Margaret Thatcher’s Economic Policies: An Evaluation
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Published: Mon, 13 Aug 2018
Margaret Thatcher inherited an ailing economy, which was the result of several factors inclusive of actions by the previous Labour government, as well as some which were peculiar to Britain. The pivotal focus of her economic policy was reduction in the influence of the public sector, on which she launched a frontal attack by systematically defeating the labour unions, especially in the manufacturing and mining industries, and fall in unemployment and inflation. These were her highest priorities when she assumed office.
These were the themes around which her doctrine to tackle these issues, Thatcherism, was predicated. Although the broad term also had some political and cultural connotations, they were essentially economic in nature. The rot that had set in into the economy necessitated major, radical actions on her part; she had to antagonise the labour unions and the public sector, and had to revitalise the ailing economy. The overall results of her policies spread over three terms as prime minister were mixed: while her most resounding success was in rendering the labour unions ineffective and making them defunct in all but name, her other major policy, namely controlling unemployment and inflation, was successful, but not to the same degree, and which too, came about by external, unforeseen favourable factors.
This paper is an assessment of Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies. Since no evaluation is effective when made in a vacuum, in arriving at this evaluation, this paper first makes a narration of her economic inheritance, since this serves as the benchmark for her achievements. After describing the situation the economy was in at the time of her ascension, this paper moves on to describing the major initiatives she undertook to rid the economy of its ills, which are described in detail in the coming paragraphs. In the course of this narration, the major indicators listed are the monetary policies. In this part, her actions in relation to the unions and in taking on unemployment are described; her political and religious philosophy and quantitative analyses are interspersed in the paper in passing, where they fit into this narrative. Finally, this paper offers its conclusion by making an assessment of the sum total of her policies vis-à-vis the economy, in which its findings are that her policies were neither a startling success nor a miserable failure. It needs mention that this paper takes under its purview only her domestic economic policies, and makes no mention of her actions in relation to economic integration with the EU, because this was at an unfinished stage at the end of her term.
Mrs. Thatcher’s economic policy was derived from the New Right economic philosophy of noted economists, F.A. Von Hayek and Milton Friedman, with its opposition to corporatism, and its belief that the individual and markets performed best when left free of intervention from the state; (Childs & Storry, 1999, p. 540) it was grounded in the political and social circumstance of the day. Since her ascension, the cornerstone of her economic policy was the way in which it “linked the aim of restoring dynamic economic growth with a crusade to revive traditional social values”. The pivot around which it centred was what came to be called “new realism”. The core theme of this ideal is rooted in drastic economic change; this change implied freeing the industry of crippling state intervention, which she believed was what was depriving capitalism of its innovativeness and vitality. For this, the most important action she had to take was to enervate the trenchant trade unions, which she saw as the direct and severest obstacle. This was especially so in the manufacturing industry. (Rose, 1991, p. 307)
Background to economic policy
When the Tories took power by defeating Labour by a margin of 28 seats in the elections of 1979, Thatcher led a Cabinet that inherited an economy in a state of decline, a decline that had been set about three decades earlier, right to almost the end of the war. Thus, her utmost priority was reversing this situation; her most important task was to reduce taxes and more importantly, the overbearing influence of the public sector undertakings, which had turned out to be the economy’s guzzlers, and drastically reducing Public Sector Borrowing Requirement (PSBR) Reversing such entrenched policies needed political conviction and courage. As against the inflation rate of 10.3 percent, the GDP real growth rate was 2.3 percent. The most important tool with which to reach this economic goal was an increase in taxes. When this was introduced, the first effects were results were negative, and only started looking up later. The first and third budgets her Finance Minister, Sir Geoffrey Howe presented, had enormous tax rates. A look at how high Britain’s income tax rate was compared to other industrialised nations gives some idea about the monetary policy: in 1979, Britain had a highest Personal Income Tax Rates of 83 percent, while the same figures were 61.5 percent in Australia, 61.9 in Canada, 73 in Denmark, 60 percent in France, 56 in West Germany, 72 in Italy, 88 in Japan, 72 in Netherlands, 86.5 in Sweden and 70 in the US. This shows that of these 11 countries taken for this comparison, only Japan and Sweden had a higher rate of highest income tax levels. (Canto & Laffer, 1990, p. 250) Another critical area that required handling was curbing inflation, whose gravity was spelt out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe, who made an impassioned plea stating his government’s determination to fight this malaise:
