Iron Lady or Tin Man? The Only Thing Standing In the Way of Thatcher's Legacy Are the Facts

Margaret Thatcher has been described as “Britain’s greatest post-war Prime Minister”, and the “Iron Lady” who “stared down elites, union bosses and communists” and “rescued Britain from economic ruin”.

“She didn’t just lead our country, she saved our country,” frothed Prime Minister David Cameron. She was “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty” US President Barack Obama said.

There is an Academy Award winning Hollywood movie depicting her life (“The Iron Lady”). The Daily Mail, the most widely read British tabloid, is calling for a state funeral.

But Margaret Thatcher was not an Iron Lady. She was a vain and hollow Tin Man and equally lacking a heart. Contrary to much of the commentary, she was never bravely independent: she always had an eye to the headlines and was always mindful of what she could get away with.

Her election campaigns were run by the advertising industry. And her public relations were set in the capable hands of the right-wing propaganda guru and advertising mogul Maurice Saatchi. It was he, more than anyone, who was responsible for the Iron Lady image.

Her media support was huge, and she worked to expand it. In 1981, after a secret meeting with Rupert Murdoch, she agreed to waiver the Fair Trading Act and allowed him to buy The Times, the UK’s leading broadsheet.

Under Murdoch’s ownership, The Times’ editorial policy shifted markedly to the right, becoming an “organ of Thatcherism”, as former Times Chief Editor Sir Harold Evans describes it.

Her talk of individualism and self-sufficiency was equally the work of PR. Her early political adventures were only possible because of her husband’s enormous wealth, something her campaign managers worked diligently to hide.

For all her talk of ‘liberty and democracy’ she was a friend of dictators and tyrants. She described the Indonesian dictator General Suharto as “one of our very best and most valuable friends” as he carried out his genocide in East Timor.

She took tea with the murderous Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet whilst the Spanish courts wanted him for human rights violations. During the Falklands conflict, she ordered the sinking of the Belgrano, killing over 300 young Argentine conscripts and rejoiced.

Along with US President Ronald Reagan, she denounced Nelson Mandela and the ANC as terrorists.

Nor was she much the champion of ‘liberty’. One of Thatcher’s legacies was the installation of the Ring of Steel, the surveillance cordon surrounding the City of London. Its installation was justified on the grounds that the UK faced the “threat of terrorism”, as Orwell predicted. She also increased police powers more generally, offering the same pretext.

Her noise about ‘free markets’ was also more of a PR tactic than anything else. According to the respected non-partisan think tank Institute for Fiscal Studies, state spending increased each year under Thatcher. The exact opposite of what her supporters claim.

She did not support ‘free markets’ abroad either. Her government was constantly embroiled in scandals surrounding illegal subsidies to foreign governments: the Turkish metro subsidies and arms subsidies to the Malaysian regime, to name but two.

Her economic record was poor. The average economic growth rate during the 1980s was 2.3% – roughly the same as the previous decade and much lower than the two decades immediately following the war.

And whilst she successfully lowered inflation, her dogmatic focus thereof generated more than three million unemployed citizens.

The deregulation policies she introduced ended Britain’s stay as a manufacturing powerhouse. Once upon a time, Britain had three of the world’s leading industrial companies: ICI, a chemicals manufacturer, GEC, an electronics company and Rolls Royce.

Today, two of these three no longer exist and Rolls Royce is a shadow of its former self. Under Thatcher, Britain lost one fifth of its manufacturing base in two years.

As former French President Nikolas Sarkozy said “The United Kingdom has no industry anymore”.

The deindustrialization disaster was partly cushioned by the discovery of the North Sea oil, as Conservative MP Lord Ian Gilmour pointed in his review Dancing With Dogma. For which she cannot pretend to take credit.

Her domestic policy programme was defined by an assault on organized labour, particularly the trade union movement. Her assault on trade unions can only be described as tragic.

Trade unions were (and still are) popular institutions that allow poor people to pool resources and press their demands in politics. The trade unionists who Thatcher took arms against were overwhelmingly working class people just fighting for a better life.

There have also been sad economic consequences from decline in trade union power. In their book Going South, economists Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson estimate that the weakening of trade unions has led to a 4 per cent drop in the share of GDP claimed by wages.

What is more, a 2012 IMF working paper found that the sharp rise in UK inequality since the early 1980s largely resulted from the loss of trade union bargaining power. And rising inequality, the paper reports, explains the higher levels of private debt and the UK’s record high trade deficit.

Her campaigning against “corrupt trade union bosses” was largely propaganda. Yes, there were corrupt trade union leaders. But there were plenty more corrupt CEOs. Signally, her government dealt much more with the former than with the latter.

She was capable of extraordinary dishonesty. During the height of the Irish Republican Army’s hunger strikes and bombings, she claimed that her government was not communicating with them. Yet it was revealed as soon as Tony Blair came to power that the Thatcher government held a secret back channel to the IRA the whole time.

Her slashing benefits and trimming the welfare state created skyrocketing child poverty. “One in three British babies born in poverty,” as “child poverty has increased as much as three-fold since Margaret Thatcher was elected,” the press reported at the time (Observer, 1997).

Inequality also soared. IPPR, a left-leaning think tank, calculated that between 1970-2005 the bottom 90%’s share of national income dropped from 71% – 57%. They also found that two-hundred billion pounds a year of could be saved if inequality were to return to 1970 levels.

Today, inequality is growing faster in the UK than any other developed country, according to the OECD. Scotland has been hit harder than anywhere. Those in the poorest ten percent of Scots have a life expectancy 14 years fewer than the top ten percent

Thatcher is also largely responsible for the Conservative Party becoming unelectable in Scotland. In 1989, she chose it as the testing ground for the hated Poll Tax (now called Council Tax).

The tax was unambiguously regressive, taking the tax burden off rich property owners and throwing it onto tenants. The Tories were never popular in Scotland to begin with. They’re now unelectable and Scotland is considering leaving the UK.

Her reforms were hugely socially divisive and resulted in more strikes and lost days of work than any time since. They also oversaw some of the largest riots in British history.

And as the musical Billy Elliot puts it: “The economic infrastructure / Must be swept away / To make way for call centres / And lower rates of pay.”

She may have won three general elections, but she never won a majority of the popular vote. And, polls suggest she would have been voted out of office at the end of her first term were it not for the Falklands conflict.

David is a post-grad at ANU with a Masters in Economic Policy.