Thatcherism – Some hard truths

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In recent news I have been particularly concerned by the vast outpouring of sentiment for Margaret Thatcher over the past day or so. The same rhetoric has been repeated over and over again such as, “She changed the world” and, “the greatest prime minister in modern peace time“. However the most astonishing comment has to be from a fellow named David Cameron who proclaimed, “She saved our country“.

Now I am against the need to follow the standard cultural etiquette of not speaking against someone just because they have passed away. Individuals, particularly influential individuals should be judged on their contribution whether dead or alive. The ability to do this however has non-surprisingly been attacked by many Tory affiliates, for instance former Tory MP Louise Mensch has tweeted, “Pygmies of the left so predictably embarrassing yourselves, know this: not a one of your leaders will ever be globally mourned like her”.

So lets look at the facts, in 1979 when she came to power the country was experiencing double digit inflation, many major industries were in decline and trade unions had brought the country to a standstill in instances such as the winter of discontent. However by a combination of sweeping changes such as privatization, deregulation, industrial relations reform, taxation and deflationary measures the country began to find its feet again. After an initial recession the end result was what has be termed an economic miracle. The graph below shows the change in both inflation and GDP since Thatcher was elected.

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This is what David Cameron was referring to when he proclaimed Thatcher saved the nation, GDP growth averaged 3.09% in the 1980s compared to 2.07% in the 1970s. Meanwhile inflation was reduced significantly to single digit values. However all too often politicians, the media and economists focus on such indicators as a sign of development and prosperity. There is a large debate within economics whether GDP is indicator we should be targeting when considering development and well-being. For instance, economist Richard Easterlin discovered empirically that found differences in income across countries and time did not signify a change in levels of happiness and well being. However he found within countries levels of income did positively correspond with levels of happiness.  The findings which became known as the “Easterlin Paradox” led Easterlin to theorize that changes in income do not affect happiness and well-being, relative income is what really matters. In this sense individuals derive happiness from being more well off than their peers, human beings are therefore constantly trying to “Keep up with the Jones”.

In this sense it could be argued that income inequality would be a better indicator to judge Thatcher’s economic performance. During her time in power the UK’s gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality with 0 representing a situation of perfect equality and 100 a situation of perfect inequality, increased from 27.39 in 1979 to 30.54 in 1980. Now this may not seem a great amount but in comparison from 1963 to 1979 (the furthest back the data goes) income inequality had only increased from 26.3 to 27.39 despite surges in inflation.

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Other measures of income inequality by the IFS estimate the rise in income inequality to be even higher (gini coefficients and inequality measurements are usually dependent on the method used and can vary considerably).

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In the above graph we can see that the level of inequality increased by nearly 8 points from 25.3 in 1979 to 33.9 in 1990. In addition to this the level of poverty also increased substantially during Thatchers reign.

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The graph above shows that the percentage of people living below 60% of the median income increased from 13.4% in 1979 to 22.2% by the end of her reign in 1990. The webpage from which these graphs came paints an even grimmer picture such as a rising gender pay gap and record unemployment.

Thatcher’s policies such as the deregulation of the financial markets; the weakening of the trade unions; income tax cuts and the adjustment of industrial policy have all been highlighted by a number of authors as contributing to a wider gap between rich and poor. Although her policies promoted economic growth, this growth was not inclusive and the majority of the benefits accrued to the top end of the income scale. Furthermore it could be argued that the her legacy of promoting the deregulation of financial markets started a inevitable slide towards the 2008 financial crisis.

The death of Margaret Thatcher therefore leaves us to look at how we judge economic performance and development. If economic growth is all that matters then Thatcher’s reign could be considered a relative success. However if we are more concerned with the wider benefits of such growth issues of income inequality should become more prioritized.  Unfortunately this seems to have bypassed our current leader who unquestioned claimed that Margaret Thatcher saved the country. The reality is however, that in the long term, Thatcher’s policies led to a sustained increase in income inequality, decreases in social cohesion and arguably an inevitable road to economic collapse.

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