40 years since her election, Margaret Thatcher still casts a long shadow over Britain

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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9 Responses to “40 years since her election, Margaret Thatcher still casts a long shadow over Britain”

  1. Blissex

    The long list of right-wing attacks on workers and other low-income people is correct, but it omits the biggest: starting the huge increase in the inflation rate of housing costs. It is housing cost inflation that has rally hit most workers and low-income people, in terms of sheer thousands-per-year cost.
    Omitting that is typical of “leftoids”, and it is a very big omission because with that omission there remains a huge mystery a the core of UK politics: if the Conservatives (and less so New Labour) have done so many nasty policies, how comes they have won so many elections with so many votes?
    The answer is Labour’s main political problem: higher housing cost inflation redistributes from poorer to richer, and many millions of people mostly in southern England have benefited from that redistribution. The result is that as long as house price inflation was high Conservative (and New Labour) governments kept winning elections, and the only cases in the past 40 years when a sitting government has lost the elections have followed falls in house cost inflation.
    Most of the millions of people who worship Margaret Thatcher (and Tony Blair) for having inflated enormously the cost of their houses are not pure rentiers, they derive half or more of their income from work, but still they have been voting for rentier politics from the Conservatives (and New Labour) for 40 years. What Labour really needs to do is to show them that their true interests are for better wages, jobs, job security, job t&cs, more reliable social insurance, not for bigger housing cost inflation.
    But as long as it is not understood that the Conservatives bought millions of votes with higher housing cost inflation, and that is the key political factor for the electoral success of the Conservatives (and New Labour), then the Labour majority of the Labour party is politically blind.

  2. Dave Roberts

    I think Mr Gulliver should explain why his charity Human City Institute is over four months late in its returns to the charity commission and what he actually does for all of the money he receives. The article is stating the obvious. We all know this because people of my age lived through it. Nothing to see, move along.

  3. Patrick Newman

    Living through Thatcher was bad enough – appalling for many in the working class. What is the BBC’s motivation in running this series – it’s like being the victim in a Jeremy Kyle’s programme.

  4. Dave Roberts

    Once again you have lost the plot Patrick.Whatever you think of Thatcher she carried out a revolution in this country which is now accepted by everyone except the loony left. Even in his less lucid moments, Corbyn accepts the status que. And in their earlier years were a good band!

  5. Patrick Newman

    Get your terms right, Dave. You obviously don’t take much interest in politics! If there was a revolution it was a counter-revolution against the welfare state and social democracy which she prosecuted with incompetency and which the Osborne – Cameron – May (and soon to be Johnson) axis is trying to complete. A good example is academies – the first stage of privatising education. Thatcher never got past thinking about vouchers. Thatcher lived in a strange world of her own caricature – “we are a grandma”!

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