Contemporary audiences with no memory of the 1980s might associate the nickname ‘Iron Lady’ with a world volleyball icon rather than a Cold War politician, but for anyone with recollections of that decade – particularly those raised in the United Kingdom – one association for that epithet towers above all others: Margaret Thatcher, the nation’s prime minister for no less than an historic eleven years (1979-1990).
Thatcher is characterised by many – and not merely her ideological enemies – as having smashed the post-war consensus that defined the UK in the post-1945 period. Through her championing of monetarism and her emphasis on the individual and the family (as opposed to a purportedly ‘extinct’ society), the iconic Conservative leader bulldozed the existing social contract and created a harsher and more anomic Britain defined by relentless competition bordering on social Darwinism.
This thesis is a seductive one; when reading of free school milk programmes now enjoyed by children in emerging markets, or of privatisation programmes with results other than merely making the already-wealthy into neo-feudal lords in helicopters, it is tempting to conclude that Mrs. Thatcher really did change Britain beyond recognition – and not always for the better.
But taking the Really Long View, we at Mediolana wonder whether a decade plus of handbag-themed politics at 10 Downing Street was actually as radical as the political science textbooks (and not a few commentators) would have us believe:
1. Thatcherism = Reaganomics? When Thatcher’s reign came to an end on that memorable late November evening in 1990, Britain was a country where university education was not merely free, but where students’ cost of living was significantly subsidised by annual free gifts of money in the thousands of pounds. The idea that the United Kingdom would somehow wish to emulate the USA’s higher education model – now transmogrifying into a seriously ominous economic bubble – was not even a glint in a policymaker’s eye.
2. Relentless Monetarism? Mrs. Thatcher famously averred that she was not for changing course, but this is actually precisely what her administration did in the mid-1980s when faced with the stark reality that velocity theories of money, like Keynesianism before them, were not quite the panacea that was initially anticipated.
3. The State Will Wither Away? As Mark Mazower (presently Professor of History at Columbia University) drily notes in Dark Continent – his epic history of twentieth century Europe – the proportion of the UK’s economy under state auspices was almost identical at either end of the Thatcher era. It could have been even higher had Britain’s North Sea oil boom been invested in a Norway- or Qatar-style sovereign wealth fund instead of being frittered away on higher social security costs which were (with no little irony) due to the structural unemployment created by the monetarist fad.