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 Just after my finals I received a phone call – the job offer was being withdrawn!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in a hostel for homeless women behind Victoria Station, being openly challenged – surely a job offer hadn’t been withdrawn – I had failed to get a job.

Later I learned that the Bank had withdrawn my job offer, but they’d kept on the other new graduate they’d recruited – a man.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

Getty
Show Hide image

Michelle Obama's powerful speech demolishes Donald Trump without even mentioning his name

This is one speech he won't be able to steal. 

After her stirring speech at the Democratic Convention, Michelle Obama can be sure of one thing - Melania Trump won't be able to copy it.

Obama, like her husband, is a fine orator, so much so that the wife of Republican nominee Donald Trump was widely suspected of borrowing from her speeches.

But those who crowded into the audience on Monday night could be sure of the real deal. 

Obama did not mention Trump by name, but in an implicit criticism of him, she spoke passionately about the responsibilities of the Presidency, and how the United States had moved on since the days of slavery and oppression. 

The Obamas knew their kids were watching them, she said: "We know that our words and actions matter." 

And in a reference to Trump's Twitter obsession, she declared: The issues a President faces "cannot be boiled down to 140 characters".

Obama, whose husband fought a fierce campaign against Hillary Clinton to clinch the Democratic nomination in 2008, now heaped praise on his former rival. 

Clinton was a "true public servant" who "did not pack up and go home" after losing to Obama in 2008, she said. She had carried out "relentless, thankless work" to actually make a difference in children's lives. 

And she reminded the audience the Presidential election was not just about left-right politics: "It is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives."

But the African-American First Lady's most powerful statements were a reflection on race, gender and social mobility - issues far outside of Trump territory. 

In a reference to Clinton's 2008 concession speech, where she talked of making "cracks in the glass ceiling", Obama declared: 

"That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.

"And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.

"And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States."

She also recalled the little black boy who made headlines around the world when he visited the White House and asked the President: "Is my hair like yours?"

Obama's calm but intense delivery brought the packed arena to its feet, and earned her several standing ovations. Bill Clinton, former President and husband of Hillary, was seen to say "wow" from his place in the audience.

She ended with a final dig at Trump's slogan "Make America Great Again". Obama told the crowd:

"Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. 

"Because this right now is the greatest country on earth."

Michelle Obama's speech: The best quotes

On Obama's 2008 victory

I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just 7 and 10 years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns.

And I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, what have we done?

On bringing up kids

We insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country.

How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.

On Hillary Clinton

What I admire most about Hillary is that she never buckles under pressure. She never takes the easy way out. And Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life.

On who shouldn't be President

When you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military in your command, you can’t make snap decisions. You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out. You need to be steady and measured and well-informed.

On equality

I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.

And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.

On the US

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on earth.

You can read a copy of the full speech here.