Richard Smith: Are we all Thatcherites now?

Richard Smith A friend, possibly drunk, recently sent me a message on Facebook to ask if I was a Thatcherite. Thatcher was in the news because of the debate about her state funeral. Hours later my friend sent a second message hoping that she hadn’t offended me. Eventually the next morning she rang me, desperate to be reassured that I hadn’t cut her off forever—because there was a time, still is for some, when to be asked if you were a Thatcherite was equivalent to being asked if you were a paedophile, strangler, or sadomasochist (the latter has, of course, become respectable in the past few weeks).

As I contemplated joining the Facebook group “We support a state funeral for Thatcher if she’s buried alive,” I wondered not only whether I was a Thatcherite but whether we all are.
I started at the BMJ a month before Thatcher came to power. It was nearly 18 years before I was again to be an editor under a Labour government, and part of my brother’s stand up routine in the early 90s was to say: “Am I the only one in the room to have had sex under a Labour government?” I published dozens of articles that were anti-Thatcher.

Thatcher was the “milk snatcher” even before she became prime minister, and to be thought a Thatcherite before the Falklands War would have been terrible. Not even many Tories were: the “wets” were still all over the place, soon to be culled. Thatcher curbed the power of the unions, fought the miners, raised interest rates to cut inflation, introduced VAT, allowed unemployment to climb to over three million, told us there was no such thing as society, privatised everything she dared, and promoted the power of the market, including in the health service—although she never went nearly as far the Labour government did subsequently.

Wikipedia defines Thatcherism as ““characterised by decreased state intervention via the free market economy, monetarist economic policy, privatisation of state-owned industries, lower direct taxation and higher indirect taxation, opposition to trade unions, and a reduction of the size of the Welfare State.” Some don’t accept that there is such a thing as Thatcherism but argue that she was a pragmatist doing what she had to do to get Britain “back on track.”

This view conflicts with the story, perhaps apocryphal, that during a shadow cabinet meeting she slammed a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty down on the table saying, “This is what we believe.”

So are we all Thatcherites now? We are perhaps in that we are able to benefit—not least in the NHS—from Britain’s economy having grown dramatically at least in part through her policies. To be “against” the free market is like believing in the phlogiston theory, although we’ve perhaps forgotten that markets need vigorous regulation.

If a central tenet of monetarism is to free a central bank from political control and ask it to concentrate on keeping inflation low by raising interest rates when necessary to restrict the money supply, then our present Labour prime minister is the arch monetarist—and it seems most unlikely that any politician would take that freedom away from the Bank of England. Brown is also keen on indirect taxes.

Would anybody renationalise British Airways, BP, or British Telecom? No, although they might be tempted by the railways. And is any electable politician keen to give more power to unions? Even the Labour party, which depends more heavily than ever on union funding, is wary of increasing union power.

It is perhaps in the English NHS that we can best see the tendency for us all—or at least the politicians we elect—to be Thatcherites. She herself never dared to privatise the NHS, but her government did introduce the idea of the internal market—with the split between purchasers (now commissioners) and providers. But it never really got going—apart from the spluttering of GP fundholding. Labour when it came to power in 1997 promptly scrapped the internal market only to return to it with a vengeance within a few years. All the major parties now favour using market mechanisms within the NHS: Thatcher has been out-Thatchered.

And what about me, the author in the early 80s of passionate articles on the evils of unemployment? Well, if we’re all Thatcherites now it follows that I am. But my changes have come not from Thatcher but from age, the Stanford Business School, and reading the Economist. Famously, if you’re not a communist under 40 (and I was) you have no heart but if you’re a communist over 40 you have no head. I studied economics in California as the Berlin Wall came down, and any support of a planned economy suddenly seemed ludicrous.

It’s supposed to be the English disease to turn into the people you despise. Could it have happened to me?