Markets and Liberty: Inside Thatcher's Treasury

Helen Goodman MP was a Treasury civil servant during the Thatcher years. Comparing her own experiences with the tributes of Conservative MPs, she wonders what lies behind the impulse to rewrite history.

 

I was a student when Mrs Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. I had voted Labour, but I do remember watching her arrive at No 10 on the telly and feeling a surge of hope – that at last we had a woman and some good must come of this.

Within two months my Dad who was working on a public sector construction was unemployed, an early victim of the cuts. He never worked again.

I was in my final year and had been offered a job at the Bank of England. Just after my finals I received a phone call – the job offer was being withdrawn! I will never forget the look on my father’s face when I told him. One family, two job losses in three months.

The reason my job was taken from me was that one of the government’s first moves was the lfting of Exchange Controls – the first of the big financial deregulations, which the Tories were praising in Parliament yesterday. The Bank had had 600 working on this. I quickly learned that with unemployment came stigma. I found myself living in a hostel for homeless women behind Victoria Station, being openly challenged – surely a job offer hadn’t been withdrawn – I had failed to get a job.

Later I learned that the Bank had withdrawn my job offer, but they’d kept on the other new graduate they’d recruited – a man. That hurt.

Well Mrs Thatcher certainly radicalised me – I joined the Labour Party and went to work for a Labour MP. This was the days before IPSA and allowances – all he could afford to pay me was £30 a week. So it was a short-term opportunity – but life changing. I retook the civil service exams and astonishingly was offered the Treasury.

When I arrived there in September 1980, officials were still reminiscing over Denis Healey and highly sceptical about Mrs Thatcher’s ideals. One afternoon, everyone working on public spending, about a quarter of the department, was called into the large marble columned meeting room overlooking Parliament Street – all wood panelling and busts of Charles James Fox. Mrs Thatcher had decided to introduce cash limits. This was the first time I was really aware of her as a force of nature. The senior official in charge had come straight from No 10. He told us he’d raised all the problems and difficulties but received this riposte “I know it’d difficult Mr L.... but don’t wallow in it.”

I was plunged in at the sharp end – my first job was on social security and I remember we had to take through emergency legislation raiding the National Insurance fund, set up by Lloyd George. My second posting was to the overseas aid desk.

Mrs Thatcher had skilfully managed to condense her philosophy into two key organising principles – markets and liberty. For officials – even the most junior like me – this was tremendously powerful, because you knew that if you pursued these two ideas you were doing the right thing. It was a clear framework and within it there was scope for initiative and flexibility. There was no need to constantly refer up for detailed instructions.

Of course, what it also did was to over-simplify every problem and ignore the costs and downsides of policy. For example in the 1970s a series of international commodity agreements covering crops and metals had been used to stabilise these markets. This had helped the producer countries to predict and stabilise their export earnings. It was difficult to know whether prices were always aligned with long-term value so Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan swept them away. So now we have traders speculating in food stuffs and multi-national corporations suing the poorest countries on earth. I would submit that this is not an improvement.

I can clearly recall her on the TV arguing with the Archbishop of York, John Habgood. “You should be providing moral certainty”, she said. “But have you thought”, he politely inquired, “that moral certainty might be a sin?”.

In the 1980s the Treasury was reorganised. The nationalised industry division was closed down and we started to privatise everything.  This brought us into close proximity with the City. They were riding high on the Big Bang. I was shocked – for doing exactly the same work young men in the City were being paid five times my salary and they were allowed to speculate on the shares being sold. I recall there was some strategic leaking about this – I can’t imagine how that happened.

Listening to the tributes of Tory MPs yesterday two things struck me – first their emotions; a mixture of terror and admiration. This was authentic. I only met her once at a large meeting after midnight when we had to secure an agreement to an urgent tax change. The power had gone so we were lit by candles. She swept in – all whisky and jewels – like a latter-day Empress Catherine II all the clever young men seemed to crumple before her. Only Eddie George – Steady Eddie – whom she later made Governor of the Bank of England could tell her what was needed.

The second thing that struck me was their desire to present her now as a figure behind whom the nation could unite. When the first draft of her 1984 part conference speech was circulated the phrase “the enemy within” was meant to refer to the miners. She delivered it after the Brighton bombing – which gave it a very different interpretation. Quite apart from her political opponents the government she led was one of the most divided in history – far more divided than the famous Blair/Brown splits. In 1987 I was moved to the foreign exchange desk. Here I discovered that the Treasury was engaged in a full scale exercise in deceiving No 10 over the management of the pound, a central part of any government’s economic policy. Mrs Thatcher and her advisers wanted to let the pound float freely, but Nigel Lawson’s Treasury was pursuing a policy of shadowing the deutschmark. Ever week we were buying and selling hundreds of millions to stabilise the pound. It was my task to write a daily markets report for No 10 – this had to explain our intervention in the forex markets without revealing our policy objective. When I suggested that instead of this duplicitous approach, the Chancellor simply raise the matter at Cabinet – he would certainly have had Geoffrey Howe’s support – I was told that if I ever mentioned this again I would be sacked!

Perhaps some of the younger Tories simply don’t know what happened (by the time David Cameron turned up in the Treasury I didn’t even bother to get to know him I was so bored with this endless stream of self-assured young men) but it does seem that this attempt to re-write what happened has more to do with current desperation rather than historical accuracy.

Mrs Thatcher herself certainly had difficulty in adjusting to her loss of power. Sir Michael Richardson, her personal financial adviser told me that he had a big lunch for her when the Queen created her a Baroness. “Margaret, this must be your proudest day” he said. She replied “What is one day of pleasure in a life of gloom?”.

Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe in 1980. Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Goodman is Labour MP for Bishop Auckland and shadow media minister

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation