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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Don't believe the myth of Thatcherism: The 1970s were great

A topical piece from the archive: this article of mine on the neoliberal myth that Margaret Thatcher 'saved' Britain in 1979,  from The First Post/The Week in 2009.



Anonymous said...

Great article Mr. Clark. The Masters of the Universe can't stand to see the little people happy. The "crisis" of the '70s was a crisis for capital not workers.

K Naylor said...

Thatcher certainly did not "save" Britain: she destroyed British manufacturing, what had actually made Britain a rich country in the very C19th she claimed to admire. She was unnecarily harsh when destroying mining communities with their own welfare institutions and traditions.

However, she provided a moral impetus that contributed to the end of Soviet imperialist domination in what was then "Eastern Europe". However,the gratuitous "The Bitch is Dead" comments are vulgar and unbecoming of decent left wingers.

Ironically, those claiming "their right" to trample on her grave" are just such products of a callous and egocentric society that Thatcher inadvertently , perhaps, created.

Neil Clark said...

Hi John, Absolutely.
Hi Karl, Mrs T destroyed manufacturing and a genuine mixed economy which worked for the majority and turned us into a bankocracy.

K Naylor said...

Agreed Neil. But the Soviet Union had no future. There was no realistic possibility of it converging with capitalism nor becoming a social democracy.

Thatcher's legacy can be criticised by Tories as well. She destroyed the very conservatism she affected to promote. She was neo-liberal, and a devoteee of Hayey who was anti-communist AND anti-conservative.

Neil Clark said...

Hi Karl,
re SU.-not so sure that convergence couldn't have happened. Prior to Thatcherism, western european countries were becoming more & more socialist, and some of the eastern communist ones were becoming more liberal eg Hungary. What most people protesting in eastern europe in 1989 wanted was to get rid of the bad aspects of life under communism, eg restrictions on freedom to travel, not to throw everything out and adopt a heartless, dog-eat-dog capitalist model with mass privatisation and large scale unemployment.
But big business & global capital didn't want democratic socialism/social democracy or liberal forms of communism to develop and to be 'the norm', they wanted neo-liberal capitalism to take over in both east and west.
Mrs T was a neo-liberal on the economy and a neo-conservative on foreign policy: what a terrible mix!

K Naylor said...

Neil "What most people protesting in eastern europe in 1989 wanted was to get rid of the bad aspects of life under communism, eg restrictions on freedom to travel, not to throw everything out and adopt a heartless, dog-eat-dog capitalist model with mass privatisation and large scale unemployment"

Absolutely. But the system collapsed from within. The question then was what to replace it with. The extreme Balcerowicz Plan was actually abandoned by 1992 in the face of popular protests. But freedom is freedom.

The liberation from communism only to replace it with a state ideology of extreme neoliberalism ( Hayek's ideas were influential & he was anti-conservative and anti-communist ), was part of a historical continuity. Top down modernisation and "Market Bolshevism".

It is interesting that we don't really hear much about the other once prominent dissidents in Hungary and Poland who did not embrace neoliberalism nor travel with Bush II's wars and militarism.They are the forgotten now.

Only self regarding windbags such as Adam Michnik, who I have criticised many times on my Central European blog. Ironically, it was Michnik who claimed "the worst thing about Communism is what comes after".

Even more ironically, he fails to have applied it to himself when he fell in with other "dissidents"such as Gyorgy Konrad who advocated the Iraq War, mostly through uncritical support for the USA for liberating them from Soviet domination.

Many who admired Thatcher's role in providing a moral impetus to destroy Soviet domination are equally as critical of the neoliberal policies then imposed by Balcerowicz, a man who claimed Milton Friedman as his ïnspiration".They know this a "Taczïrizm"( not a word, but how they say it )

The results in Chrzanow, a small town between Krakow and Katowice, are sad. Once the centre of Fablok, a major locomotive manufacturing firm, is a tiny fragment of what it was.Mines and manufacturing decimated as managers asset stripped the firms.

Mass unemployment followed. Working men reduced to eating out of bins or drinking themselves to death on cheap sulphurised wine ( jabcok ). The young are leaving in droves. It was called by one student of mine a "zombie town".

DBC Reed said...

The graphs I've seen show the balance of payments heading down at 45 degrees from 1980 onwards .Papers like the Telegraph are expressing serious alarm at this; the Tory tabloids> Mail etc remain concerned only with house prices. Another thing the Tories did besides getting everybody tied to a flaming great mortgage ( so they would n't dare strike) was what's not often mentioned. Circa 1983 they abolished the last remnants of the Truck Acts so delivering up everybody's wages to the banks.Previously you could opt to be paid in cash; not thereafter. So the banks got people's wages and mortgages. With Big Bang they went mad with both.

Neil Clark said...

Hi Karl: yes, those who opposed communism and then neoliberalism & Bush's foreign policy are not the favoured dissidents. They were dropped like a stone if they didnt go along with radical economic 'reform' ie mass privatisation & the neocon foreign policy. The sad story of Chrzanow has been repeated across the region, yet all we hear about is what a great 'success' it's all been since 1989.

DBCReed: great to hear from you. Interesting isn't it how the BoP was regarded as such an important indicator in the pre-Thatcherite era, but after we adopted neoliberalism, it suddenly wasnt so important. v.good point about the Truck Acts & Big Bang. Whole point of Thatcherism was to transform us from a genuine mixed economy democracy to a bankocracy.

DBC Reed said...

What is very depressing is that even the "liberal lefty" editorials say of Thatcher "But ,of course the unions needed taming." No they did n't. The whole political establishment went on a wild goose chase trying to say that the unions "caused" inflation. This was in spite of Milton Friedman winning the 1976 Nobel Prize for saying it was a purely monetary phenomenon and Enoch Powell, of all people, saying tirelessly that the unions were" pure as the driven snow ..innocent as new born lambs". The unions were only trying to keep their members wages up with inflation.But this would not do in age of mass economic ignorance.2015 nPAsia2

Ian said...

This article was very interesting. When discussing the legacy of Thatcher, an argument that supporters of Thatcher repeatedly use is that before Thatcher came to power in 1979 the country was in appalling mess and if it was not for Thatcher, the country would have faced economic oblivion. The polices of Thatcher may have been hars but they were necessary evil to get the country back on its feet. It is a change to see an article which challenges this view. The 1983 Labour manifesto argued that before Thatcher came to power, the economy was growing, unemployment was falling and living standards were raising. I remember when this article was first shown on this blog, some people in the comments criticised the article and argued the country was in decline and Thatcher came to the rescue version is correct.

Pre Thatcher Britian is an area I would like to research more. Is there more material on the internet which supports the arguments made in this article. It has been argued if pre Thatcher Britain was so awful why did the Tories not get a much bigger majority?

jock mctrousers said...

Hi Neil, well said! And what a relief it was to hear you on RT today, just after the end of the Thatchoid festivities - I suppose you'll post the clip here soon. Some morbid fascination stopped me turning the telly off, but it hurt! We expect the BBC to be one long Tory party broadcast, but they even roped in the church guy - the Bishop of London? (I'm not clear if that's another name for the Archbishop of Canterbury, but who cares frankly?) And I have to say though I've always liked the queen, I think she cheapened herself by not feigning illness on the day. On the other hand, the likeable thing about her is that she's a model of conscientiousness, so I suppose she had to be there. I like to think it was her most irksome ever duty, but what do I know?

Anyway, after listening to the drivel it was a breath of fresh air to hear you on RT.

R4, R5Live, BBC tv... no getting away from it. £10M? I wonder how many disabled people died today after being found fit for work? Nauseating.

Neil Clark said...

DBC Reed: agreed- v.depressing how much of the liberal-left has bought into the Thatcherite myth that Britain needed 'saving' in 1979. In the late 70s our economy was performing v.well indeed with full benefit to govt revenues of NSea Oil still to come. Thatcher squandered this golden legacy.

