So, Margaret Thatcher is dead. Not exactly unexpected, but a sad loss nonetheless.
I’d hardly be the first to defend her mistakes. The Poll Tax, for example, always seemed to be a cynical attempt to push Labour voters off the electoral roll. Closer EU integration was a disaster. Global Warming perhaps even more so.
But Britain of the 70s was a socialist nation on the fast track to Third World status. The government ran most of the economy, and the unions ran the government. Since WWII there had been a cosy collaboration between the far-left in the Labour party and the wet-left in the Tory party, and scarcely a right-wing politician to say no. The end result was massive inefficiency and bloated overmanning in industries that produced lots of things no-one wanted to buy, when the unions could actually be bothered to go to work. The country was bankrupt and even Idi Amin was offering to send financial aid to help out.
I’m barely old enough to remember much of the 70s, but one of my earliest memories is sitting in the dark, trying to read by candle-light, because the miners were out on strike in sympathy with the bin men and the power stations were shut down (or whatever nonsensical combination of demands happened to have come together that week). Another is regularly being sent to the baker to buy bread, and then having to go home empty-handed because rampant inflation had increased the price yet again.
Thatcher ended that. She broke the power of the union leadership and returned it to the union members. She privatised many nationalised industries and let the inefficient and incompetent collapse. She slashed tax rates, so successful people no longer had to choose between leaving the country or handing most of their income to the government.
For pretty much the first time since WWII, Britain was a country where you could be a success if you weren’t politically connected or a senior union official. The brain drain of skilled workers had been continuous as those who could get out fled to any country where they could lead a better life, many to America, many of the rest to the Commonwealth. Then, while Thatcher was in power, it stopped. Why go when Britain finally valued them again?
And the particularly amusing part is that it was all the unions’ fault. In one of the best examples of left-wing political stupidity prior to their suicide pact in the recent Canadian elections, the unions lead a massive strike campaign in the run-up to the election, turning a small Labour lead into a massive lead for Thatcher.
Sadly, the good times couldn’t last. The left hated her because she stood against everything they believed in. The wet left in her own party hated her because they feared she’d lose the election. So they finally stabbed her in the back. John Major continued similar policies for a few years until the economic recovery was done, then voters threw him out in favour of the New, Improved, Not Socialist Labour Party.
Which spent the next thirteen years bankrupting the country again.
Needless to say, the brain drain rapidly returned and by the time I emigrated in the mid-2000s, Canada had a waiting list of three years or more. It will only get worse as Cameron’s wet-left Tory party replaced Labour with almost identical policies and the 70s returns in re-runs.
For those who missed the 70s in Britain, or don’t understand how it could have been so bad that people were finally willing to throw out the entire post-war consensus, the TV SF of the time may be a good place to start; shows such as 1990, with Edward Woodward as a crusading journalist helping illegal emigrants escape from the UK after the government imposes exit visas to imprison those with skills, The Guardians, with resistance against a totalitarian government of a more fascist persuasion, and the final Quatermass series, where Britain is in the advanced stages of complete social breakdown. Survivors, of course, was very popular because the prospect of 99% of the population dying of a fatal disease could hardly seem worse than a few more years of Ted Heath or James Callaghan in power.
These shows might have been futuristic, but none of them were particularly unbelievable in an era where newspapers talking about the possibility of a military coup. None of them, of course, have been regular repeats; partly, to be fair, because some are not very good — 1990, for example, has one of the least effective totalitarian governments in history — but also because, in left-wing mythology, the 1970s are the utopia to which Britons should aspire. Surely no-one could seriously have imagined the government might have to stop people leaving?