Were the policy intentions of the Thatcher governments assisted or hindered by the structure of the British state

Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Mrs Thatcher had one of the most significant, and controversial, premierships of post-war Britain. She attempted to transform Britain at political, economic and social levels. The Thatcher government considered itself ‘a radical government which sought to reverse British decline’1 and Thatcher claimed that ‘the balance had be tilted too far in favour of the State at the expense of individual freedom’2. The title contains two key elements: ‘policy intentions’ and ‘the structure of the British state’.

The former may be taken as the plan or purpose of the Thatcher governements to achieve their aims. Many of their fundamental objectives were outlined in their 1979 Manifesto. The latter proves more difficult to define precisely. The definition of state, given in ‘The Routledge Dictionary of Politics’, is ‘the whole fixed political system, the set-up of authoritative and legitimately powerful roles by which we are finally controlled, ordered, and organised’3. This is to include primarily Parliament and local government.

However, trade unions have represented a large proportion of the British labour force and have been integral to the functioning of the British state, so they shall also be included as part of the structure. Firstly, this essay shall consider the reasoning behind their policies and place the rise of the New Right in context. Secondly, it is necessary to analyse what exactly were their policy intentions before assessing their success. Thirdly, the influence of the different aspects of the British state on the policies shall be considered.

Finally, the degree of success of the policy intentions shall be weighed up. The rise of the New Right has been attributed to political and economic events during the 1970s. As Japan and the European Community improved productivity, US supremacy declined. Recession ensued and governments were blamed for economic mismanagement e. g. the UK had to be rescued financially by the IMF. Social democratic policies such as citizenship, economic management, representation and planning were discredited and corporatist government seemed to be increasingly weak, ineffective and indecisive.

The New Right, including Thatcherism, developed their policies as responses to this breakdown of authority and the perceived failure of the post-war social democratic consensus. However, because policies often resulted from different crises of state authority, one criticism of their policy intentions was that they lacked a single focus. Furthermore, Thatcherism attempted to combine the two strands of the British right: conservative and liberal. This led to the broad policy aims of creating a free economy and creating a free state.

The former comprised neo-liberal policies, resulting from ‘conviction politics’, which rejected planning and tripartism, and attacked intervention in markets. Inherent in the latter was the restoration of Victorian values such as patriotism, discipline, order and authority. The context in which the Thatcher opposition, and then government, formulated their policy intentions is important in understanding how they were received by the electorate and institutions of the state. Having considered the broad aims of the New Right, the specific policy intentions of the Thatcher governments need to be considered.

Andrew Gamble cites the five key aims of the Conservative Party in 1979: ‘to restore the health of economic and social life; to restore incentives; to uphold Parliament and the rule of law; to support family life; to strengthen Britain’s defences’4 The first two aims may be associated with the creation of a free economy and the last three are linked to the creation of the strong state. More specific aims were financial stability, reductions in taxation and public expenditure, privatisation and deregulation, and to effect a long-term shift in the social structure.

The lack of a single focus and the fundamental liberal-conservative split within the Conservative party has meant that some of these policies had to be compromised or postponed due to their conflicting nature. For example, the promised reduction in income tax was postponed until 1986 because financial stability was considered more of a priority. Passing legislation and enacting their policies did not prove difficult for the Thatcher governments. They enjoyed a large majority in the House of Commons because a divided opposition and the geographical concentration of their support made them electorally strong.

Furthermore, the House of Lords also had a Conservative majority which meant that legislation was less likely to be delayed. A number of acts were passed with virtually no amendments, such as the 1980 Housing Act and the Trade Union Act of 1984. There was little consultation over policy with those outside Parliament. For example, the trade unions were not consulted over the Trade Union and Employment Acts which reduced their political role. Thus, it could be said that Parliament did not hinder the Thatcher governments’ policy intentions.

Moreover, the first-past-the-post electoral system and its consequences arguably increased Conservative hegemony and assisted the enactment of Thatcherite policies. The implementation of economic management policy became more flexible over time but the key policy aims did not change significantly. Financial stability was extremely important because the government wished to avoid the recession and potential depression in the 1970s and they recognised that financial stability would give an impression of political competence.

Moreover, it was a fundamental principle of monetarism. Much of the shift towards monetarist principles had already occurred under the Wilson-Callaghan government so the Thatcherite policies were not as radical as perhaps suggested. It could also imply that further monetarist policies would meet less resistance from the Opposition. Although not mentioned in the 1979 Manifesto, denationalisation became a crucial part of Thatcherite policy. However, no industry strategy was devised and the restructuring of British industry was left alone by the government.

