Saturday, 3 January 2009

Thatcher's legacy

Labour blogger Yousuf Hamid has written a surprisingly upbeat post regarding Margaret Thatcher's economic impact on Scotland, and despite a decade or so of Labour government at both Westminster and in a devolved Holyrood administration, there's little doubt about the lasting legacy of her policies.

Of course, it's axiomatic that the old socialist Labour party had to modernise itself to persuade the electorate to vote it back into office; Clause IV was dumped, the Militant tendency shown the door and the trade unions marginalised. A fresh-faced new leader - Tony Blair - completed the reinvention of the party started by Neil Kinnock, the Tories imploded under John Major and 'new Labour' won a landslide victory in 1997.

However, despite some left-leaning policies under Labour - such as the National Minimum Wage and other 'workers' rights' measures - Thatcher's legacy remained. The unions stayed emasculated, council house sales continued and the privatisation programme remained (albeit on a much smaller scale, because the 'family silver' can only be sold off once, and would be all but depleted eventually!).

And while many politicians may be reluctant to say so explicitly, they recognise the economic benefits of Thatcherism by way of wealth creation and in terms of a couple of the totems of the 'property-owning democracy', namely share and house ownership. Indeed, they knew that in terms of electability they had no choice but to embrace elements of the Thatcher legacy, because they were aware that much of the electorate had benefited from her reforms as well.

There is, of course, no need to rehash the downside of free markets generally and of Thatcherism in particular; Yousuf eloquently performs that task. On the other hand, his uncritical tone regarding council house and share ownership should not go unchallenged. Thatcher's privatisation programmes were in some regards little more than electoral bribes, and many of the 'Sids' who bought the shares did so merely to make a quick profit on the under-priced public offerings, thus penalising taxpayers in general and leaving in their wake those at the bottom of the ladder who couldn't/didn't get involved. Likewise, many ex-council house tenants sold their heavily-discounted properties for substantial profits, which of course in effect came out of the pockets of purchasers who were not in such a fortunate position, and one legacy of this is now a shortage of affordable social housing to rent.

Of course, the country's shift leftwards has continued under the premiership of Gordon Brown, albeit that a major plank of this - the current Keynesian economic stimulus package - was necessitated by impending economic catastrophe rather than designed. But even with this morning's Times forecasting a second bank bail out, a full scale renationalisation of the "commanding heights of the economy" scented by left-wingers seems about as likely as the fantasists' hopes that Barack Obama will fundamentally change Israel's stance in the Middle East.

In the Scottish context, however, it's usually assumed that there's a degree of asymmetry between the moral and political outlook north of the border and that of the UK as a whole (and England in particular). While there's no real reason to take issue with that, the analysis above should apply equally to Scotland, albeit slightly watered down.

Indeed, in an unguarded moment Alex Salmond did of course speak for the whole of Scotland when he said of Thatcherism: "We didn't mind the economic side so much." And while he qualified this by saying, "But we didn't like the social side at all", since the SNP's 2007 election campaign was bankrolled by a well-known social conservative, perhaps Mr Salmond was being a tad disingenuous in that regard!

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