Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table. 3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.
In death, as in life, Margaret Thatcher sharply polarised opinion.
This week she has been hailed as Britain’s greatest peacetime prime minister, a remarkable woman who rose from the obscurity of a Grantham grocer’s shop to reverse her country’s dismal economic decline while confronting the global enemies of liberty.
But this week’s news was also taken by some as a cause for partying. Leftists swamped Twitter with vicious, hate-filled spite vilifying her achievements and trashing her memory.
Many of these frenzied detractors are too young to have known what Britain was like before Thatcher came to power. Others seem conveniently to have forgotten.
In 1970s Britain, the state was involved in everything, yet nothing seemed to work. It owned great swathes of industry – supplying water, gas and electricity, digging coal and making steel, running the railways and a major airline, building motor vehicles and aero-engines, monopolising post and telecommunications – and was landlord to more than a quarter of the nation’s households. But nobody wanted to buy the cars it built, British Rail was a laughing stock, the coal and steel industries were on their knees, and it took months to get a telephone connected.
Governments in the 1970s operated in fear of the union bosses who were treated to ‘beer and sandwiches’ in Downing Street as they told successive prime ministers what the unions would and would not tolerate. Political scientists began writing books about the emergence of a ‘corporatist state.’
A few years before Thatcher won office, Britain’s homes had been plunged into darkness by a miners’ strike that put industry on a three-day working week. At the shops there was a run on candles. Then in the winter of 1978–79, public sector militants stopped rubbish being collected from the streets, disrupted meal deliveries to the housebound elderly, and left corpses unburied at graveyards.
Time and again, union militancy was bought off with unaffordable pay deals that pushed annual inflation past 25% and sent the Callaghan-Labour government scurrying, cap in hand, to the IMF for emergency loans. Britain became known as ‘the sick man of Europe.’ Political scientists began writing books about the country being ‘ungovernable.’
In their increasingly fruitless attempts to control the mounting chaos, successive Conservative and Labour governments increased controls over many aspects of everyday life. You were not allowed to take more than a couple of hundred pounds with you if you went abroad for a holiday. Your wages were pegged by law. A government hotline was set up for informers to report shopkeepers whose prices exceeded those laid down by the state.
Britain was locked into a downward spiral, and nobody seemed to think it could be reversed. Except Maggie.
She scrapped the price and wage controls, arguing that governments cannot possibly know how investment is best directed or who should be allowed to trade at what price. She sold off the nationalised industries, opening them up to the cleansing blast of competition and setting an example that the rest of the world quickly followed. She allowed working-class families to buy their council houses at a discount (a policy that infuriated middle-class socialists but which at last prompted me to re-evaluate my socialist beliefs).
Decades before politicians got around to worrying about ‘social mobility,’ Thatcher was a committed meritocrat. As a woman in a man’s world, and the product of a petty bourgeois background to boot, she was the perpetual outsider of British politics. She hated establishment power and attacked unearned privilege wherever she encountered it.
The trade union bosses were defeated and power was returned to ordinary workers through laws enforcing secret ballots and abolishing enforced membership of unions. Professional monopolies in house conveyancing, optician services, and other areas were dismantled. The cosy cabal of the City of London was blasted open by deregulation of financial services.
She was a committed democrat too, standing firm behind the principle of national self-determination. In Europe, she resisted the encroachment of a non-accountable federal superstate (the issue that eventually brought her down). In Northern Ireland, she confronted the murderers and thugs of Provisional IRA/Sinn Fein, insisting that the future governance of the province was a matter for its people to determine democratically (a stand that brought the bombers to her bedroom door in Brighton in 1984). In the South Atlantic, against the advice of the appeasers and pessimists, she successfully despatched a taskforce to expel the fascist invaders from the Falklands. And in Eastern Europe, where she became a popular hero of those suffering from oppression, she and her friend and ally, Ronald Reagan, confronted Soviet power eyeball to eyeball and eventually brought it crashing to the ground in Berlin in November 1989.
Of course there were mistakes. She should not have allowed thousands of schools to sell off their playing fields. She should never have signed up to the Single European Act. She failed to tackle the bloated welfare state (for all the talk of ‘vicious cuts,’ public expenditure actually rose in real terms by an average of 1% per year during her period of office). Rail privatisation was botched and the Poll Tax was a political disaster (although the principle that everyone who uses public services should contribute towards the cost was certainly sound).
But taking her record as a whole, the balance is clearly and overwhelmingly positive. The proof is that no succeeding government has tried to reverse her key reforms. For all the left-wing bluster, nobody has ever seriously suggested that industries be renationalised, union bosses be re-empowered, or that governments should again try to fix prices, wages and dividends, or direct private investment. Margaret Thatcher found a country on its knees in 1979, and in just 11 years, she reversed decades of miserable decline.
What an extraordinary legacy! What an extraordinary woman.
Peter Saunders is a Senior Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.
Andrew Baker is a Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies and author of TARGET30: Tax-welfare Churn and the Australian Welfare State.
Surveying Japan at the end of 1997, Milton Friedman didn’t like what he saw. Writing in the Wall Street Journal , Friedman said Japan was ‘an eerie, if less dramatic, replay of the Great Contraction in the United States’ of the 1930s.
His observation was prescient. In late 1997, Japan was still dealing with the consequences of the asset price bust of the early 1990s and the Asian financial crisis was still unfolding. But Japan was otherwise still seen as an economy experiencing something like a normal business cycle.
Friedman argued that Japanese monetary policy was too tight. His evidence was low inflation, low nominal GDP growth, and low interest rates. The Bank of Japan’s (BoJ) overnight call rate had not yet hit zero per cent, but the zero bound loomed large. Friedman argued that ‘the answer was straightforward: The Bank of Japan could buy government bonds on the open market, paying for them with either currency or deposits at the Bank of Japan’; in other words, engage in quantitative easing (QE).
The BoJ did resort to QE from 2001 to 2006, but with little conviction, serving only to accommodate an increase in the demand for additional reserves on the part of Japan’s troubled financial institutions. With the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, the BoJ pursued QE again, but with insufficient commitment. Today, the level of nominal GDP in Japan is almost unchanged from its level in 1992.
Last week, the BoJ embarked on a much more aggressive approach to QE with a view to raising the inflation rate to 2% in two years. In principle, this goal is achievable, but will be much harder to reach in practice because the BoJ lacks credibility after so many false starts.
Japan’s problems are much deeper than just monetary policy, and only thorough-going structural reform can raise long-run growth in real GDP per capita. But Japan’s problems have been made much worse by the BoJ’s failure to follow Friedman’s advice 15 years ago. Structural reform is harder to achieve in an economy devoid of a long-run nominal anchor.
Dr Stephen Kirchner is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies.