Margaret Thatcher’s Passing: The Roots of Hatred

Mrs Thatcher was born in 1925 so in one sense her death on April 8th 2013 after years of declining health would not normally be an occasion for surprise.  For the vast numbers of people in Britain and overseas who admired what she achieved as Prime Minister, there is, nonetheless, a deep sense of loss and sadness.

What is a surprise for people in many parts of Britain, and overseas, is the demented hatred for her expressed predominantly by two groups of British people – those in the former mining districts of Durham and South Yorkshire, and (predictably) those in scaberous left-wing groupouscules such as the Socialist Workers (most of whom were born after 1979 so were at most 11 when Mrs Thatcher left office in 1990.

As reported in the Times, a Facebook account “The Witch is Dead Party” by a 45 year-old drama teacher at the University of East London, invited its followers to celebrate Mrs Thatcher’s death at 37 street parties being organised.

Predictably a few Labour MPs have voiced similar sentiments.  Thus Glenda Jackson MP, one-time actress, returning to a more familiar bit-part role talked in the House of Commons, assembled on April 10th to pay respect to Mrs T, of the “heinous social, economic and spiritual damage she wreaked upon this country”.  Or, another especially thoughtful and measured summing up of Mrs Thatcher’s life and achievement from Ronnie Campbell, MP for Blyth Valley in County Durham, on BBC2 Newsnight April 10th: “Mrs Thatcher sacked thousands and thousands of miners, killed whole communities, closed down the shipyards and closed down manufacturing.”

What is the truth about Britain when Mrs Thatcher came into office on May 3rd 1979?

May 3rd 1979 was preceded by a decade of mounting chaos under three Prime Ministers – first Edward Heath, Conservative (1970-74), then Harold Wilson, Labour (1974-76), then James Callaghan, Labour (1976-79).  The chief feature of all their periods of office was virtually unmanageable workforces in large sections of heavy industry – coal, railways, vehicles, steel, shipyards, in particular.  These were all in the public sector at the time and trades union leaders took full advantage of the perception that, faced with strikes, the taxpayer represented by the politicians would always in the end meet their demands – often for as much as a 25% pay increase in one year.  The combined effect of arrogant trades union leaders, completely divorced from the realities of earning a living, a truculent workforce full of their entitlement to unearned wages, and demoralised managements was, to list only the outstanding features of mounting chaos:

  • 126 million working days lost in the ten years 1970-1979[1].
  • Despite rigid controls on the cash for holidays and overseas investment, the Pound Sterling halved in value against the Deutschemark, our principal industrial competitor, in the 9 years from 1971-79.
  • Britain having to ask for an IMF (International Monetary Fund) bailout in 1976, like Greece and Cyprus today.
  • In the infamous Winter of Discontent (1978-79) the dead lay unburied in local government cemeteries, rubbish piled up in the streets, access to hospitals was controlled by ignorant, self-appointed shop stewards of the National Union of Public Employees.
  • In 1973 a fuel shortage culminated in the three-day working week – when dining by candlelight took on a whole new meaning.
  • Thanks in part to the antics of people like “Red Robbo” a militant trades unionist employed by the car firm British Leyland[2], British car production halved in the 1970s from 1.9 million in 1972 to 850,000 in 1979,  The (Labour) government’s response was to provide BL with a further £450 million of taxpayers’ money in 1976 (£1,500 million today).

Commentators who continually maintain that Mrs T “divided” the nation, as if all were sweetness and light in the decade before she became Prime Minister, should take a long hard look at these facts.  Those under 50, too young to remember the 1970s, and priests like the Dean of St Paul’s (who is actually due to give the bidding prayer at Lady Thatcher’s funeral) might try to imagine how frightened British people were by these terrible happenings which were accompanied by price increases of over 200%[3] in the 10 years of the 1970s, and how relieved they were during the 1980s when ten year price increases were reduced by a factor of 3 to 69%, and more than halved again to 27.5% in the next decade as the “divisive” policies took further effect.

The British Coal Industry 1970-79

For 50 years deep-mined coal has been in competition with oil and gas in every industrial country and without exception this central fact has caused more industrial unrest than in any other major industry.  In the two decades 1960-1979 before Mrs Thatcher took office in the United Kingdom, successive British governments, Labour and Conservative alike, strove to limit the amount of taxpayer subsidy going to the uneconomic miners under the management of the Nationalised Coal Board, while at the same time, the (nationalised) Central Electricity Generating Board reduced its demand for British coal as it (a) brought on stream the first of its fleet of nuclear electricity stations (Magnox) and (b) increased its purchases of South African opencast coal.  While the CEGB set its own (non-traded) price for nuclear electricity, the level of the subsidy needed for British deep-mined coal can be gauged from the fact that in the mid 1970s the lowest selling price of British coal was £42 per tonne (most mine costs were much higher than this) compared with around £15 per tonne for South African landed coal on British quaysides.

While there is always a case for retaining domestic production for strategic reasons with say a 10% subsidy, no government can contemplate continuing to subsidise up to 70% of the true cost of anything, especially when there is a home-grown alternative as in coal’s case – natural gas (from 1964),  nuclear from 1970, oil from 1974.