It will be clear from what I have already said that the Government continue to regard the fight against inflation as the first priority. It is an illusion to suppose that we have any real choice between defeating inflation and some other course. It is quite wrong to suppose that inflation is something with which only Treasury ministers need be concerned. And in the defeat of inflation, monetary policy has an essential role to play… [t]he level of spending is planned to fall steadily throughout the next four years. Without these economies, a coherent policy to reduce inflation would be unattainable. . . At the heart of the medium-term strategy is the need to return to a sensible level of public spending and to see government borrowing reduced. In the last 20 years the ratio of public expenditure to GDP has risen by a quarter. It would be all too easy for this ratio to go on rising indefinitely, unless we addressed ourselves to fundamentals…This review is crucial to the strategy. Crucial to success in reducing the PSBR, lowering interest rates, and bringing down inflation. And crucial if we are to find room for lightening the tax burden and so to provide scope and encouragement for enterprise and initiative. . .Expenditure in 1983-84 is planned to be about 4 per cent lower in real terms than in 1979-80. The effect will be a marked shift in the burdens imposed by the Government and in the balance between the public and private sectors. Above all we shall have set the volume of public spending on the right course. We shall be creating a climate much more favourable to economic growth. (Holmes, 1985, p. 55) 
For sure, this method was to turn out to sow the seeds for bearing fruit in later years: the economy had a real growth rate of 3.64 percent in 1985, 3.4 percent in 1986, and 4.21 and 2.59 in the next couple of years. (Canto & Laffer, 1990, p. 250) These details are spelt out in later sections of this paper.
Thatcher’s policies had the effect of increasing inflation initially, before turning it around: in February 1980, inflation had touched a high of 18.4 percent, a rate that was double the rate of what it was just over half a year ago. (Holmes, 1985, p. 52) In addition, in the first year, PSBR and the money supply indicator, the M3, did not meet their targets, falling short substantially. Another factor impeded successful implementation of reducing inflation in this critical first year of her governance –rise in public expenditure caused by the government’s commitment to increase spending on health, defence, law and order and other social benefit schemes. Added to all this, the government raised public sector pay, as recommended by the Clegg Commission set up during the previous Labour government, which the Conservatives had agreed to. All these resulted initially in fall in employment, the exact opposite of what the government had pledged to achieve. (Tomlinson, 1990, p. 333) To this, her response was that “basic economic laws (cannot) somehow be suspended because we are British. . . For government, facing our national problems entails keeping the growth of the amount of money in line with the growth in the amount of goods and services. After years of printing too much money, to which the economy has become addicted, this will take time, but it must be done” (Holmes, 1985, p. 52) During the first three years of Thatcher’ rule, tax revenues rose by 4.7 percent from 25.3 to 30 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but its budget deficit rose by a whopping 43 percent, to over £13 billion. (Canto & Laffer, 1990, p. 245)
Thatcherism was constructed under the guidance of her mentor, Sir Keith Joseph. Its belief was rooted in the Victorian tenets of hard work, independence and self esteem. This perhaps explains why she was so aversive to parasitic public sector industries, in whose reform she believed lay the solution to the economy’s ills. (Cooper, Kornberg, & Mishler, 1988, p. 261)
The firm and unshakable belief she had in industry were the result of her middle class upbringing. A historian, Paul Johnson, had this to say about her beliefs:
[ Margaret Thatcher] has never been able, or wished, to separate her strong religious convictions from her equally strong political ones. In her mind, they are indivisible, springing as they do from the teachings of her father, a storekeeper and local councillor in the small town of Grantham. Her father’s code was simplicity itself: there are real and absolute distinctions between good and evil. Everyone has a personal responsibility to choose the good. This applies equally to public and private life. Choosing the good means working hard to better ourselves and our families and to serve the community. Deal honestly and keep the spirit as well as the letter of the law. Borrow only when absolutely necessary and repay promptly. Save systematically for the future. Give generously. In public life, apply the same high standards as in your private dealings. Remember at all times that you are accountable not only to the voter in this life but to Almighty God in the next–and God sees into our secret hearts and judges our motives as well as our actions. (Geelhoed & Hobbs, 1992, p. xvii) 
