This Friday, the 3rd of May, is the 40th anniversary of the 1979 UK election which saw Margaret Thatcher become Prime Minister. It is doubtful that any UK Prime Minister since Thatcher will loom as large in our collective memory in forty years’ time as Thatcher still does today—certainly not Tony Blair who has been disowned by his own side of politics due to the Iraq war.
Thatcher’s government led the way worldwide with the privatisation of government-owned businesses such as British Telecom and British Airways, and her “big bang” financial deregulation in 1986 helped secure London’s role as the preeminent financial centre in Europe. Australia was one of the many countries that was influenced by Thatcher.
Thatcher’s rise to power was almost inevitable given the industrial chaos Britain experienced in the late 1970s, particularly during the so-called “winter of discontent” in 1978-79. The photos from the time of Leicester Square being used as a rubbish dump, because the garbage men among other public sector workers were on strike, are almost unbelievable today.
Thatcher also capitalised politically on the “stagflation”, the pernicious combination of high inflation and high unemployment, that afflicted Britain and other advanced economies in the 1970s. The Conservatives’ “Labour isn’t working” billboards with an image of a long dole queue were devastatingly effective.
It turned out Thatcher’s economic cure, a heavy dose of Monetarism, was almost as bad as the disease. The monetary squeeze brought down inflation from over 20% when Thatcher assumed office to around 5% by 1983, but the cost was even higher unemployment, at around 12%. Leading economists who have studied Thatcher’s monetarist experiment have concluded that the policy was a huge blunder. It could have been even worse if Thatcher hadn’t decided on a change of course in Autumn 1981, a story told by Welsh MP Hywel Williams in an illuminating 2007 Guardian article The Lady was for turning.
The Thatcher-era remains of immense interest to economists, and hence I am very glad the CIS is hosting events exploring Thatcher’s legacy in Sydney and Brisbane this week:
At the Brisbane event on Thursday 2 May, to be held at the Ovolo Inchcolm Hotel on Wickham Terrace, CIS Executive Director Tom Switzer will interview Tim Montgomerie, a British conservative commentator and activist and former editorial page editor of The Times, regarding Thatcher’s legacy. The blurb for the event notes:
With Britain’s ruling Conservative Party in disarray, and against the backdrop of a chaotic British exit from the EU, there is a real danger that Britain is lurching to the left. Join us to get an in-depth analysis of the British Conservative crisis and the rise of millennial socialism, at this event in Brisbane.
It’s sure to be an illuminating and entertaining discussion which I’m very much looking forward to. Ticket sales end very soon so book today if you’re interested in attending.
Photo by Chris Collins / Margaret Thatcher Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5197479