More than the bouffant hair, the handbags, the power suits and pussybow blouses, it was the voice that lingered.
For anyone growing up in the UK in the Eighties, Margaret Thatcher’s voice was unforgettable. Proceedings in the House of Commons were not televised until 1989 and, until then, TV news had to make to with displaying pictures of Parliament and playing audio of the debates, which often consisted of Thatcher swatting away her opponents with her polished vowels.
That memorable voice, though, was the product of elocution lessons, which were part of a wider effort to make Thatcher more appealing. This was not the only illusion of the Conservative leader’s time in power.
One cannot question that when she became prime minister in 1979, Thatcher took over a country in a steep decline. The economy was tanking, inflation was rising, industrial relations were mired and a general post-colonial malaise had descended over the UK. Getting out of this mess was an immense challenge.
Legend has it that guided by her guru Keith Joseph and the monetarist principles of Milton Friedman, Thatcher blazed a trail to recovery and transformed Britain. That she changed the country beyond recognition is without doubt. That it was the result of a concerted plan which ultimately paid dividends is certainly debatable.
The reality is that there was a good deal of opportunism and luck to Thatcher’s early years. There were tax rises before tax cuts became de rigueur. There was a desire for closer union in Europe before Euroskepticism was born. There was pampering of unions before they became the enemy.
Then came victory in the Falklands and the Big Bang in the City of London: bold moves that reaped large rewards for Thatcher and, many would argue, for the UK. Britain gained an international role again, as “Maggie” became an interlocutor for Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Market forces, meanwhile, were creating new prosperity that blew away the cobwebs of the 1970s. Shareholders and consumers became the driving forces of a new economy. It is perhaps what Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter had in mind when he spoke of “creative destruction.”
It came at a huge cost, though. The emasculation of unionism in order to create a flexible labor market left communities with an emptiness that would never be filled. The unprecedented privatization drive spawned a new industry of stockbrokers, investment bankers, lawyers and PR executives who were able to strike it rich as inequality grew. While she claimed sell-off success, Thatcher also laid the track for the disastrous railway privatization, which set the industry back years and caused untold misery for passengers. Ultimately, Thatcher left a society divided, less just and bearing significant scars from the dogmatism that defined her later years.
The Conservative leader recalibrated the relationship between the public and private, between the collective and the individual, between the state and the investor. It is a philosophy that was also adopted by New Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and has set the tone of debate throughout Europe over the past couple of decades.
However it also provided a set of beliefs that regarded the market as close to faultless: Self-correcting and self-regulating, certainly. This thinking provided the underpinning for much of the dramatic downfall of the past few years. A financial industry that pursued profit rather than a role as facilitator in a healthy and balanced economy is perhaps a fitting culmination for the era of “individual men and women” that Thatcherism ushered in.
As the UK and the eurozone seek to recover from this crisis (which in some countries, such as Greece, also has much to do with the public sector), Thatcher’s creed is serving as a manual for some leaders. Rolling back the role of the state and making labor markets supple are at the heart of policymaking.
As we look back on Thatcher’s legacy and ahead to what might be in store for the UK and Europe, there is one aspect that is not up for debate. Whether you believe in creative destruction or think it is a fallacy, the only way you can truly judge it is to assess what has been destroyed and to evaluate what has been created. In this respect, the Thatcher transformation seems far from glorious and, like her voice, more of a deception.