She believed in the better side of capitalism, which allowed the individual the maximum scope for growth. The route to wealth creation, in the ideal of Thatcherism, was not in creating or pampering the white elephants of the public sector; rather, it was in introducing healthy competition, calculated risk taking and smart marketing, to all of which the public sector was the antithesis. The small capitalist, in her vision, was the microcosm of the bigger enterprise on which the economy was built. The public sector was becoming one of the biggest sources of public expenditure, whose power had to be cut only by emasculating the trade unions, which were hampering productivity and free enterprise. Her idea of free enterprise was one that aimed at creating financial stability that was borne out of curbing public expenses; the greatest barrier to productivity and competition in her perception, the trade unions, were to be targeted forcefully. Her monetary policy was thus aimed at unchaining the economy by introducing capitalism. The role of the government was specific and clear –pulling out of the economy while strengthening its hold and role over other areas. (Cooper, Kornberg, & Mishler, 1988, pp. 261-263) Thatcherism was thus “a package of fiscal and monetary austerity with tight restraint on government spending and borrowing intended to curb inflation and reduce interest rates, thereby overcoming the electoral burden of an unemployment rate that had more than doubled during Thatcher’s first term.” (Alt & Alt, 1988, p. 217) In the pursuit of her clearly defined objectives, Thatcher had not really differed fundamentally from Conservative ideology; the area in which she differed was in the statecraft used to achieve her political and economic aims. The basic fabric of the Tory philosophy of governance, of an increase in the state’s autonomy, did not undergo a major change. In this sense, there was a similarity between Conservative ideology under Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan on the one side, and Thatcher on the other. (Bevir & Rhodes, 2003, p. 110)
Dealing with the unions
Owing to policies by both Labour and the Tories from about 1962, successive governments, in their efforts towards controlling prices, had pampered labour unions and had involved them in major economic decisions, in an era also characterised by growing nationalisation of vital industries. As a result, their numbers had grown from 40 percent of the employees to 55 in this period; this had had the effect of making them aggressive, recalcitrant and militant in their outlook, having grown on the diet of indispensability for the government. They had reneged on most of the promises they had made of their conduct. The role of the government in the affairs of administration almost resembled a socialist state –the government had held not only owned corporations dealing with coal, steel, rail, transport, natural gas, it also had been handling most public utilities. It was a departure from these established Keynesian norms that Thatcherism was conceived and enacted. Because as a result of all these policies, by the time she came to power, the economy had been left in tatters –inflation stood at 10 percent, although this itself was far better compared to the 25 percent of 1975, unemployment had risen to six percent, national income had risen in the six years leading to 1979 at half the rate at which it had in the preceding 13 years, and public sector deficit had multiplied by 400 percent to four percent of the economy. To cap it all, strikes by one or another union were becoming almost a quotidian occurrence. In addition, the labour unions refused to cooperate with the Labour government for wage control below inflation rate. All these added to constitute the notorious “Winter of Discontent” in the year in which Thatcher took office. Thus, the enormity of the situation was quite high at the time of her ascension. (Alt, 1994, p. 61) There were some important legal actions she took in relation to trade unions to curb their clout. Among her first regulations was a legal ban on secondary picketing by the unions. In the same breath, she also curtailed the power of the unions by removing their immunity to pay fines they had been imposed by courts for violations of industrial relations laws. (Alt & Alt, 1988, pp. 218-219) One more important legislation, perhaps the most radical one she promulgated, was in 1982. Called the Employment Act, it forcefully restricted the ambit of strikes to only the issue of pay and working conditions; the same legislation also tightened procedures on closed shops, and reduced unions’ other immunities, and more importantly, followed up in subsequent legislations by making strike ballots more stringent, and made it compulsory for unions to give seven days’ notice when going on strike. Perhaps the most important part of this legislation was that it deprived workers the automatic right of becoming union members. (Childs & Storry, 1999, p. 540) Yet another important step she took in this direction was to separate their loyalty to the Labour Party. This she did by making public and mandatory the periodic secret ballots that were being held to some trade establishments such as shops, their members’ right to elect leaders to their association, and finally, their allegiance to the Labour Party. She reduced their importance by deliberately snubbing them by not consulting them over important economic policy, and not seeking their opinion or cooperation over implementation of several economic measures. She also sought to wean the youth away from unions by generating some employment schemes targeted at them. (Alt & Alt, 1988, pp. 218-.223) As a result of the systematic attack on the unions, the most important success she achieved, perhaps the most notable one of all her entire economic policy was the dismemberment and break up of the nation’s most powerful union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). When this union went on strike for a whole year protesting pit closures, the government simply refused to buckle down; rather, the union, apart from ending its strike in April 1985, also had to face the mortification of getting split, almost rendering it impotent. Subsequently, figures of strikes and working days lost to them fell to post-war lows. (Kavanagh, 1997, p. 129)
