You’re at a barbecue at a friend of a friend. The host had too many beers. Apparently, he knows Everything. You wish you hadn’t gone. He’s droning on about Margaret Thatcher. She really “shook them up with conservative principles.” But you’re quiet, for now, since you know the backstory.
In 1979, British industry was a shambles. Once-superb British cars (Jaguar, AstonMartin) were a joke; the world-beating motorcycle industry (Triumph, Norton) was extinct; the once-dominant aircraft industry (Avro, de Havilland, Hawker) was moribund; the once-revolutionary computer industry (Colossus, software) was fading fast. We’ll stop there. The Labour government had nationalized whole industries out of pure ideology. They were woefully inefficient. The government was in the pockets of the trade unions. Many unions were controlled by open communists who relished chaos. Power failures were common; inflation was around 20 percent; pay demands escalated; strikes increased; industry declined more; strikes increased more, etc., etc.
Britain was indeed the “sick man of Europe.” Thatcher inherited a mess.
The coal miners, led by a communist, went on strike. They got what they wanted. Thatcher seethed for revenge. She encouraged overtime at the pits. Coal piled up nicely at power stations. When the miners went on strike again, she faced them down. Picketing was ugly. But there were no power cuts this time. The miners went back after a year, utterly crushed. Credit to Maggie where it’s due: crushing communist-driven union power was long overdue.
She was the first to draw attention to global warming. (Conservatives, please note.)
And she crushed inflation. The Bank of England wasn’t independent then, so she could order it around. (Chinless gentlemen in the cabinet didn’t fight her). But she got pig-headed, unable to see past her nose. (She was a conservative.) She took nobody’s advice and certainly not on economics, a subject she despised. (She’d been a chemist, then a barrister.) She’d heard about Hayek and Friedman, so she throttled the money supply. That would cause the pound to rise, she was told, and rise even more when North Sea oil came on stream. That would then throttle much of what remained of British manufacturing industry. Guess what? It did.
Millions of jobs were lost. Communities were destroyed. Ugly rioting started, put down with tear gas, horrifying the peaceful British. To some extent, the gains from her deregulation of the financial industry compensated for the losses in the manufacturing industry. That was fine, if you lived in London.
Her core belief was that wonderful things would automatically happen if she destroyed The State. Industries were privatized. Britain’s excellent pension scheme, fully-funded, with diversified investments, was trashed out of spite. No matter; she’d unleash all that rip-snorting economic freedom! It would create new industries to take the place of the old. There were books on it! Yes, in the fiction section. They didn’t mention “barriers to entry.” As a result, British aircraft workers are now tin-bashers for the French.
Ah, yes, those Frogs. She hated them; the Krauts too. She hated the whole perishing lot, even the Dutch, who loved the British. (Britain fed them in 1945, using money borrowed from America.) Granted, she opposed the ill-founded euro, but at a huge cost: the Europeans loathed her. Britain has remained on Europe’s periphery, not at its rightful center. This is serious. America wants to deal with a united Europe, not an isolated Britain, as a counterweight to China.
One doesn’t pick fights, certainly not with one’s host. But he’s a pain. So, you ask, mildly, if there are “any other views out there.” No, no, says he: Thatcher “kicked ass” and that’s “what we need here.”
But, but, you say, communist-dominated unions “aren’t a problem here.” You remind him that his taxes subsidize Walmart, because it can “kill unions,” meaning it can pay such low wages that even its full-time workers need to go on welfare. He says Thatcher had to “give them back their freedom.” Yes, yes, you say, but for every gain with Maggie there was a corresponding loss. She destroyed the militant unions, but destroyed the industries they worked in; she kept Britain out of Europe’s money, but destroyed its influence there; she reduced the patient’s temperature, but nearly killed the patient in doing so. She referred to herself as “we,” not “I,” infuriating the Queen. Finally, her own party revolted, and threw her out of office. (That’s possible in a parliamentary system.)
The host has no answer. (Republicans never do, when cornered.) As a good sport, you state the view you saw online in the British Financial Times. She made painful structural changes but with such brutality that its results are debatable even now. The changes could have been managed better by someone who understood economics better. Socially, she took Britain back to the “late-19th century.”
Her only gain was an island near Argentina left over from the British Empire.