Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

There’s no point bagging Thatcher over cash crisis

There was a time in my first job, at the supposedly apolitical BBC, when most of my contemporaries suddenly sprouted little lapel badges with the defensive legend: ‘Don't blame me, I voted Labour.’

Not by temperament a badge-wearer, I found the phenomenon rather juvenile. But, of course, not displaying one was tantamount to having ‘Blame me ...’ tattooed in capitals across my forehead.

Well, 20 years or so later, you can blame me all you like. But I stand by my votes in those years. And, contrary to what you may now be led to believe by a generation of Thatcher-haters in influential places, the notion that the lady — 83 last Monday — is in any way the author of today's crunch and crash reflects revisionism of the most pernicious kind.

I only wish she were strong enough and engaged enough to defend herself, in characteristically robust fashion, from the slurs.

The very suggestion that what we are now watching is the “death of Thatcherism” — to quote but one influential commentator (from, as it happens, the BBC) — is to distort everything that Margaret Thatcher really stood for. That distortion may be wilful or ignorant.

But to blame Mrs Thatcher, even indirectly, for share-dealers who over-reached themselves, for once-august institutions that lent irresponsibly, for the evolution of a derivatives market so complex that debt was opaque is wrong: all this is about as far from Thatcherism as it is possible to be.

Let's be clear (she always was). ‘Greed is good’, as a concept, was born on Wall Street out of Ayn Rand. It had nothing to do with Thatcher.

And who was it who was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich?’ Why, New Labour's just ennobled Peter Mandelson. And who were the ministers who hobnobbed with celebrities and enjoyed the patronage of the new rich? Not Margaret Thatcher. That came later.

Her relationship to money was the one she had learned as the grocer's daughter — as was repeatedly held against her by those better-off or higher-born than she was.

It was about hard work, honesty and living within your means. Yes, it was also about self-improvement, enterprise and enjoying the fruits of your labours (that is, not wanting to see it squandered by government).

But it was certainly not about ‘something for nothing’ and had zero in common with so-called ‘casino capitalism’.

That was a later excrescence that I hope and believe any Thatcher government would have stopped.

It is worth revisiting exactly how she did, and did not, use her high office.

Yes, she sold off council houses. But the mistake lay not in selling them off at a discount to long-time residents, but in not using the proceeds to fund more low-cost housing and in the speculation that followed from inadequate residence requirements.

The Big Bang lifted some — not all — of the regulatory shackles on the City; it also presupposed a timeless business code of honour which, regrettably, flattered some of the would-be new rich.

Her privatisation programme encouraged the ‘Sids’ of this world to become shareholders. Overall, she cut public ownership by 60%. But it was not Mrs Thatcher who privatised the railways.

Nor, perhaps most important of all, was it Mrs Thatcher who made the Bank of England independent. She flirted with the idea, only to reject it decisively and on principle — the principle being that the national bank was a lever that ought to remain in the hands of the elected government.

Given the regulatory mess left behind — as exposed by the collapse of Northern Rock — her conservative instinct was right.

Not instinct, but training, explains another, often neglected, feature of Thatcherism. As a natural scientist, she distrusted social scientists, and that included economists. She recruited the monetarist, Alan Walters, because she was sceptical of the establishment consensus.

Monetarism also gave you something to count, and as a scientist, she also liked to get to grips with hard evidence.

If she had been Prime Minister in the late Nineties, I wonder how long it would have taken her to ask where all the ‘real’ money had come from to fuel the housing market, the City salaries and those bonuses.

And if the answer had been mumbled talk about ‘collateralised debt obligations’ and other such, I think she might have wanted to know some more.

As a visual aid, I offer you Mrs Thatcher's handbag.

It was functional. It was not carried to make a design or wealth statement.

If it had any secondary purpose at all, it was to satisfy cartoonists and wallop Jacques Delors.

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