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 Just after my finals I received a phone call – the job offer was being withdrawn!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living in a hostel for homeless women behind Victoria Station, being openly challenged – surely a job offer hadn’t been withdrawn – I had failed to get a job.

Later I learned that the Bank had withdrawn my job offer, but they’d kept on the other new graduate they’d recruited – a man.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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

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