Thatcher’s certainties are still winning

Geraint Talfan Davies challenges some of the assumptions about the impact of a Prime Minster whose funeral is today

The deluge of writing about Margaret Thatcher in the past ten days has encompassed the adoring, the hostile and the ambivalent. In all this there have been three propositions that are worth contesting: first, that Margaret Thatcher came out of the blue in more senses than one; second, that all Britain’s ills at that date were the fault of trade unions; and third, that the killing of coal was her one disservice to Wales, even if, under the law of unintended consequences, it led ultimately to democratic devolution.

Did Mrs Thatcher come out of the blue? In one sense, her election was a surprise even to people in her own party – especially its grandees. But she did have a clear precursor in another party, Labour’s Barbara Castle – and not only in being a woman. They were two women very obviously of similar mettle, although one triumphed politically and the other did not. Both were immensely forceful characters, and both were determined on the reform of industrial relations, although in very different ways. Castle was a passionate orator, while Thatcher was always rather stilted in her delivery. Castle was also the avowed feminist that Thatcher never was, although neither was above using their femininity to advantage on occasion.

Despite being totally opposed to Margaret Thatcher’s views, Barbara Castle enthused about her appointment in the privacy of her diary: “She is so clearly the best man among them and she will, in my view, have an enormous advantage in being a woman, too. I can’t help feeling a thrill, even though I believe her election will make things much more difficult for us.” But, as Hugo Young, Thatcher’s biographer noted, Castle also saw differences: “If she would only occasionally come in with a smut on her nose, her hair dishevelled, looking as if she had been wrestling with her soul as I do.”

Barbara Castle was perhaps best known for her failure to reform industrial relations, her name ever associated with the 1969 White Paper, In place of strife. Arguably, if her proposals for legal protection for unions, balanced by the imposition of ballots before strikes, had been enacted, the history of the subsequent two decades would have been very different.

While Margaret Thatcher had to contend with the so-called ‘wets’ in the Cabinet, in driving through her policies, it was Castle’s misfortune as Secretary of State for Employment – despite the support of the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson – to fall foul of the determined opposition of James Callaghan, then Home Secretary and, on union matters, an arch conciliator. Callaghan won, and a decade later reaped what he had sown.

There is no doubt that the almost anarchic approach of trade unions at the time was a major contributor to the appalling state of British industrial relations. But it should not be forgotten that bad management also had its part to play. Since the early 1960s there has been an accumulation of literature charting the poor performance of the British economy including, successively, ‘them and us’ attitudes in industry, the malign influence of class, the failure to invest, and the relative disengagement of banking from industry compared with our competitors. Even Margaret Thatcher’s triumph over the unions did not transform the fundamentals of UK industrial performance.

When in the mid 1980s she chided Welsh journalists and asked them to cheer up, claiming that the Welsh economy was ‘resurgent’, it was in the middle of a UK inward investment boom, of which 14 per cent came to Wales between 1979 and 1991. However, it departed just as quickly when even our low cost labour was later undercut by China and Eastern Europe. Inward investment had nothing to do with British management. The decision of both Conservative and Labour governments to hang the UK’s hat on the finance industry rather than on manufacturing may have been, even if sub-consciously, the result of a lack of confidence in the performance of indigenous manufacturing over the post-war period.

One instance of short-sighted management and unions leading to disaster is the history of ITV that, in the late 1980s, Thatcher labelled “the last bastion of restrictive practice”. The charge had substance. When at HTV in the early 1980s I was trying to persuade my own senior managers to invest in electronic rather than film cameras as other companies had done – a move for which the relevant union was seeking to exact a high price – one senior manager wrote to ITN that in his view “nothing would replace the flexibility and reliability of the hand-cranked Bolex” (a make of film camera).

Unfortunately, Thatcher’s retribution was her decision to auction the ITV franchises in 1990, scrapping the quality-based system that had been obtained hitherto. Some will say that technological change and the ending of ITV’s virtual monopoly on television advertising was the real death knell for ITV’s regional system. But it was the auction of the franchises that sucked so much money out of the system, killing it in the process. For instance, HTV had to pay out £21 million a year to the Treasury and after that did not have the wherewithal to seek a different salvation. Coal was not the only industry that Thatcher killed in Wales.

The widespread ambivalence towards Margaret Thatcher’s achievements is a recognition of three things: that the country could not have gone on as it had done until 1979; that the inequality that has arisen from the direction she charted is just as untenable in the long term; but, importantly, that we have not yet been able to describe a new framework – either in Wales or the UK – offering a different, coherent and convincing balance between a healthy individualism and a necessary and fulfilling social solidarity. Her certainty is still winning over our own uncertainties.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

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