We're picking up the pieces to this day, writes Kevin Gulliver.
This month marks the 40th anniversary of the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Tories. The importance of the 1979 general election as a pivotal point in British politics is being acknowledged by Thatcher’s friends and foes alike. The BBC is currently broadcasting a five part documentary of her life.
What is certain is that Thatcher as a radical right-wing prime minister casts a long shadow: widening inequality, entrenched poverty and disadvantage, sell-off of public assets, the deindustrialisation of Britain, emasculation of the trade unions, embracing globalisation, belligerence and cleaving to the USA at all costs, and antagonism to the European Union. All this ultimately brought us Brexit: the damning legacy remains with us four decades on.
One of Thatcher’s most toxic legacies was the return of massive income inequality, exacerbated by the reduction in the top rate of tax from 60% to 40%, following decades of reduction. Today, as Danny Dorling observes, we are back to peak levels of inequality last seen in the early 1920s.
Growing wealth inequality is part of Thatcher’s legacy too. The ONS Wealth and Assets survey reveals that the top tenth of households have a median wealth of just over £1m – 31 times that of the bottom tenth. According to the Equality Trust, the richest 1,000 people now have wealth equivalent to that of the bottom 40% of the population.
Perhaps Thatcher’s most far-reaching policy was the sale of British public assets. Since 1979, more than 1.9m social homes have been sold; many of them ending up in the hands of private landlords. This policy has directly led to the current housing crisis.
And Thatcher began the process of selling British utilities like water, energy rail and telecommunications plus swathes of public land that have worsened inequalities in wealth and power.
The rise in extreme poverty and disadvantage – especially in the inner areas of Britain’s conurbations and on social housing estates – began under Thatcher with unemployment and harsh policing disproportionately affecting poor BME communities.
Yet not even Thatcher would have dared shrink the state, with emphasis on denuding local government and welfare support, to the extent that Conservative-led governments have since 2010.
The government’s denial of the calamity that is Universal Credit echoes Thatcher’s attachment to the Poll Tax, which eventually brought her down.
Thatcher’s hard-right economic policies – especially keeping interest rates high to bear down on inflation with a resulting over-priced pound linked to her attacks on trade unions – demolished much of heavy industry.
Britain’s manufacturing sector has shrunk by two-thirds since 1979. While globalisation played a part, Thatcher accelerated the process by withdrawing support for British manufacturing evidenced by the fact that Britain experienced the greatest decline of any western nation. This process is still playing out in the tragedy of British Steel.
Euro-scepticism has been elevated to the mainstream because of Thatcher’s antagonism to the EU’s political project, even though she was an architect of the Single Market. Her Bruges speech in 1988 gave birth to today’s Brexit take-over of the Tory party and the extremist European Research Group; many of whom still look back to Thatcher as their lodestar.
Thatcher’s enduring legacy has been to make Britain a fundamentally different and harsher place, troubled by inequality and poverty, homelessness, low wages, and job insecurity.
Now let’s pick up the pieces and rebuild Britain.
Kevin Gulliver is Director of Birmingham-based research charity the Human City Institute, former Chair of the Centre for Community Research, and part of the SHOUT save social housing campaign. He writes in a personal capacity.
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