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
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