Privatisation involved little consultation with relevant parties before legislation was passed, but was also passed with few amendments. The Thatcher government wanted to increase firms’ international competitiveness and transparency. Given the trade unions’ power during the 1960s and 1970s, the 1979 Thatcher government was initially very cautious and modest in its approach towards trade union reform. They saw the trade unions as potential obstacles to policies of redundancy and restructuring in order to increase profitability. However, the trade unions proved to be less of a hindrance to policy intentions than initially thought.

Their blanket immunity was removed in 1982 and other immunities were also reduced. According to the 1990 Employment Act trade unions could be held responsible for unauthorized strike action unless they categorically opposed it. Trade unions had little impact on policy and the few consultations they had with the government were effectively futile. The only real political impact of note was their success in persuading the government to withdraw their policy intention of ‘contracting in’ to the political fund as opposed to the existing policy of contracting out.

Such legislation reducing their power was demoralising and led to a general political retreat of the unions. Furthermore, internal splits within the trade unions exacerbated their loss of influence. Trade unions complied with legislation for the most part, which allowed the government to repeal the consequently worthless 1971 Industrial Relations Act – this reinforced its policy intentions. Any problems with compliance were dealt with in an uncompromising, strong and decisive manner such as the strikes of the National Union of Miners (NUM) in 1984-5 and the print union strikes in 1983 and 1986.

The government’s unflinching position exuded governing competence – something that could not be attributed to the Labour government ten years earlier during the ‘Winter of Discontent’. Therefore, trade unions hindered the government less than had been expected and the government was able to reassert its authority over them. However, they did not go so far as to assist the government apart from remaining passive and retreating from the political sphere.

One element of the British state, which impeded the policy intentions of the Thatcher government, was that of local government. Thatcher policy over local government involved delegating responsibility to agencies of sub-central government and quangos such as the Urban Development Corporations but their attempts to do this gradually led to increasing centralist powers. They cut regional support by i?? 233 million or one third of the original budget and imposed restrictions on local authority expenditure as part of their public spending reduction policy.

There were major problems in implementing these policies because central government did not anticipate the response of local authorities and repeatedly antagonised them. The government also abolished the Greater London Council and the Metropolitan Counties in 1985, removing large and potentially influential local authority bodies which could hinder and refuse to comply with government policy aims. During the Thatcher governments, central government was increasingly unable to control local government and sought methods of circumventing them, causing a deterioration in their relations.

What the government did not realise and what proved crucial, was that central government needed at least some cooperation from local government if their policy aims were to be implemented successfully. Thus, not all parts of the British state assisted, or were manipulated by the government to assist, the policy intentions of the Thatcher governments. One of the Thatcher Governments’ long-term policy intentions was to effect a cultural shift in the electorate. In order for their other policies to function effectively, they needed to ensure that electorate behaved in a way that assisted the market order.

They believed that there ought to be a mass of intermediate insitutions lying between the state and the individual so that the former could not exploit and manipulate the latter. Crewe thought that the social trends of 1980s Britain were on the Conservatives’ side electorally. The population had become more skilled and middle-class, reducing Labour’s traditional working-class support. Dogmatic policies towards reducing public expenditure meant that the government alienated many professionals whilst in office.

However, Pippa North believes that the electorate was not convinced by Thatcherism in 1990 and had become increasingly disaffected with their policies throughout. Thatcherites had hoped to instil a new sense of patriotism into the population, yet in 1985, 42% of voters had less pride in Britain than they had had five years earlier5. Voters also preferred employment to financial stability and did not want the government to reduce spending in order to cut taxes. Profound social change was important to the government in fulfilling their policy intentions.

Although not directly part of the state, social attitudes of the electorate can influence discussion and debate within Parliament and other elements of the State. The government had already proved that it could control Parliament but in order to carry out its policies, it needed electoral support to be re-elected. In conclusion, the Thatcher government met relatively little resistance to its policy intentions throughout its time in office. The electoral system and the ineffectual Labour Party meant that legislation was hardly questioned before it was passed, assisting Thatcher Governments’ policy intentions.

Trade Unions did not hinder the Government as regularly as might have been expected and, following legislation, retreated from political debate which arguably assisted the Thatcher Governments. Local government did hinder policy intentions because they were increasingly incensed by central government policy and did not cooperate easily. Either as a result of existing conditions or due to Government manipulation, policy intentions were generally unhindered. However, this did not guarantee policy success, which was affected by wider socio-economic and global factors as well.