In advance of our event The Legacy of the Iron Lady: Are we all Thatcher's Children? on Tuesday 13 November, we invited former Labour MP Clare Short and Mark Field MP to tell us what they think the impact and legacy of Margaret Thatcher was on Britain.
Clare Short in her words:
I am one of those, I have found there are many, who avoided watching the recent film about Mrs Thatcher because we did not want to be touched by the plight of a poor old lady, when we remember the harm she did to so many people.
In my old constituency of Birmingham Ladywood, we saw terrible rise in unemployment and had riots in 1981 and 1985, quite unlike anything that had previously happened in my lifetime. I also remember people coming to see me at my advice sessions and weeping over the poll tax bills that they simply could not pay.
But it is said that Mrs Thatcher considered her greatest achievement to have been Tony Blair, or new Labour more generally, and I think that would be a reasonable claim. Inequality in Britain increased massively in the Thatcher era and this was not reversed by new Labour in power. Britain is now one of the most unequal countries in the OECD and the 3rd worst in social immobility. It also shares with the US the distinction of having the highest share of low-paid employees in the workforce at 20.6%.
This means that the country I grew up in and gave me my life opportunities and values has gone. It also means all those unhappy things that highly unequal countries experience, more crime, mental illness, drink and drug addiction, teenage pregnancy etc etc. It isn't all her fault personally; neoliberalism is the zeitgeist. But it is what she did to the country and I think she made it a lesser place.
Mark Field MP in his words:
I was a grammar schoolboy in the 1970s and I vividly recall being repelled by the politics of envy and the class war rhetoric of that period. Britain had become complacent about its place in the world and was being left behind. Energy crises, rising inflation and untamed unions dogged successive governments. The Winter of Discontent left rubbish uncollected and coffins unburied, provided the iconic images to accompany this sclerotic era.
The 1979 election represented a real crossroads moment. Against a backdrop of paralysis, Margaret Thatcher presented a distinctive and radical offering to the electorate. For those who now bemoan her as a divisive politician, they might well recall the divided and dysfunctional country she inherited. By the time she left office, she had restored a sense of confidence in our nation and Britain was a more exciting, prosperous and dynamic place.
Mrs Thatcher understood aspiration in a way that the modern Conservative Party perhaps has not. She encouraged individual share ownership, the buying of council houses and liberalised the domestic economy so that people felt freer to set up businesses. She led the world on privatisation and actively encouraged competition.
Politically, she changed this country beyond recognition. Whatever her detractors say, Mrs Thatcher was chosen democratically by Britons in three consecutive elections. Not only did she effectively leave the Labour Party out in the cold for eighteen years but she forced it to accept the need to change fundamentally by adopting some of the economic principles to which she so passionately adhered, giving birth to New Labour.
In my own constituency of the Cities of London & Westminster, Mrs Thatcher’s most notable legacy is in the liberalisation of the City following the 1986 Big Bang of financial deregulation, something that is now being regularly held up as the cause of the 2008 financial crash. Doubtless with hindsight, some of those changes would have been designed differently. However it was the combination of Big Bang with a new tripartite system of regulation, excessively loose monetary policy and the consequent expansion of credit and overleveraging of households and governments that contributed to the bust. Mrs Thatcher was a crusader for tight monetary policy and abhorred debt.
If twenty-first century Britain is a portrait of Mrs Thatcher’s legacy, it has only shades of the Iron Lady.
Clare Short and Mark Field MP will continue this debate in The Legacy of the Iron Lady: Are we all Thatcher's Children? on Tuesday 13 November. Also taking part in this discussion will be author and journalist Owen Jones and chair Aditya Chakrabortty (The Guardian)