Hopefully, today, Wednesday the 17th of April 2013, will finally mark the end of the recently unexpected and unwelcome Thatcher-fest, which has done much to reopen the bitter wounds of division in our country that the lady in question did so much to create during the 1980's. Fortunately, the current incumbents of Downing Street have singularly failed to benefit from the multi-million pound party political celebrations surrounding the "Iron Lady"; and it is with a profound sense of relief, as well as a touch of amusement, to note that the vast majority of the great British public are not only aghast at the cost of the state-funeral-in-all-but-name to their own pockets, but have also failed to reward the Coalition's blatant propaganda exercise in the most recent opinion polls.
History will no doubt be a far less kinder judge of Margaret Thatcher's legacy than any of us will ever be; and even today the social and economic repercussions of her time in office are constantly being scrutinised, reviewed and challenged, in order to determine both the benefit and damage that they may or may not have wrought on our country. Of course, a Britain without Thatcher and therefore "Thatcherism" is, was and will always remain a completely undiscovered country, simply because she did exist, did hold power and did implement the range of socio-economic policies that irrevocably changed our nation forever. However, her acolytes, past, present and future, will always believe and will continue to profess to the heavens that without the Blessed Margaret, then Britain would have certainly gone to "hell in a handcart", lead in no small way by a small number of left-wing trade union lunatics, the enemy within, who were determined to put themselves and their membership's demands above those of the rest of the country.
Quite whether they're right or not we'll never know, as Margaret Thatcher and her party were elected to power, bringing with them the monetarist, free-market, libertarian, Victorian ideals that ultimately helped to create the de-industrialised, de-unionised, part-time, low-paid, morally bankrupt, selfish, stakeholder economy that is so celebrated today, at least by those who have benefited directly from this particularly brutal social and economic revolution. The top 10% of British society, those with the most to gain from her revolutionary capitalist thinking and associated policies have much to thank Margaret Thatcher and her political heirs for, as they have seen their fortunes soar, while the remaining 90% of the population have seen their socio-economic fortunes stagnate or simply nosedive into financial oblivion. To underpin this claim, official figures for the entirety of Thatcher's Premiership are said to show that 50% of all tax benefits for the period were in fact awarded to the top 10% of earners, a state of affairs that seems to have continued right through to the present day. It is also worth noting that in 1979 an estimated 1.7 million children were reported to be living in poverty, a figure that had soared to 3.3 million in 1990, indicating that the Thatcher "reforms" had not been such a positive move forward for those who were in the poorer economic groups of British society. During the same period, the numbers of UK pensioners living in poverty was said to have increased by a full third, rising from 3.1 million to 4.1 million during Thatcher's three terms of office.
Apologist for and supporters of Thatcher's government often point to the fact that rather than decimating British society, she and her policies actually empowered large sections of the populace, especially those aspirational groups whose dreams of personal improvement were constantly being thwarted by the sort of out-of-date socialist dogma that had previously strangled any sort of entrepreneurial spirit. To illustrate the benefits of Thatcherism, they instinctively highlight some of their more populist strategies, the wholesale privatisation of British manufacturing industries and the introduction of the "Right To Buy" legislation, both of which are claimed to have freed the working and middle classes from the drudgery of state ownership.
In reality however, neither of these measures brought any sort of social or economic freedom to the wider British population, only to those who were willing or able to take advantage of the possible windfalls that such property or share purchases might offer in the medium to long term. In the case of "Right To Buy", a property bought for £20,000 in 1979 was reported to be worth around £250,000 in 2011, a tenfold increase on its initial value, assuming of course that the original purchasers were able to withstand the various economic storms that transpired in the intervening years. In truth of course many of the people who bought their council house under the new "Right To Buy" legislation very quickly found themselves struggling to cope financially and either chose to sell the property on the open market, or found their homes being repossessed. In either case, large numbers of these newly empowered "homeowners" subsequently found themselves and their families living in private rented accommodation, or going back into local authority housing, the very place they'd started off from. It is interesting to note that in 1979, prior to Thatcher's first term of office, the number of house repossessions in the UK was said to be in the region of 3,400 a year, whilst between 1980 and 1987 this had grown to 26,000 per year (a near seven-fold increase), before dropping back to 16,000 in 1989. Between 1989 and 1991, the period marking the resignation of Margaret Thatcher and the election of her successor John Major, house repossessions had not just soared, but had gone stratospheric, with a reported 76,000 properties taken back by mortgage lenders over that same period. Although that sky-high figure very quickly reduced, even between 1991 and 2004, on average 8,000 properties were still being repossessed by lenders, who then sold them back into the property market, often at heavily discounted rates.
In truth, although millions of council properties were undoubtedly sold to their tenants, many of whom remained in them for years afterwards, a significant number undoubtedly ended up in the hands of property management groups, buy to let entrepreneurs and other private owners, including speculators and developers, who subsequently made a great deal of money from their new acquisitions. Between 1989 and 1994, large numbers of repossessed houses were reported to have found their way into the hands of these investors, helping to maintain in part the "housing bubble" that has proved to be so damaging to the UK economy. Even today, it is estimated that 53% of BTL landlords own fewer than 5 properties, which equates to about 3% of the private rented market. This is in complete contrast to the 13% of larger private landlords who are said to own a massive 74% of available private housing stocks, a fact that has no doubt been helped by both the introduction of more landlord-friendly legislation; and the extremely low interest rates currently being offered to those with large reserves of capital. At the present moment in time it has been suggested that a full 33% of all properties being sold in London alone, are in fact being purchased by private/BTL investors, helping to make the capital city largely unaffordable for those with very modest incomes.
