How public spending rose under Thatcher

Thatcher squeezed public services but high unemployment meant spending rose by an average of 1.1% a year.

Despite the rhetoric of "rolling back the state", Margaret Thatcher was less successful in cutting public spending than many of her supporters (and opponents) like to believe. As the IFS graph below shows, real-terms spending rose in every year of her premiership apart from two. Only in 1985-86 and 1989-90 did spending fall, by 1.1 per cent in the former and 2.3 per cent in the latter. On average, it increased by 1.1 per cent a year. Under the coalition, by contrast, it is forecast to fall by an average of 0.4% a year in real terms (departmental spending is being cut by 11% but debt interest and high unemployment mean the total reduction is far smaller). 

While Thatcher squeezed spending on public services such as health and education, mass unemployment and the consequent increase in spending on benefits (which, unlike the current government, she allowed to rise with inflation) ensured that total expenditure remained high. 

But while spending generally kept pace with inflation, it did fall dramatically as a share of GDP. When Thatcher entered office, total expenditure stood at 45.1%. It was briefly reduced - to 44.6% - in her first year before rising every year until 1982-83 when it peaked at 48.1%. Spending then fell in every remaining year, totalling just 39.2% in 1989-90 after the economy grew by an average of 4.7% between  1984 and 1988. 

Spending under Thatcher as a percentage of GDP

  • 1979-80 44.6%
  • 1980-81 47%
  • 1981-82 47.7% 
  • 1982-83 48.1% 
  • 1983-84 47.8% 
  • 1984-85 47.5% 
  • 1985-86 45%
  • 1986-87 43.6%
  • 1987-88 41.6%
  • 1988-89 38.9% 
  • 1989-90 39.2% 

Source: HM Treasury

Public spending then rose under John Major, largely as a result of the 1991-92 recession, peaking at 43.7% of GDP in 1992-93. It later fell to a modern low of 34.5% under Labour in 2000-01 before rising in every subsequent year until it reached 47.7% in 2009-10 (the surge was largely a result of the recession, which saw spending rise by 3.2% compared with 2008-09). Osborne's axe will see it fall to 44% in 2014-15 and, if the election goes the Tories' way, to 40.5% in 2017-18. 

Margaret Thatcher making a speech, 22nd May 1980. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage