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How did Margaret Thatcher transform Britain?

In 1979, Downing Street saw its first woman Prime Minister: Margaret Thatcher. She was described as dominating British politics more than any other prime minister of the twentieth century’1, and by the time she had resigned in 1990, Britain had undergone many changes. ‘Thatcherism’ is derived from the many policies she introduced, most of which will be looked at within this essay when answering the question of how Thatcher transformed Britain. In addition, the following factors will be looked at: inflation, education, the National Health Care system, Legalisation, trade union legalization and finally, housing policies.

The first factor to be looked at is inflation. Thatcher can have transformed Britain through several economic policies, such as ‘Commitment’ which ultimately aimed to cut the money supply and boost indirect tax to suppress inflation. However, the most important economic policy was ‘Monetarist,’ which meant ‘high-interest rates and no subsidies to ailing companies’.2 In 1975, inflation within Britain was at an all-time high of 24.2%; however, after Thatcher’s eleven-year reign, it was down to a mere 9.5% in 1990,3, giving evidence to show she had transformed Britain’s economy. However, it can be argued that her policies did not have a lasting effect.

Thus, she did not transform Britain. After she resigned, events such as ‘Black Wednesday’ occurred, which showed her policies were flawed as the pound had to withdraw from currency fix, as the conservative government could not keep sterling above its agreed lower limit.4 Yet despite this, some historians argue that with the introduction of ideologically driven monetarist and deregulatory policies by Margaret Thatcher, the UK was ‘transformed from an insider system to the shareholder-oriented outsider system, which it is today.’5

Education is also another factor to be discussed. In 1998 the ‘Education Act’ was put into place, which allowed parents full control over their child’s education and gave financial accountability to the schools, as Thatcher had a ‘passionate concern for the right of parents to choose for their children the kind of school and teaching they, not the educational establishment, thought best.’6 Thatcher also believed that the system of appointing intellects gave no encouragement to universities to uphold quality values and thus saw away with ‘academic tenure’ within the Education Act.

She also introduced the ‘University Funding Council’ so that low cost would incentivize more students to carry on with higher education. However, the most important transformation British education went under was introducing an ‘National Curriculum’, which stemmed from the Education act, which allowed parents to choose a school based on its league table and success. It also had set subjects to allow all pupils to develop and better understand moral, social, and spiritual issues and prepare children for life’s realities.

Through these policies, Margaret Thatcher transformed British education positively, as many of them stuck and grew, particularly the National Curricular, which is still evident in today’s society, and many historians agree that ‘under her [Thatcher] they had improved the quality of education, and were turning out young people better equipped to face life in society and to develop their own talents.’7 However, historians also suggest that Margaret Thatcher negatively transformed British education, as her policies “…de-emphasized the school’s responsibility to fight social inequality”,8 this meant that due to the vast amount of unemployment, many children of working-class families could not take advantage of any of the new educational opportunities being offered, and this led to the creation of the name ‘Thatcher’s children- the lost generation’ 9 meaning many were declined the opportunity to move forward in education. Although social inequality was not a long term effect of Thatcher’s government, at the time, ‘someone born in 1970 and at secondary school in the 1980s had much less chance of moving up the social class ladder than someone born in 1958,’ 10giving evidence to suggest Thatcher’s educational policies weren’t as revolutionary as first thought.

Thatcher also had a profound effect on the National Healthcare System (NHS), in which she imposed many reforms. She felt that “the NHS was essentially an assemblage of physicians and hospitals, who did their thing and sent the bills to the government.”11 In 1983, she appointed Sir Roy Griffiths, manager of Sainsbury’s supermarket, who was appalled by the NHS system and recommended ‘establishing a central management board and professional management staffs for the regional and district health authorities.’12 This led to the development of an ‘internal market’ within the healthcare system, in which establishments would compete for patients rather than meeting their requirements.

This meant that Thatcher negatively transformed the NHS, as by introducing the idea of ‘provoking competition’ hospitals, even in today’s society, were more concerned with saving money and cutting waiting lists than the quality of care they provide to patients.13 However some historians see Thatcher’s health reforms as positive, as the general ‘internal market’ structure is still shaped into the National Health Care system in today’s society, and that her reforms encourage people to make ‘provisions for themselves, for their own health and insurance’14 and to become more independent and conscious about their health. The reforms were also seen as positive as ‘general state welfare targeted those in real need’.15

Another economy-linked factor was trade union legalisation. The Employment Acts of 1984 made it illegal for a strike to be called without a secret ballot being held. Thatcher views trade unions as ‘responsible for much of Britain’s economic decline’,16. She was very aware of the unprecedented number of strikes that had bedevilled the British economy in the 1970s. Through her policies, she ensured that trade unions before an order for the economy to succeed, and with long-term unemployment, failed attempts at strikes (e.g. printers strike of 1981). With her legalisation, any form of a strike was bound to fail. Her policies weakened the unions, the main source of union power, decline by half in the early 1980s.