It is certainly not true to claim that Thatcher's "Right To Buy" legislation helped to create any sort of new home owning democracy, as the current state of affairs in the UK's property market proves. In fact, it could well be argued that instead of releasing tenants from the restrictions of council home ownership, all that the new laws did was to move millions of supposedly aspirational working class people into a fresh form of wage slavery, where servicing their new mortgage took precedence over everything else; and as an aside, handing corporate bosses a new stick with which to beat their workers.
The other great social "leveller" introduced by the Thatcher government was said to be the wholesale privatisation of those British manufacturing industries that were returned to private ownership with the claim that they could only be returned to profitability by the private sector. The Conservative mantra of "everything privately owned is good; and everything publicly owned is bad" not only seemed to be risible at the time, but has proved to be so over the period of the past 30 years or so. Beginning with British Petroleum in 1979 and ending with the UK's Electricity Generators in 1990, in turn the Thatcher government systematically raided Britain's industrial base by selling off British Aerospace (1981), Cable & Wireless (1981), Amersham International (1982), National Freight Corporation (1982), Britoil (1982), Associated British Ports (1983), Enterprise Oil (1984), Jaguar (1984), British Telecom (1984), British Shipbuilders (1985), British Gas (1986), British Airways (1987), Rolls Royce (1987), British Airports Authority (1987), British Steel (1988), Water (1989) and Electricity Generation (1990). Although British Rail was the last great nationalised industry to be privatised, this was in fact sold off during John Major's Premiership; and even at the time was reportedly being criticised by that great supporter of British de-industrialisation, Margaret Thatcher! Such had become the accepted view of selling off the "family silver" that even when New Labour were returned to power under Tony Blair in 1997, they kept faith with the free-market thinking of Margaret Thatcher, by not only privatising Britain's Air Traffic Control industry, but also by copying the PFI (Private Finance Initiative's) first introduced by the Conservative's, which saw British schools, hospitals, clinics, ports, roads, bridges, etc all being built and owned by private interests, with the proviso that the public purse would be guaranteed to meet the often exorbitant rental and maintenance costs.
The other great claim of the Thatcher socio-economic revolution was that it empowered the people of Britain through personal shareholding, most notably through their involvement with the widespread privatisation of the former nationalised industries, including some of those mentioned in the previous paragraph. According to a "This Is Money" article, in 1963 an estimated 54% of UK company shares were being held by private individuals, whilst in 1981 this figure had fallen to 28%, then fallen again in 1991 to around 20%, until it was down to 11.5% in 2010. According to generally available sources, attributed to the UK Shareholders Association in 2005/6 something in the region of 10 million individuals own or hold shares in the UK, although whether or not this takes into account foreign born and based investors is unclear, but is assumed to be the case.
Obviously, any and all of these figures are open to a wide range of interpretations, including the fact that during the 1960's, when British manufacturing industries were still thriving and private business ownership would have been at its height, then it is perhaps little surprise that many production companies and therefore their shares would indeed be in private hands. The decline and disappearance of Britain's privately and publicly owned businesses no doubt accounts for much of the dramatic fall in share ownership between 1963 and 1981, as it did for the other subsequent periods noted above. Interestingly though, assuming an average figure of between 8-10 million private shareholders between 1981 and 2006, then in reality the much celebrated shareholder bonanza, talked about and promised by Thatcher and her Conservative government never really happened. That lack of widespread public benefit was possibly due to the fact that the potential for and actual cost of public participation was always greatly exaggerated by the advocates of privatisation, purely in order to offset public concerns over the proposed public sell off, of what were, after all, publicly owned assets. In the case of British Gas, only an estimated 1.5 million individuals bought shares, many of whom quickly sold their allocation on, in order to make a quick profit. Around 1 million individual investors bought shares in British Airways, whilst only 600,000 individuals bought shares in British Steel, so any suggestion that the privatisation of Britain's nationalised industries helped create a nation of stakeholders is a complete fallacy, one that was nurtured by Thatcher and her ministers to deliberately mislead the British people. Such was unreasonable haste to "flog off" Britain's family silver that little thought seems to have been given to how these sell-offs might impact our vital industries, to the extent that today 7 out of the 10 UK water companies are now owned and controlled by foreign interests, whilst 4 out of the 6 electricity generating companies in the UK are wholly owned and controlled by foreign companies.
With virtually all of the substantive UK industries having already been sold off by either the Conservative governments of Thatcher and Major, who were in turn diligently copied by the Labour administrations of Blair and Brown, inevitably finding British possessions to sell off to private corporate interests, both foreign and domestic, is becoming increasingly difficult. The obvious "prize" asset of course would be Britain's National Health Service, which with its annual turnover of an estimated £100 billion per year, is undoubtedly something worth fighting over for most of the private healthcare companies eagerly circling it at present. Thanks largely to John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, the process of preparing the NHS for full privatisation has already begun, although the majority of the British public seem to be blissfully unaware about the impending loss of their free-at-the-point-of-delivery health service. Cameron has already indicated that he intends to privatise virtually all of the "back office" services used by various police forces; and one wonders how long it will be before the police themselves become little more than privately funded security guards? Surely the next logical step?
Let us all hope that history judges Margaret Thatcher's political, economic and social legacy sooner rather than later, in order that we can learn, sooner rather than later, that she was wrong about virtually everything; and that her legacy has left us with nothing but divisiveness, bitterness, inequality, idleness, hopelessness and penury. Her true legacy could probably be paraphrased in the words of a truly great British Prime Minister - "Never in the field of British politics, was so much harm, done to so many, by so few"