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 Just after my finals I received a phone call – the job offer was being withdrawn!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in a hostel for homeless women behind Victoria Station, being openly challenged – surely a job offer hadn’t been withdrawn – I had failed to get a job.

Later I learned that the Bank had withdrawn my job offer, but they’d kept on the other new graduate they’d recruited – a man.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 UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder