Friday, 12 April 2013

Three Little Words

North. Sea. Oil. The so-called Thatcher Revolution was a fake, a fraud, a thing of smoke and mirrors. She was a consummate politician, but all she loved was power, and she resorted to many interesting - if, at times, nationally destructive - gimmicks to get it and keep it. Far from genuinely turning Britain around and ending a period of post-imperial decline, all Thatcher achieved was the appearance of rather patchy economic growth in some English regions, while consigning others - like much of the North of England, much of Wales, much of Scotland - to permanent welfare-dependent stagnation.

And it's all down to a windfall. North Sea Oil came on tap in the late Seventies and government revenue from oil peaked in the Eighties. It was at the beginning of the Thatcher that the UK became, for the first time in its history, a net oil exporter. This means hundreds of millions of pounds of 'free money' for every Thatcher Chancellor. No comparable economy in Western Europe was so lucky. To compare the UK to France or Italy and say: 'Oh, look how badly those irresponsible foreigners are doing' is rather like a man who's won the lottery decrying his neighbours' lack of fiscal prudence.

Of course saying that Britain simply struck it lucky in the Eighties thanks to a geological accident doesn't fit the Thatcher myth. But it's true. If Ted Heath and/or Harold Wilson had had vast amounts of spare cash to play with from 1970 onwards, does anyone doubt that the UK would have avoided most of the industrial unrest of that decade? In the end, 'stopping their mouths with gold' may seem crass, but it's a proven method.

Oh, and good housekeeping? Thatcher didn't believe in it. Her government didn't do as the Norwegians did. Those pesky social democrats across the North Sea took a hefty slice of their oil fortune and invested it for a rainy day. A few years ago that rainy day came, and Norway has done rather well. By contrast, Thatcherism pissed Britain's oil billions up the wall. Much of the cash went on putting millions on the dole, then more went on putting a sizeable chunk of them on long-term sick benefit so as to reduce the dole figures. It was utterly irresponsible, and pure Thatcherism - it got the jobless total down.

Then of course there's democracy - the thing Thatcher advocated for foreigners and socialists. But democracy was just another weight in the handbag she wielded. She had no interest in promoting it within the Tory party. When she became leader, it was because elusive, sober-suited men decided she should be given a chance. And when the same men decided she was going, frankly, a bit barmy over the Poll Tax, the same men quietly drew their plans against her, and threw her out. Oh, the irony. If only she'd really cared about giving people a say, giving people a vote. But she didn't. She loved power, had no life outside politics, and believed herself to be infallible. She was the living embodiment of humourless hubris.

Imagine if every Tory party member - the members who paid their dues, put up posters, delivered leaflets, held fundraisers - had had a vote in a leadership election. She would not have been ousted - the rank and file loved her. But she never extended the franchise to her most ardent supporters. Throughout her leadership the Tory party remained a thoroughly traditional institution - a classic instanceof Us and Them, in which the common ruck have no say in the doings of people who really matter. And so, in a coup that left the poor old dear understandably baffled and bitter, she was unceremoniously ejected from Number 10.

The myth of Thatcherism is that she changed many things for the better, when in fact all the real, measurable changes were for the worse. The thuggish, politicised police, the fantasy that house price inflation equals real economic growth, the absurd belief that Britain would become resurgent through deregulating the City and forcing millions into low-skilled, low-wage, and therefore welfare-dependent service industry jobs...  None of the nation's real problems were tackled, or even acknowledged. Most notably, Thatcherism set the corrosive precedent for making state education the plaything of misfit ideologues with axes to grind. Small wonder state schooling generally fails to produce model citizens or a skilled workforce.

'Oh well, at least she broke the power of the unions.' Yes, she took on greedy, irresponsible men who had (supposedly) held the country to ransom. Unfortunately, thanks to her, a bunch of greedy and irresponsible bankers recently held the country to ransom - and got away with it. The same goes for all those nationalised industries. In the Seventies, they were money pits - badly-run, failing businesses. How very bold and wise of Maggie to close the shipyards and steelworks and so forth. But quite a few banks were also badly-run, failing businesses, and yet a whole generation post-Thatcher politicians say that throwing taxpayers' money at the problem is the only solution. Perhaps if bankers had broader vowels and ate chip butties our leaders would have favoured sending mounted police to break their heads instead?

I could go on. I could point out that her triumph in the Falklands would never have happened if Thatcher's government had not blundered into war by showing weakness in the run up to Galtieri's invasion. Oh, and she made drastic cuts to our armed forces immediately after the war, because her flag-waggling was just another bit of opportunism. Her recognition that climate change is real and dangerous is as nothing compared to her absurd, short-term, and entirely political decision to dispense with clean coal technology along with coal resources we will probably, one day, be forced to start extracting again.

Overall, far from breaking the mould of post-war politics, Thatcher was the apotheosis of that era. Like Wilson or Heath, she was a chancer with no long-term solutions or genuinely radical ideas. Unlike them she enjoyed good luck; luck that she rode with great skill. She benefited not only from North Sea Oil, but from a demoralised and divided opposition, and of course the support of the right-wing press that peddled lies and distortions most effectively on her behalf (as in the case of Michael Foot's 'donkey jacket'). Add to all those advantages the fact that the Tories always have more money to spend on campaigns than any other party, and it would have been truly remarkable if she'd lost an election in the Eighties.

But for all Thatcher's political success, her era was a shoddy one and its legacy seems more threadbare by the year. And that is because she was simply a self-absorbed egotist and no real patriot - she didn't make any serious attempt to fix 'broken Britain'. She instead adopted a very familiar approach, and bodged together a few superficially impressive repairs. All bodged jobs fall to pieces in time, of course. I'm not sure I want to be around when we have to call in a real professional, at considerable cost, to fix the place up properly. His first question is bound to be: 'What cowboy did this, then?' I think I know the answer.

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