Thatcher and us

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By Alex Robertson

Mao Tse Tung was once asked what he thought the effect of the French Revolution had been on France, Europe and the world. ‘Far too early to say’ was his short response.

I felt like that when I heard the news of the death of Lady Thatcher. But pundits, whether in studios or newsdesks, armchairs or folk in George Square far too young to have even been alive when she was in office, are not to be deterred by such ‘long view’ notions such as Mr. Mao.

And much of what is written about her ’legacy’ is wrong, as in untrue. It is not the Falklands, the downfall of Communism, and even socialism, but her economic policies that come in for the most attacks. She is accused of being divisive, of destroying companies, industries and jobs, and most of the attacks are well off target.

She had her views, but the ‘division’ was caused because not everyone agreed. But the answer was not for her to bury her thinking, suppress her reasoning and do nothing, but to present her case, persuade and convince. That is not division, it is debate. And the alternative is tyranny.

To get a perspective of what she did, it must be understood that the UK in 1979 was a complete basket case. Governments after Atlee had adopted “Butskillism”, an unholy amalgam of policies of least resistance, consensus at all costs and survival in government by not doing anything unpopular for fear of frightening away voters. It was cosy, but it was also deeply a betrayal of the best interests of the people who put them in their big offices and fancy cars, who trusted them to keep them safe and lead them wisely.

As a result, taxpayer money was used to bankroll inefficient and uncompetitive companies, no longer adapting to world market changes. And that led directly to an economy which was in the last stages of sclerosis.

The virtue of Mrs. Thatcher was her ability, eagerness even, and immense courage to tackle problems head-on, calling a spade a spade and basing every action on an understanding of the most detailed evidence. Through hard work, ferociously hard work, and a brilliant intellect, she saw, where few others did, that things simply could not go on as they were.

Survival meant profound change, which had been for far too long neglected. She then had the courage, unequalled since Churchill, to see through policies to correct the appalling state of UK finances and commerce. Strong currency, free markets, private enterprise were her main weapons. And she succeeded in her ambitions spectacularly.

Without her, the UK would have simply gone bankrupt and been a failed state by the mid-eighties. She did indeed save our country. And we were in as great a danger then as a country than we had been in 1939. In a very real sense, she was a war leader determined to save her country. Remarkably she always said clearly what she was going to do and she always did what she said she would. And she was elected with big majorities three times in a row.

But make no mistake; I am not claiming she was perfect, or that she bore no responsibility for the dreadful damage and hurt and pain that change like that inevitably brings with it. Avoiding it was not an option, but her failure was one which is still alive and well today and will cause much hurt and damage as well.

Mrs. Thatcher thought mostly, perhaps only, of getting the ‘supply’ side of the economy right. But she cared way too little, or more precisely, did way too little about the consequences of the policies. The result was that ordinary people paid the price for the incompetence and feckless dereliction of duty of those who for decades had control of the levers of power. Unemployment, was probably the greatest scourge, and poverty.

Nobody can deny that great harm was done to the lives of ordinary people. But please do not make the mistake of thinking things could have been left as they were. That way would have lain much more devastating waste and ruin.

And today the true legacy of Mrs. Thatcher is alive and well and flourishing again. And if we don’t learn the correct lessons from her record, then we will be condemned to live through it all over again.

The nineties and naughties brought more irresponsible and self-serving leadership. And the result is crippling debt and grossly inflated government spending today. There is a good argument to be had as to how to deal with these problems, which ought never to have been allowed to happen, but some things are very clear, Cuts there have to be, austerity is to be our main weapon.

But the ‘Thatcher gap’ is still there. It is not acceptable and we should not tolerate or accept that nothing, or nowhere near enough, is being done to ameliorate or mitigate the harsh effects on the lives of ordinary people. Socialism, communism, are both dead, but so too should be unqualified  Thatcherism. It is no longer acceptable that the people pay the bills run up by the so called leaders of the past.

Change there must be – dinosaurs must die, but we need to find clever ways of safeguarding the basic needs of ordinary people, people who lose their job because management have failed to adapt to changing markets and conditions. And people who are hit by the bedroom tax and welfare cuts because the politicians fell asleep on the job or were lazy and did not see the problems developing.

It is not fair to blame Mrs. Thatcher for destroying mining, steel or other manufacturing industries. They were already failed. Other places delivered better goods cheaper, our markets were drying up. Arthur Scargill was the one who called a miners’ strike without a ballot, at the beginning of summer, when he knew that coal stocks had been built up. All she did was remove the protective hand held for too long over the heads of dinosaur companies.

The real lesson to draw from the Thatcher government is that we have to raise our game, and raise our expectations and requirements from governments and companies. It is not acceptable to fall asleep on the job as a manager, any more than it is for the driver of a train or the pilot of an aircraft.

And it is not acceptable that the bill for the mistakes of a few to have to be paid by the ordinary people, the travelers and passengers. We cannot let bankers slink away without paying the bills they ran up, nor forgive politicians who cared only about winning elections and let the country go to hell. We must not be afraid to let dinosaurs die.

Mr. Cameron is doing it all again today. So what does all this mean for Scots and Scotland now nearly 25 years after she left office?

We should learn that a government in London is far too far away to be dragged back into the real world of Scots today. We need government close to the people, on a short leash, but we need too to retain the ability to see problems face-on, without fudging or hiding in sophistry or denying their existence.

Mrs. Thatcher got one half of the equation dead right. It was the management of consequential damage she got badly wrong. And that is the lesson we must learn for own good. And do something to ensure never happens again in Scotland.

I have no doubt she tried her best, believed she was doing the right thing, and had a drive and focus which was relentless. She gave her best years to the country, and to the world. The lady is dead. Let her rest in peace now, and let her be laid to rest in dignity.

Alex Robertson is a retired entrepreneur and is now a writer and columnist.