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Did Margaret Thatcher really transform British society?

This article is over 10 years, 10 months old
Thatcher’s attempt to halt the decline of the British establishment was a failure, writes Sadie Robinson
Issue 2348

David Cameron declared of Margaret Thatcher, “She didn’t just lead our country, she saved our country”.

The idea that she “saved” Britain from workers and trade unions is a nonsense used to justify her assault on the working class.

But it isn’t only right wingers who claim that Thatcher permanently changed Britain. Many on the left accepted this too—and used it to justify shifts to the right (see below right).

So we are told that Thatcher smashed the unions and any hope of working class organisation. And that she “bought off” ordinary people by letting them buy their council homes and shares. That she enshrined a culture of individualism and ended any sense of collectivity.

In reality Thatcher was much less successful than she often seems.


It’s true that Thatcher inflicted deep defeats on workers, particularly on the miners. And it’s true that this had a wider impact on the confidence and combativity of the working class.

But Thatcher did not smash our class. Important strikes broke out in the wake of the miners’ defeat. A battle over pay at Ford in 1988 showed a high level of militancy among young workers.

Public sector pay disputes broke out in 1989 on the London Underground, on the railways, in local government and at the BBC. Groups of workers forced the government to concede higher wage rises.

By the end of the 1980s union membership was around 10 million—around half of all those employed. Britain remained one of the best organised countries in terms of the percentage of workers in unions.

Thatcher came in determined to make British capitalism more competitive. This meant driving down wages, forcing up workers’ productivity, cutting public spending and taking on trade unions. 

The Economist magazine argued that workers would need wage cuts of 20 percent to make Britain internationally competitive. Thatcher failed to achieve this.

She couldn’t impose the pay cuts she would have liked to in the public sector. Power workers got a pay rise of over 10 percent while ambulance workers got around 7 percent.

And she didn’t cut public spending as much as she wanted to—in the first half of the 1980s public spending as a proportion of GDP actually rose.

Some people got rich quick and some firms did increase their profitability. But much of this growth was built on the credit boom—and this turned to recession in the late 1980s. 

Thatcher wasn’t able to address the fundamental problems of capitalism. This failing lay behind the rows that raged within the Tory party and eventually forced her out.

She didn’t win most people over to her ideas either. A British Social Attitudes survey in 1987 showed that only a minority of people backed her. 

When asked where profits should go, 53 percent said to investment and just 4 percent said to shareholders. 

In 1983, when Thatcher won her biggest election victory, only 9 percent of people thought public spending should be cut.

Thatcher unleashed a brutal ruling class offensive against ordinary people. But the fact that she was forced out reflected the weakness of British capitalism, not its strength.

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