Margaret Thatcher’s legacy was to ingrain a north-south divide in our body politic

When visiting a factory in Wallsend in 1985, Margaret Thatcher famously turned on a reporter who challenged her over her impact on the region (with unemployment standing at 20 per cent at that time). She replied that the correct response was to highlight success stories "not always standing there as moaning Minnies".

Anna Turley is senior research fellow at IPPR North

When visiting a factory in Wallsend in 1985, Margaret Thatcher famously turned on a reporter who challenged her over her impact on the region (with unemployment standing at 20 per cent at that time). She replied that the correct response was to highlight success stories “not always standing there as moaning Minnies“.

“Now stop it. Cheer up and go and boost the success and you’re much more likely to get jobs that way,” she added.

This quote is symbolic of Thatcher’s economic legacy in the north and why her death has provoked such a strong response here. Some will inevitably praise her approach as the no-nonsense, enterprising, ‘help yourself’ mentality of a grocer’s daughter that said if you work hard enough, you will succeed.

But this overlooks the reality of a prime minister who did virtually nothing to empower people in the north to take control of their own economic, industrial and social destiny. Indeed it will be seen as the voice of someone who destroyed so much that gave dignity, identity and opportunity to people and their families.

Her economic legacy is a north-south divide which is now engrained in the DNA of our national economic and political structures; an economy dependent on the financial sector and service industries, dominated by London and the south east; an economy with its industrial and manufacturing base across the north devastated; a highly centralised state driven from Westminster with denuded and comparatively impotent local governance; a legacy of benefit dependency and low skills clustered in former industrial areas where private enterprise still struggles to flourish.

She saw the stagflation and poor GDP of the seventies as a direct result of excessive state intervention, over-wieldy union power, and did not see a role for government in easing the challenges facing certain industries such as mining, ship-building and manufacturing.

In her view the state should play no part in the economy, so she sought to de-nationalise state industries, dismantle state assistance, break the unions and end the Assisted Areas, all of which had grown in the post war period in recognition of the threat of economic disparity and inequality.

On top of this, her monetarist policies, namely driving up the exchange rate to an extraordinarily overvalued level in order to reduce inflation, heavily accelerated industrial decline.

All this hit the north far harder than the south since it was still largely dependent on ‘anchor’ industries, and many of these industries were deeply woven into the entire fabric of families and communities.

The statistics speak for themselves. Between 1979 and 1987 total employment fell by 1,321,000. In the North employment fell by 1,357,000 whereas in the south it actually increased by 3,500[i].

By 1992, 97 mines had been closed, ship building was ended in the largest ship-building town in the world, Sunderland. Docks were closed across the country. When British Steel closed its steelworks in Consett in 1980 it shut an industry which had dominated the local economy for 140 years and was part of the community fabric, the broader local economy, and the local identity.

In areas that growth was encouraged, like the service sector, two-thirds of the jobs created were in the South.

Like the current government’s approach to Regional Development Agencies, she was keen to dismantle state architecture in the expectation that the free market would be liberated to fill the void. The result was a highly uneven period of growth in the eighties and an increase in the gap between north and south.

To her credit, though, she did not fall prey to other siren voices calling for greater abandonment of the north. When her chancellor Geoffrey Howe suggested ‘managed decline’ for cities like Liverpool after the Toxteth riots, she instead sent Heseltine to look at regeneration there.

Moreover, in the North East, Nissan came to the region in 1986, and the area still remains disproportionately dependent on the role that it plays in a way which would probably have horrified Thatcher. She created the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation and the Teesside Development Corporation after her walk in the wilderness on Teesside – a symbolic but damning visual of the devastation she had already bought to the area.

Her unwillingness to compromise, her description of striking miners as “the enemy within” and insults like “moaning minnies” all helped to create a permissive political narrative in which economic disparity between the north and the south was accepted, or even seen as inevitable. Moreover, so brutally was our industry beaten, that advanced manufacturing has struggled to rise it its wake, compared with countries like Germany and the USA which continued to invest.

If Thatcher was genuine about creating an enterprising economy where people from across the UK could take responsibility for themselves, she could have devolved greater power and recognised the capacity for self-help, mutual support and endeavour already within communities (ironically often around industries and unions).

So much was destroyed and so many communities were swept away by the tides of her economic decisions. But far from being “moaning minnies”, people in the north have been valiantly trying to make the most of the economic opportunities that exist ever since.

[i] Jim Lewis and Alan R. Townsend – The North-South Divide: Regional Change in Britain in the 1980s (London: P. Chapman, 1989)

4 Responses to “Margaret Thatcher’s legacy was to ingrain a north-south divide in our body politic”

  1. Nigel Thomas

    ‘The North-South Divide’ is not actually about ‘Regional Change in Britain’, and neither is this article. It’s all about England, in fact.

  2. Nigel Thomas

    ‘The North-South Divide’ is not actually about ‘Regional Change in Britain’, and neither is this article. It’s all about England, in fact.

  3. SadButMadLad

    How many mines closed during Harold Wilson’s time? More than during Thatcher’s term in office.

    Yes, unemployment rocketed during her time, but British industry was crap at that time. Remember the stories about British Leyland?

  4. Phil Kelly

    I take issue with my old friend Anna Turley and others who characterise the malevolent legacy of Thatcherism in terms of worsening a “North South divide”. Thatcher certainly wrecked the north, but if we see her legacy mainly in terms of geography, the policies we evolve will not tackle the real problems – that gap between rich and poor which she widened, Labour stopped widening and which is now growing again. Anna says that Thatcher will be remembered in the north as “someone who destroyed so much that give dignity identity and opportunity to people and their families”. It’s the same in working class London. London and the south east de-industrialised too – the docks closed, the railways declined, fewer cars and vans came out of Luton and Dagenham, the print industry disappeared, component manufacturers on the industrial estates of north and west London lost their markets.

    Full details of the North East Economic Review led by Andrew Adonis are not available as I write. It appears to suggest that the new Business Bank (and the HQ of a revitalised National Audit Office) should be in the North East. I have no problems with this. It is in the tradition of regional policies from Hailsham to Heseltine. Regional banks were Labour policy when the late John Smith was Shadow Chancellor. But it is not so much where banks are as what they do. If having a bank in your area was a solution to growing poverty and a widening gap between rich and poor, then poverty in Islington, Hackney, or Tower Hamlets would be falling, not rising.

    Regional policy will be essential to revive the North – but it must be additional to, and not instead of, policies to reverse the proportion of national income which goes into the pockets of working people. North or South, young people need skills and wealth created locally needs to be invested locally.

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