Faced with these realities systematic phasing out of deep-mined coal production has had to be achieved and successive British governments attempted to do this over the 12 years from 1960 to 1972 with a minimum of strife, lubricated by huge subsidies and pay-offs to miners, amounting to several years’ wages spread over the period.  Actually more pits were closed in the 1970s than in the 1980s under Mrs Thatcher, but it has to be acknowledged that this was met with less opposition than in the 1980s because unemployment was then much higher than in the earlier decades.

The British Shipping Industry in the 1970s

While the demise of the British coal industry was inevitable given the alternative fuels which became economically available from the mid 1960s, the collapse of shipbuilding was not.  Faced with falling orders and rising unit costs, the Labour government produced its sovereign remedy for an industry’s ills, namely nationalisation via the Aerospace and Shipbuilding Industries Act of 1977.  This created British Aerospace and British Shipbuilders.  British Aerospace was denationalised by the Thatcher government and as BAE Systems is today responsible for the only remaining UK large shipbuilding capacity, focussed exclusively on naval ships and submarines, dependent on the UK defence budget.

British Shipbuilders’ inheritance was a grim one.  Its shipyards were a byword for restrictive practices and demarcation disputes, entirely absent from its principal competitors in Germany, the Netherlands, Japan and Korea.  Coupled with the wage inflation of 200%+ noted above, though offset to a degree by the 50% devaluation against the Deutschemark, these restrictive practices made the new company hopelessly uncompetitive, and by the end of the 1980s all but the naval yards had been closed.  All that remains today is a scattering of ship repair businesses.  The boom in cruise liners which was becoming evident in the 1980s has entirely passed it by, so that even the replacement of the iconic Queen Elizabeth II was built in France.

While the inherited factors of under-investment in modern shipyard equipment, computer-aided design, and engineering brains generally were partly responsible, all of these could have been corrected if the management skill and resolve had been there.  Probably the only way to have obtained this expertise would have been to woo one or more of the Korean majors like STX who have successfully established a world class shipyard at Turku in Finland.  The establishment of offshore drilling platforms has however updated some former shipyards in the UK and employed many of the staff.

Establishing a Modern Car Industry in the UK

Mrs Thatcher’s government did achieve just this transplantation of expertise in the car industry.  Here, first Nissan in Sunderland in 1986, then Toyota at Derby, and later Honda at Swindon have established factories responsible today for more cars of world-beating quality (around 1 million) than the ramshackle, low quality British car industry made in 1979 (about 850,000[4]).  The total number of jobs created at the Nissan factory itself, in its suppliers, and in the adjacent ports which ship around 400,000 cars to export markets, is in the region of 30,000.  These are nearly all highly skilled jobs which go a very long way to replacing the jobs lost in the mines of County Durham and the shipyards of the Tyne and Wear area. One might have thought that all this would have prompted the local socialist MP, Ronnie Campbell, to praise Mrs Thatcher rather than talk as we have seen of “closing down manufacturing”.

In the early 1980s Nissan needed a lot of persuading to locate their main overseas plant in what by reason of its recent industrial history was unpromising territory, but the Thatcher government reached agreement with Nissan in 1984.   Aware of the demarcation disputes which had plagued shipbuilding for generations, Nissan insisted that there should be only one trades union at its factory and agreement was reached for this to be the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU).  Naturally this was hotly opposed by the Labour party and its union paymasters in the area, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating: not a single minute has been lost to industrial disputes at the factory since its opening in 1986.  Nissan employees are among the highest wage earners in the region too.  This has set a pattern throughout British manufacturing industry which has quite literally transformed the management of British factories as this writer can testify from personal experience.

This example of productive cooperation between all partners in the enterprise is the true way to organise a modern industry and gives the lie to all those commentators, priests, and the daft, offensive demonstrators at Lady Thatcher’s funeral tomorrow that her government somehow uniquely divided Britain and abandoned manufacturing.  As Napoleon once said, when accused of destroying the French Crown: “I didn’t destroy it.  I picked it up from the gutter.”

What did Mrs Thatcher personally achieve?

In the half-decade before the British general election of May 3rd 1979 which brought Mrs Thatcher to power, Britain was pitied and despised abroad and split apart by rampaging labour unions at home.  This is the true picture of Britain in 1979, not the fairy tales of harmony propagated by Facebook scribblers not even born, many of them, when Mrs Thatcher left office in 1990.

