You get a sense that media on this side of the Atlantic are more fond of the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher than their British counterparts. And this reminds me that who gets to the top of the journalistic establishment probably has a lot to do with what they think of Thatcher’s hard-right policies.
People talk about transformational politicians. But watching Margaret Thatcher take down the British class system was an education in how it’s really done.
Ignatius observed this as “a graduate student at Cambridge in 1974 and 1975, a time when the class-bound straitjacket of British politics was painfully evident, but still unbreakable.” As he saw it, “The Labor Party had returned to power at the end of the coal strike of 1974, a union-organized exercise in national suicide,” and Thatcher thankfully “opened the way for a politically powerful British middle class.”
I returned to London in 1980 as a young journalist. Thatcher had been elected prime minister the year before, and already you began to hear the early rumblings of what came to be known as “the big bang” that opened the financial sector to competition. Making money (as opposed to inheriting it) became fashionable. The power of the trade unions slowly eroded; the upper classes became porous; the new money could afford the fancy Belgravia townhouses and the country estates; and pretty soon people stopped asking who your parents were. Life became a Ralph Lauren ad.
But by the available economic evidence, British society did not resemble Ignatius’ impression. Under Thatcher inequality increased, as did poverty. So did unemployment. The country’s economy did not even post particularly impressive growth during the Thatcher years. Union membership saw a steep decline, though–that “achievement” stands out. And despite Ignatius’ sense that “the upper classes became porous,” it’s hard to see evidence of that in any of the indicators of social mobility. This was not so much taking down the class system as waging a kind of class war on the poor and working class. But the country as experienced by a young graduate student at Cambridge was changing, perhaps.
And it wasn’t just Ignatius who came away with this impression. New York Times correspondent John Burns, appearing on the PBS News Hour (4/9/13), declared that according to “the overwhelming opinion in this country,” Thatcher was “possibly the greatest peacetime prime minister of the 20th century.” And he obviously concurred with that assessment:
The Britain I grew up in, in the wake of the Second World War, was a country which was in precipitous decline, which had entirely lost its national self-confidence. And Mrs. Thatcher put that right.
It might not surprise, then, to see Burns in the pages of the Times (4/11/13) expressing disappointment with the many Britons did not feel the same way as he did upon hearing the news of Thatcher’s passing. Burns observed “a parallel, and deeply antagonistic, critique…. An arch-advocate of modernizing Britain, Mrs. Thatcher has effectively been put into the stocks of the Internet age.” Burns took note that the anti-Thatcher protests
occurred in areas that took the hardest hits from Mrs. Thatcher’s drive to pare back the frontiers of the state, including coal-mining districts, mainly in the Midlands and the north, where hundreds of thousands lost their jobs from the Thatcher government’s decision to close down heavily subsidized mines that produced high-priced coal that found no buyers.
And so it was elsewhere in the U.S. press. “I grew up admiring Margaret Thatcher,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Fareed Zakaria (4/11/13), who went on to argue that Thatcherism worked back then, but might not work to solve today’s economic problems. As economist Dean Baker (Beat the Press, 4/11/13) writes in a response, the modern economic problems Zakaria identifies as “are largely the result of Thatcherism.” Baker explains:
A main reason that workers have to struggle to keep their wages up is that central banks have deliberately raised unemployment in order to keep inflation low. This weakens the bargaining power of workers, especially those in the bottom half of the wage distribution.
The high unemployment of recent years can be attributed to a policy of financial regulation that allowed for banks to grow large with the implicit subsidy of a government granted too big to fail guarantee. It also required central banks to conduct monetary and regulatory policy without regard to asset bubbles.
Thatcher and her kindred spirits in the United States and elsewhere worked to weaken labor unions. This has also reduced the ability of workers to secure their share of gains from productivity growth.
The fond recollections of Thatcherism are a reminder that elite journalists are not likely to be the children of coal miners and trade unionists who suffered under Thatcher. They are not children of the working poor or the unemployed. Those people would likely scratch their heads at David Ignatius’ article, unable to recognize the country he’s writing about.