativity, and meets humankind’s deep desire to work. It creates frameworks that nurture and protect the young, the vulnerable and the old; that ease the adversities and enhance the pleasures of life for all those that live within it.

On these terms the reforms promoted by the economics profession and implemented by Thatcher have failed the people of Britain – catastrophically.  

The Conservative front-bench, featuring Margaret Thatcher, in 1976. Photograph: Getty Images

Ann Pettifor is director of Policy Research in Macroeconomics and Douglas Coe is a researcher with PRIME

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.