In 1979 over 13.5 million workers, or 57% potential membership, had fallen to just 35% in 1992, 17showing the huge impact she had made on the British economy. She transformed Britain in the sense that even in 2009, trade unions are still struggling to find their strength in the 1970s. Thatcher, along with miner’s leader Arthur Scargill, had supposedly managed ‘to destroy the power of the trade unions for almost a generation. Historians also view this as having a negative effect in her attempts to transform Britain, as trade unions effectively represent worker’s rights. During Thatcher’s reign, ‘they lost their power, influence, millions of members and a large swathe of their rights’, 18therefore many people were subjected to poor working conditions and low wages, with no real ‘legal’ way to voice their objections or offers for improvement.

The final economic factor is homeownership. Again, Thatcher can be said to have transformed Britain as her policy, the 1980 Housing Bill19, lasted well after her reign and allowed council house tenants the ability to buy their homes. It is estimated that since the Bill, millions of people and families were able to purchase their houses, showing she helped transform Britain in the housing aspect.

To conclude, it is far to say that Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain by saving the British economy when it faced high inflation through her economic policies and that through her strength of leadership and ability to stand her ground, she was able to sacrifice trade unions for the economy, despite the effect this had on workers rights. She also changed education in Britain, as her policies, such as the ‘National Curriculum’ are still effective in today’s society and constantly built on and improved. The healthcare system also still embodies the ‘internal market’ structure, which Thatcher helped build. Thatcher also made it possible for families to purchase their homes. Therefore, it can be said that it was her leadership and intellectual ability that inspired her policies that transformed Britain.

Word count: 1475 (inc. Footnotes)

Books

Ambler, John, Comparative Politics, vol. 20, (New York, City University of New York Press,1987)

Dignam, Alan, and Michael Galanis. The Globalization of Corporate Governance. (Oxford: Ashgate, 2009)

Jones, Bill, and Dennis Kavanagh. British Politics Today. (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004)

Lee, Stephen J.. Aspects of British Political History 1914-1995 (Aspects of History). (New York: Routledge, 1996)

Lewis, Russell. Margaret Thatcher: A Personal and Political Biography. (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul plc, 1984)

Pilcher, Dr. Jane, and Steven Wagg. Thatcher’s Children?: Politics, Childhood And Society In The 1980s And 1990s (The World of Childhood & Adolescence). (New York: Routledge, 1996)

Reitan, Earl A.. The Thatcher Revolution: Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, and the Transformation of Modern Britain. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003)

Websites

“Historical UK Inflation And Price Conversion.” Safalra’s Website. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2009. <http://www.safalra.com/other/cumulative-historical-uk-inflation/>.

Porter, Andrew. “Margaret Thatcher’s time.” Telegraph. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2009. < http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2182547/Inequality-worse-under-Labour-than-during-Margaret-Thatchers-time.html>.

“Q2 insolvency figures decline as UK individuals batten down the hatches against the economic storm.” Grant Thornton. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2009. <http://www.grant-thornton.co.uk/thinking/press_room/q2_insolvency_figures_decline.aspx>.

“The Thatcher Years: the individual and society | SkyMinds.Net.” SkyMinds.Net ~ by Matt. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2009. <http://www.skyminds.net/politics/inequalities-in-great-britain-in-the-19th-and-20th-centuries/the-thatcher-years-the-individual-and-society>.

“Trade Unions.” BBC. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2009. <news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/2701899.stm >.

Wilenius, Paul. “Unions.” BBC. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2009. < http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/3067563.stm>.

  1. S. Lee, Aspects of British Political History 1914-1995, p.229
  2. Bill Jones, Dennis Kavanagh, British politics today, p.203
  3. http://www.safalra.com/other/cumulative-historical-uk-inflation/
  4. http://www.grant-thornton.co.uk/thinking/press_room/q2_insolvency_figures_decline.aspx
  5. Alan Dignam, Michael Galanis, The Globalization of Corporate Governance, p.XV
  6. Russell Lewis, Margaret Thatcher: a personal and political biography, p.80
  7. Ibid., p.80
  8. John S. Ambler, Comparative Politics, vol. 20, p.85
  9. Jane Pilcher, Stephen Wagg, Thatcher’s children?: politics, childhood and society in the 1980s and 1990s, p.3
  10. Andrew Porter, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2182547/Inequality-worse-under-Labour-than-during-Margaret-Thatchers-time.html
  11. Earl A. Reitan, The Thatcher Revolution: Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, And The Transformation Of Modern Britain, p. 101
  12. Ibid., p.102
  13. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/2701899.stm

14 & 15 http://www.skyminds.net/politics/inequalities-in-great-britain-in-the-19th-and-20th-centuries/the-thatcher-years-the-individual-and-society

16 Earl A. Reitan, The Thatcher Revolution: Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, And The Transformation Of Modern Britain, p. 61

17 Ibid., p.66

18 Paul Wilenius, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/3067563.stm

19 S. Lee, Aspects of British Political History 1914-1995, p.237

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