Ian: thanks- it's so important to challenge this neoliberal narrative about 70s Britain.
Chris Dillow did a great piece on his blog on how the only 'crisis' in the 70s was a fall in corporate profits. We're in a genuine crisis today: rapidly falling living standards, high u/e especially youth unemployment, poor balance of payments, but today's very real crisis is under-hyped as capital is doing very nicely.
And as you say, if things were so terrible and Britain in 1979 really was a hell on earth, then why didn't Thatcher win by a landslide? Had Callaghan called an election for Oct 78, it's v.very likely that Lab would have won and we'd never have had Thatcher as PM. There was nothing inevitable at all about her rise to power.

jock: really great to hear from you! Thanks v.much, pleased you caught the RT interview. I don't think we've heard as much unsubstantiated nonsense as we've heard this week on the 'achievements' of MrsT since the 'Iraq has WMD' claims in the lead up to the war in 2003.
The claims that 'MrsT made Britain 'great' again', and 'saved' the country are fact-free. She reclaimed the Falklands? It was her govt which announced the withdrawal of the Endurance which encouraged Argentina to invade in the first place. 'Rescued our economy?': economically we did much better in the much-maligned 60s and 70s than we did in the Thatcher era.

Ian said...


An area which interests me is the issue of strikes. Supporters of Thatcher argue that in pre-Thatcher Britain the country was plagued by strikes and the unions were dominated by dinasours and extremists hell bent on wrecking the country. How valid is this view. Has the extent of strikes in the 1970s been exaggerated and have the unions been unfairly demonised?

I would be interested to see material which studies this issue in depth.

Ian said...


An issues which I am interested in is the issue of strikes. Supporters of Thatcher argue that pre Thatcher Britain was plagued by strikes and the unions were dominated by extremists and dinosaurs hell bent on wrecking the country. How valid is this view? Has the extent of strikes in 70s Britain been exaggerated? Were the unions unfairly demonised?

jock mctrousers said...

# Ian "Is there more material on the internet which supports the arguments made in this article."

One of the best pieces I've ever read is in the Winter 2012/13 issue 64 of Lobster magazine, which is now published free online at

The article is
'Nobody Told Us We Could Do This' by Simon Matthews, which discusses the partisan behaviour of the civil service, makes a strong case that the Treasury deliberately misled Callaghan, and suggests an inappropriately pro-active role of the 'civil service' in bringing about the current coalition monstrosity.

I've sent direct links to this to people, but they didn't work out, but you'll find it easy enough.

Also can't recommend enough that you have a look at the 3rd volume from the Glasgow Universtiy Media Group, 'Really Bad News', following on from 'Bad News' and 'More Bad News'. 'Really Bad News' is quite short, and designed to be more accessible, summing up and expanding on the findings of the first 2 volumes. In short, they compare media coverage of the Heath/Wilson/Callaghan era with actual government statistics, and show that the reporting 'leaned very heavily to one side'.

You can buy it for 1 penny on Amazon here:

Online again, Max and Stacy, in their inimitable way, succinctly nail Thatcher's legacy here:

K Naylor said...

In think the late 1970s consensus was doomed but this did not mean that Thatcher's extremist policies or neoliberal "shock therapy" were either an ethical or even effective way to go about it. Incidently Peter Hitchens has called Thatcher a "tragic failure" and has some interesting sincere conservative criticisms of the legacy of Thatcher.

"Was privatisation so wonderful? Personally, I think British Telecom is just as bad – in a different way – as the old Post Office Telephones. The privatisation of electricity, and the resulting dissipation of our nuclear skills, is one of the reasons we will soon be having power cuts. The hurried and mistaken closure of the coal mines is another"

"At least the old nationalised industries actually dug coal, forged steel and built ships. And at least the old industries provided proper jobs for men, and allowed them to support their families. Young mothers didn’t need to go out to work"

"As for council house sales, that policy was in the end a huge tax-funded subsidy to the private housing industry, a vast release of money into the housing market that pushed prices up permanently and – once again – broke up settled communities. What’s conservative about that? And why, come to that, didn’t she reward the brave Nottingham and Derby miners, who defied Arthur Scargill, by saving their pits?"

Ian said...


In a previous post I raised the issue if pre Thatcher Britain was so awful why did Thatcher not get a much bigger majority in the 1979 election. In addition, if Thatcher had saved a broken country the electorate should have been very grateful. If this was the case, why did Thatcher never get more than 44% of the vote in subsequent elections.