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Lady Thatcher’s utilitarian legacy

12 April 2013

She left paradoxes that Britain still struggles with, says Paul Vallely

MARGARET THATCHER saved Britain, or destroyed it, depending on which commentator you choose to read. The truth is that she did both, in different ways. There can be little doubt that she reinvigorated an economy that was hidebound by excessive government regulation, restrictive trade-union practices, a weak currency, and an enfeebled business culture - problems to which the previous generation of politicians, of both parties, had lacked the vigour or vision to find answers.

But she also accelerated the decline of British manufacturing industry, created mass unemployment, destroyed entire communities, and instigated financial deregulation in the City, which paved the way for the global recession of recent times. The truth about Lady Thatcher does not simply lie somewhere between these two polarities.

Someone with her fondness for reducing national issues to domestic metaphor might begin by quoting the proverb that you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. To those enjoying the meal, the Thatcherite omelette was undoubtedly a tasty dish. Those whose lives were broken would tell a different story. Her supporters shrugged that this was an evil necessity. Rising unemployment and recession were "a price well worth paying" to get inflation down, as a Tory Chancellor, Norman Lamont, was later to put it.

Such a view is, at heart, utilitarian. It holds that a society's purpose must be to maximise the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But, as the recent debate between church leaders and government ministers on welfare reform has shown, Christianity has fundamental questions to raise about any system that assumes that it is necessary for one man, or one minority, to suffer for the good of the people. The insistence of Lady Thatcher in 1983 that "the denial of personal choice is an outright denial of Christian faith" reveals a selective and rather eccentric notion of the values embodied in the Gospels.

The British economy may have been on a sounder footing by the time she resigned, but it is incontestable that in her time the poor got poorer and inequality increased. Traditional industries such as shipbuilding, mining, and steelmaking may have been in long-term decline, but Thatcherism's acceleration of that process affected particular communities disproportionately.

Germany shows that a different approach was possible. That is why those who, like me, live in the north will have noticed a markedly different response to the news of Lady Thatcher's death to the tone struck by our largely London-based national media.

The unskilled working man in places such as the north of England has been particularly badly hit by the Thatcher revolution, which later governments, of both parties, have failed to reverse. The urgency of welfare reform is a consequence of the depletion of Britain's manufacturing base, on a scale that not even the Luftwaffe managed. The number of people in out-of-work benefits trebled in the Thatcher years, from two to six million, and today's "underclass" of unemployables is its legacy.

So, too, is a recession, now more prolonged than that of the Great Depression, which was triggered by a banking crisis rooted in Lady Thatcher's deregulation of the City. So, too, is a housing crisis that grew from the Thatcherite prohibition on councils' building more houses to replace those she sold off.

For all her rhetoric about prudence, saving, and hard work, Lady Thatcher has bequeathed us a culture that is hedonistic and debt-laden. Her insistence that "there is no such thing as society" has left us atomised as well as acquisitive. That was the underbelly of the entrepreneurial spirit that she so effectively unleashed. Her legacy has left us paradoxes that we must now struggle to resolve.

Paul Vallely is a policy and communications consultant at paulvallely.com. He is writing a biography of Pope Francis for Bloomsbury.

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