Tuesday 9 April 2013

The peculiar irony of Thatcherism

The death of Margaret Thatcher makes me feel rather elderly. Her spirit seems to have presided over British politics, in one way or another, since I joined a political party (May 1979 as it happens). She was 54 when she became Prime Minister, which is what I am now.  Scary thought.

Her death will I expect be a signal for a huge amount of rubbish talked on both sides of the conventional political divide.

The main issue which they agree on is that the moment when she mounted the steps of 10 Downing Street, with St Francis’ poem scribbled on a bit of paper, changed the UK for good. 

I don’t think so.

Yes, she provided an image of resolution despite the turmoil around her – the damage caused to British industry by our very own petro-currency, the bombs and strikes. But she could afford to: unlike the prime ministers before her and after her, she had a working majority to bolster her rhetoric – an inoculation against compromise.

That is the fantasy of the right. The fantasy of the left is that she ushered in a period of unprecedented selfishness and individualism. Nobody who remembers life under the Callaghan government before hers could possibly believe this.

It is true that her government presided over Big Bang, but that was more about the entry of American investment banks into London, seeking whom they would devour.  Yes, it is true, it was also facilitated.

There was a change, but it didn’t come in May 1979 when she took over. It took place in October 1979 when a small group of radicals around Geoffrey Howe and Nigel :Lawson ended currency exchange controls.

After that everything changed: government room for manoeuvre and creative innovation was hobbled, and now $4 trillion changes hands every day, most of it speculative. It was a huge shift; it was not debated by the cabinet (they were informed as the shift happened). Thatcherism followed – but, before they consulted her a few weeks before, the conspirators had been unsure whether she would agree or not.

The truth was that Margaret Thatcher was not originally a Thatcherite. She was a firm supporter of home owners and the middle classes, and she had Thatcherism thrust upon her by the very surprising success of the end of exchange controls.  Yes she grew into the role, but it didn't end as she originally intended.

And here is the ultimate irony, and I have told the full story in my new book Broke. The end of exchange controls led to the end of the so-called Corset, which limited the amount of money that went into mortgages.  An explosion of finance followed.  Nothing replaced it.

The housing market was allowed to let rip, leading to unsustainable house price rises. Thatcherism, which was based on the idea of a property-owning democracy, has led directly to the situation where home ownership in the UK is lower than Bulgaria or Romania – and rents have rocketed as a result.

In short, we now live in a city (those of us who live in London) where only the ultra-rich, ushered in by a mismanaged Big Bang, can afford to get on the housing ladder.  The rest of us, certainly in London and the south east, have to choose between indentured semi-servitude to our mortgage provider or to our landlord.

Ironic or what.

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