In this writer’s view Mrs Thatcher’s greatest, long-lasting achievements were:

  • Restoring respect for Britain abroad by fighting and winning the Falklands war 8,000 miles from Britain against an opponent armed with a full range of modern weapons operating only 400 miles from its home base.  Needless to say, the bulk of the Cabinet, leaders of the Home Civil Service and the Foreign Office were opposed to the operation.
  • Mrs Thatcher’s steadfast support of freedom for Eastern European countries under Soviet rule in 1979, expressed by her deep political ties with the US President Ronald Reagan and his successor George Bush, did more than anything else to ensure that the Cold War would end without a shot.  Britain went to war for Poland in 1939.  In a real sense the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the true end of the Second World War for Freedom.  Like Churchill in the Hot War of 1939-45 she played the greatest part of any British leader in bringing it about.
  • Restoring to British industrial management at home, its ability to actually manage our factories by defeating the National Union of Miners’ challenge to democratically elected governments and pushing through the successive Industrial Relations Acts which abolished the closed shop and secondary picketing.  As with the Falklands War there was much quiet opposition to these measures among the Establishment and senior corporate managers, as well as vocal opposition from the unions themselves, all of which had to be overcome.
  • Pushing through the privatisation programme when about 50 enterprises were transferred from public to private ownership, 5 million people owned shares for the first time in their lives and one million got to own their own homes after years of renting. This programme was copied in dozens of countries around the world. Indeed “privatisation” was added to everyone’s vocabulary.
  • Engendering a culture of enterprise which was almost totally absent from the Britain of the 1960s and 1970s.  As testimony to this transformation this writer recalls asking his final year engineering students at Manchester University: “How many of you would like eventually to set up your own business?”  In 1980 only a handful shyly raised their hands; by 1995 nearly all did so, after which I stopped asking the question.

These world class, enduring achievements required great determination and persistence as anyone who has tried to effect far-reaching change in large organisations will know.  The roots of the present-day hatred for Lady Thatcher are a combination of jealousy of these achievements (particularly among university educated women) and an ignorant, impotent rage about poverty as if none existed before 1979[5].

If there were a Victoria Cross for moral courage, Mrs Thatcher would have won it three times over.

[1] Compared with 37 million in the ten years 1981-1990 excluding the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

[2] Finally sacked by a new managing director, Michael Edwarde in 1982, under Mrs Thatcher.

[3] RPI in 1970 19.2; in 1979 60.7 – 3.16 times.

[4] In addition, today around 600,000 high quality cars are made in BMW’s Oxford plant, Land Rover in the Midlands and Jaguar and GM on Merseyside.

[5] The single most important measure of comparative national wealth and therefore a nation’s capacity to assist those caught in poverty is the average output (GDP) per head of population. From 1970-79 Britain’s GDP per head went from 82% of France and Germany’s to 68% in 1979. By 1990 Britain’s GDP per head was 86% of France and Germany’s; by 1997 it had overtaken theirs.

Top| Home

2 Responses to “Margaret Thatcher’s Passing: The Roots of Hatred”

  1. ageing albion says:

    If there is one country which should erect a statue of Mrs Thatcher in its capital and hail a liberating hero, it is Argentina. The brutal dictatorship that was the Junta was on its last legs in 1982, but gained an enormous surge of support by its desperate move of invading the Falklands. It was Mrs Thatcher’s courage and moral conviction – thoroughly lacking in many others in Britain at the time, as you correctly observe – that defeated that act of aggression and in so doing brought down the Junta. Argentina thereafter became a democracy and made considerable progress towards becoming a civilised nation.

    Instead many in Britain wail that Thatcher only “invaded” the Falklands to get re-elected and committed some sort of “crime” by “sinking the Belgrano”. This ignores:

    1. You cannot “invade” your own territory. Argentina undertook the invasion as a gamble to save its own, thoroughly rotten regime (few in Britain have the faintest idea of what it might be like to live under that sort of dictatorship as we have been spared it in this country for centuries).

    2. Thatcher took an almighty risk to her own fortunes by sending the task force; there were many wets in her own party and elsewhere who warned another Suez was in the offing. As with many wars endless counterfactual scenarios can be dreamt up as to how the outcome might have been different.

    3. The Belgrano’s own captain, Hector Bonzo, never complained about the sinking; he accepted that as an enemy ship in international waters during wartime it was a legitimate target. It is not as though the Belgrano was there to sell sweets. (In contrast with the criminal leaders who ordered the invasion, the Argentine commanders on the ground were mostly professional and honourable soldiers who surrendered at South Georgia, Goose Green and then Port Stanley once they calculated that nothing would be achieved by prolonged resistance other than needless loss of life; Captain Bonzo fell into this category.)

    4. More to the point, it was not Mrs Thatcher who ordered the sinking but Admiral Woodward. Thatcher and the cabinet accepted his request for permission because they knew full well not to play armchair admirals 8000 miles away from the conflict.

    5. In retrospect, the sinking was the decisive act of the war – the Argentine Navy retreated to port for the rest of the conflict. It also confirmed what the Argentine admirals knew already – that they had no defence against a nuclear-powered submarine. In large part the possibility of a nuclear submarine on patrol in the South Atlantic has secured the islands ever since, more so than the expensive RAF presence on the islands.

    Top| Home

  2. Frederick May says:

    Interestingly reports from Argentina suggests that Mrs Thatcher’s death has not been greeted by the sort of hate and bile that left-wing hooligan groups like “Class War” have spouted here in Britain. Among the younger generation there is growing acceptance the “Kelpers” want to remain British. The referendum they held last month has really had an effect in Argentina.

    Top| Home

Leave a Reply

Top| Home