The effect of all this was that these acts debilitated the unions like no other legislation had in the past. Membership was no longer an enticing or lucrative proposition in unions sapped of their vitals; by 1994, total union membership of the workforce had fallen to nine million from 13 million in 1979. Unionism did continue, but with a vastly diluted character. Unions were no longer truculent or militant; instead, they had toned down to becoming business-oriented, strike rates fell down drastically, and were, in their watered down form, almost solely restricted to the public sector, almost totally deserted the private sector. (Childs & Storry, 1999, p. 540)
Along with the unions, she had another task that required equal attention –high inflation, which was a major challenge to the economy. Controlling inflation was no easy task, again given the nexus that existed between managements and labour unions; in the words of Sir Walter Salomon, “both sides of industry were in unholy alliance: management thought a little bit of inflation would increase profits, while labour was persuaded that a little bit of inflation would maintain employment. It was as though a little bit of pregnancy need not lead on to bigger things!” (Holmes, 1985, p. 50)
By 1980, inflation was easily among the most important problems for the nation; the government of the day had to take some very stringent, even harsh measures that would cause other problems, if only to control galloping prices. In the immediate months of assuming office, she introduced the Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS). In a sense, it was a takeoff from the policy undertaken by the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer from the Labour Party, Healey as part of an agreement with the IMF. Thatcher’s aim was to stringently divert targets to narrowed down goals like money and borrowing, and an absence of clearly stated goals for prices and economic output. (Alt & Alt, 1988, p. 224)
Raising taxes and cutting public spending were identified as the mantras with which to tackle inflation, even if it meant administering the economy a mild shock to jolt it out of its situation, akin to using one thorn to remove another. The immediate shocks the nation was administered had immediate effects that were extremely damaging –in 1980-81, industrial production in manufacturing fell by a whopping 14 percent, GNP contracted by over three percent, and unemployment rose by close to three million. This was the steepest rise in Britain’s history since the Great Depression of half a century ago. The slump in manufacturing was so great in terms in gravity that the nation lost a quarter of its manufacturing capacity in 1979-81. Just when a really potent crisis, a seemingly insoluble one, seemed to have gripped Britain, as if out of nowhere, two events turned the tide –the sudden spurt in prices of North Sea oil and gas, over which Britain had access, by an extremely pleasant high of 70 percent, (Evans, 2004, p. 21) which balanced the trade account and cushioned the violent swings in the economy, and the Falklands War, which completely diverted the internal turmoil and infused a sudden spurt of nationalism into the country, (Geelhoed & Hobbs, 1992, p. xii) making people look to Thatcher as a kind of messiah who had delivered. The truth was that both these were events whose timing could not have been more appropriate for the nation in a morass.
One of the major charges levelled against Thatcher is that Thatcherism was built on a highly simplified, yet rather cynical view of human nature, and of its subservience to authority. She was extremely stern in her dealings with everyone, and believed that she had to use force to make people accept what she believed in. She was aptly described as “a Royal Marine drill sergeant inside a classic English matron”. (Champy & Nohria, 1999, p. 191) Authors such as Gilmour are unsparing in their criticism of Thatcher’s assumption that every human action is driven by selfish motives, and that unless a leviathan-like government oversaw and strictly regulated it, it would be left to its primeval, selfish interests. Also coming in for severe criticism by this author is the view that Thatcher was less than positive in her perception of how and why people conform to authority, which is she is believed to have used to coerce people into her way of thinking. In the view of this author, if the One Nation Toryism was not to people’s liking, which they had no compelling reason to like, then, people had no reason to automatically have an interest in the state. (Bevir & Rhodes, 2003, p. 110)
