My father called Maggie Thatcher ‘that woman’, and I learnt from a very young age that my parents never liked her. Their objection was probably more classist than anything else; she cut subsidies to art, music and culture and ignored with their favorite institutions: Civil Service, local governments, Oxbridge — the dinosaurs from an era when Britain was a feudal state. She privatized everything including the family silver — railways, sugar, shipbuilders, iron, coal, steel, electricity, water supply, oil, gas, electricity, airlines, freight transport, telecommunications — angering the establishment which lamented the loss of esteemed British institutions. But they were bold, decisive and necessary moves. Nationalised monopolies were uncompetitive, extremely inefficient, and run by bureaucrats who were able to hide and manipulate the costs. In 1979, subsidies to nationalised industries accounted for 60% of GNP.
Despite huge GDP losses from privatizations, during Thatcher’s tenure, GDP per capita tripled and GDP doubled (only 23% in real terms however). Productivity doubled, manufacturing quadrupled. By the end of the decade, Britain had one of the highest GDP growth rates of any European nations, a dramatic turnaround for a country that survived on IMF loans in 1979. She reduced the national debt from 43% of GDP to 25% — the lowest since 1914. However, privatizations were a thankless job: unemployment jumped from closure of inefficient factories and coalmines, and remained high until the last three years of her rule. In 1984, she won the famous annual rebate from the EEU (rebate of 66%, the difference between Britain’s EU contributions and receipts), a legacy that remains in effect, until Blair reduced it.
Her approach to coalminers’ strike had been well-known, but less known was that the strike was caused because the government decided to shut down mere ten uneconomic mines. The annual cost to taxpayers by coalminers had reached £1 billion at this point. The ending of National Graphical Association (one of the most wasteful and hilarious trade unions ever conceived) and like created a huge expansion of print media as we know today.
Oxford refused her a honorary degree because of her deep cuts in education, but she ushered in the era of decentralization of education. Parents can now select schools without regard to location, and her reforms increased university education access (20,000 more first degrees earned every year). She began an initiative to put a desktop computer in every secondary school, and reduced the power of local authorities and politicians in schools. She attacked local governments, who like union leaders were on ego trips, and whose spendings were unregulated. She restricted their spending, and huge numbers of council houses were sold to their tenants, and home ownership grew to 67% from 55%. Although she is now being accused of making cuts to social security, under Thatcher it actually increased from 72 billion pounds to 85 billion pounds. Health and community services increased by 37%.
She made mistakes too, of course, with Westland, Chile, Rhodesia, South Africa and West Germany, but she kept Britain out of the Eurozone and on that afternoon when the teary-eyed prime minister left the Downing Street in disgrace, she left behind a richer and stronger Britain. The days of unburied dead and uncollected garbage were over. Britain was ready for a new era.