The death of Margaret Thatcher has reopened many of the debates which took place in her time in office. As Edmund Burke said about the French Revolution “this is a matter on which it is difficult to speak, but impossible to remain silent”… so here goes!
Many people have let this get rather personal, and I think that, at this time especially, it is important to be clear about the issues. I remember while she was Prime Minister, that I was impressed by David Steele, then leader of the Liberal Party (before they joined another lot and became Democrats) who said “I do not question her motives, her character or her morality. My point is simple: she’s just plain WRONG!”
For me, the thing she was most wrong about was her economic strategy (I was taught Keynesian economic ideas which seem to have gone out of fashion here and throughout the EU, but are still being applied by President Obama – we should be so lucky).
The second thing she was wrong about, and is an unfortunate element in her legacy, is her view of the Public Sector. She seemed to regard public expenditure as a Bad Thing which should be reduced whenever possible. She somehow persuaded lots of people that privatisation was a Good Thing because by transferring a service or institution from the Public Sector to the Private Sector it magically ceased being a waste of money and became a great benefit.
I was brought up in a time when most British people were fond of, even proud of, a lot of public institutions such as the NHS, the BBC, the armed forces, and even the Railways and the public utilities, as well as our local authorities. In a similar way we thought of our landscape and coastline, and the wildlife inhabiting them, as things that belonged to us all, even those who did not own a square foot of Britain. The police and the legal system belonged to us all as Justice cannot be divided. Those of us who worked in the Public Sector thought we were working for the public, not just for our bosses or their elected bosses, locally or nationally.
We economists understood that for many activities, from air travel to coal-mining, from education to farming, there are costs and benefits which affect people other than those directly involved, and the State had a role in trying to share all the costs and benefits fairly. Fairness was something we British were famous for.
The Thatcher Revolution changed all that. People seemed to value only what they owned. Everything had to make a profit or be considered as a burden on the nation instead of an asset. The pressure to compete led to parts of the Public Sector copying all the worst aspects of the Private Sector, sometimes without copying its better features.
For me that was a very sad part of Mrs Thatcher’s legacy. We need someone to make us re-evaluate the Public Sector.
I can understand why some people have celebrated the lady’s death, but I share the feelings expressed by Felipe Gonzales, Prime Minister of Spain for many years. He was a socialist leader who had endured a great deal of injustice at the hands of Spain’s long-lived Dictator, General Franco. When Franco died, Gonzales was invited to join a private celebration, but he said “I will not rejoice in the death of anyone, least of all a Spaniard”. Hear! Hear!