Book Review: ‘The Thatcher Government’
‘The Thatcher Government’, by Peter Riddell (Oxford, 1983)
This book, an examination of the first Thatcher administration, discusses the nature, aspirations, performance and prospects of “Thatcherism”. Riddell is partially sympathetic to the administration and claims that many of the decisions made on economic and industrial matters were inescapable. The Conservative government’s aim has been to change the direction of economic policy by shifting the frontiers between the public and the private sectors. It has also attempted to restore “law and order” and assert British capitalists’ interests in the world, to a large extent continuing the programme begun under the Labour governments of Wilson and Callaghan. The question that Riddell raises is whether “the (probably necessary) shake-up of British industry could have been achieved with less suffering, perhaps through a modification of the basic strategy” (p.4).
Riddell sees Thatcher not purely as a defender of free enterprise or monetarism but as a moral crusader, the voice of the provincial and suburban “middle class”, concerned with personal responsibility, the family and national pride. This means that there has been no radical change in the British economy and society, for Thatcher is firmly committed to capitalism, the profit motive and private enterprise. Riddell sees her approach as “a combination of provocative rhetoric and cautious practice” (p.29). She has been committed to an increase in expenditure on defence and law and order at the expense of industry and employment budgets and housing subsidies. Riddell is particularly sympathetic to the Thatcher administration’s attack on trade unions. He panders to popular prejudice, claiming that the government came to power in response to a “collapse of authority” (p.38). by which he means the failure of government to keep the unions in check.
Margaret Thatcher has surrounded herself with supporters because she “likes to have her own prejudices reinforced” (p.55) but her approach is not novel in that “if there has been a Thatcher experiment, it was launched by Denis Healey” (p.59). Her major success is seen as the reduction of “inflation”, but that has occurred alongside a massive increase in unemployment. According to Riddell:
“with all the necessary qualifications, economists have estimated that between two-fifths and a half of the rise in unemployment can broadly be attributed to Government policy.” (p.91).
The steep rise in unemployment partly explains the lack of initiative taken by the unions, whose so-called realism in industrial relations is largely a response to the economic recession. This has been exacerbated by the Thatcher government and has led to much resignation and apathy among trade union members.
The continued talks about an overall reduction in public expenditure have been frustrated by the recession. Yet there have been attacks on housing, education and social security and Riddell argues that the NHS will be threatened next. The poorest members of the community have suffered most but the working class as a whole has been frustrated by the problems promoted as the greatest ills affecting society. The need to control trade unions or reduce the size of state run monopolies is not the issue, for this is to argue simply for a change in the organisation of capitalism. The belief that an efficiently run capitalism will be of real benefit to the working class is an illusion but one that Riddell accepts. He talks of the dangers arising out of the power exerted by the public sector unions and is also unhappy about the monopolies of the public utilities, although he feels that denationalisation should not include social security, health and education.
Riddell accepts the strictures imposed by capitalism and is not unwilling to put forward his own prejudices about the nature of contemporary society. He embraces the notion of an increased need for law and order when he argues that “a renewed drive against crime and increased expenditure on the police were necessary in 1979” (p.204). He supports immigration control when he argues that:
“a redefinition of British citizenship was probably necessary in view of the changed position of the UK in relation to its previous colonies and the Commonwealth,” (p.203)
and he waves the flag at jingoism when he says
“there is no dispute that the retaking of the Falkland Islands by the British forces was an outstanding achievement . . . determination paid off, thanks to the single-mindedness of Mrs Thatcher” (pp.218-9).
This book may be an accurate description of Britain during the period of the first Thatcher administration but it is weak in analysis. Riddell is correct when he argues that the real losers have been the trade unions and the least well-off. There has been the destruction of large parts of the manufacturing process and a reduction in the level of public services. He is also correct in arguing that the interests of the working class would not have been met by the Labour Party and that in many respects the Conservatives have continued a trend begun under Labour administrations. It would be a fallacy to pinpoint Margaret Thatcher as the cause of Britain’s woes. Thatcher may have been more ruthless in attacking the working class by insisting on the primary importance of profit, but that is the nature of the present system of society. It is equally true to say that had the working class been offered various crumbs of reforms their position would not have been radically altered. Riddell claims to provide an analysis of Thatcherism but what he really shows is the failure of yet another attempt to fool the working class into the misguided notion that capitalism can be controlled.