The whole range of her achievements needs to be seen in the pathetic situation the economy was in when she was appointed Prime Minister. She had come to power inheriting a largely sluggish economy. During this time, in 1978-79, the economy had all it took to take the country towards disaster –high inflation, trade union hooliganism and social problems had eaten into British politics. All this had earned it the dubious epithet, Europe’s “sick man” at the time; this condition was dubbed the “British Disease”. So deep had Britain’s image sunk in the eyes of the world that when he was elected to his first term as the president of the US, one of the foremost advices Ronald Reagan received was to strictly avoid taking up any economic policy that resembled Britain’s. The reasons for this were partly to be laid on the previous government, and mostly on the worldwide economic recession that had hit industrialised economies very badly. In fact, Europe and the US were going through the worst recession they had witnessed since World War II. By the time she had been elected for a record third term in 1987, the economy had seen its sixth consecutive year of good performance; most barometers of the economy –production, foreign trade balance, establishment of new businesses, investment and economic growth, had all looked up. The economy had quietly been put back on its rails, with a consistent three percent growth rate since coming out of the recession. This was by all accounts a remarkable turnaround for an economy that was teetering on the brink less than a decade ago. (Geelhoed & Hobbs, 1992, pp. xii- xiv)
At the end of her reign, some perceptible changes were indeed seen in the economy: the shifting of the tax burden from individuals to corporations, increase in allocation to defence compared to social welfare, and a significantly lower spending on public investment compared to consumption. One of her apparent successes, reduction in unemployment, was not a uniquely British or Thatcherite phenomenon; it was more in tune with changes wrought about by the international markets attendant on exchange rates. (Alt & Alt, 1988, p. 218) As we have seen, her attempted cure of the terminally ill “British Disease” that she inherited could have actually been worse than the disease, but a streak of fortuity somehow saw the economy making lost ground, when it had been pushed to the brink in the initial years of her office. It is difficult to imagine to what further level the economy would have sunk had it not been for these events.
But once this impetus was given, the recovery was quick –inflation was down to single figures by the spring of 1982. From even this dismal scenario, inflation was nipped, during 1982, it had come down to half its rate in 1979, and by the beginning of 1983, it stood at 5.4 percent, its lowest level since 1970. Yet, even this was not very real. The now-oil rich country caused an appreciation in the pound, because of which it was becoming extremely difficult to export manufactured goods. Low price of imports were aggravated by huge rises in unemployment levels, because of which reduced bargaining power by employees was also reducing the rate of wage increase. Added to all these, the government’s best efforts to reduce public spending were making no dent on institutionalised heavy public spending –it continued unabated to 44.5 percent of the GDP even in 1982, and the total tax burden was put at 34 percent of the GDP in the first year of office, and 40 percent in 1982-83. Thus, whatever successes her policies had in tackling inflation had been more due to luck than anything else. (Evans, 2004, pp. 21-30)
Yet, she could not find the same luck or effectiveness when it came to containing unemployment, which continued to be the enemy she could never really defeat till the end. Despite all her policies, although it was her topmost priority, in the period between 1979 and 1988, the cream of her Prime Ministership, UK’s unemployment rate, which was five percent in 1979, the year in when she took office, rose to 6.4 percent in 1980, and was 9.8 in 1981, 11.3 percent in 1982, 12.5 percent in 1983, 11.7 percent in 1984, 11.3 in 1985, 11.5 percent in1986, and10.2 percent in 1987 before finally falling to 8.2 percent the following year. With very few occasional exceptions, no other leading country in the OECD had this rate during this period. (Tomlinson, 1990, p. 334) Again, like the North Sea oil which came as a godsend to her at a most critical time, another factor, though not quite so great a paroxysm, bailed her out of the unemployment morass –the transition of the economy from manufacturing to service and knowledge. Again, this was due in part to the global changes in the mode of industry, than to anything to which she could claim any singular credit. (Geelhoed & Hobbs, 1992, p. xv) Thus, in assessing the most crucial parameters of the success of her economic policies, on two major counts, she was blessed to be the right person at the right time.
It cannot be denied that Thatcherism brought about some very important changes. In effect, there was a pendulous effect of her economic policies –at first, when she introduced reforms aimed at curbing inflation, they boomeranged, then showed some very perceptible signs of having worked, and then, towards the end of her reign, had brought back the economy to a healthy state. One area over which she could claim total success was in dealing firmly with trade unions. There can be no doubt that this was an unequivocal stamp of her assertiveness. However, assessing her ability to deliver in other crunch areas does not bring the same decisiveness. Seen in this prism, her overall economic policies were a success, but were a qualified one. Considering the onus she inherited, it was commendable that she was able to implement so many changes. Thus, in finally evaluating Thatcher’ economic policy, it needs to be said that they indeed were successes, but a good part of this was due to events over which she had little control.
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Cooper, B., Kornberg, A., & Mishler, W., (Eds.), (1988), To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:
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