I’ve been hanging back a bit on the topic of Margaret Thatcher’s death for a couple of reasons.  One is the straightforward John Donne idea that anyone’s death diminishes us – ask not for whom the bell tolls and all that.  My wife and I attended a friend’s sixtieth birthday party a few years ago, and one part of the evening included a group gleefully singing how happy they would be when Maggie Thatcher dies.  We are both Labour Party members, worked in the public sector in the north of England and saw the damage, were passed by convoys of police during the miners’ strike, and opposed Thatcherism and all its doings, but we both felt a bit sour about the show.  The other reason for my hesitance is my unwillingness to be drawn into the two major camps. Camp one – the Joan of Arc tendency – claims that Margaret Thatcher saved the country from becoming an economic basket-case, in thrall to trade union demagogues and foreign governments.  The Sunday Times printed an extraordinary cover to its Thatcher Tribute, with the lady dressed as a medieval knight (eerily similar to a Nazi Hitler poster).  Some rich men astonishingly suggested a minute’s silence at national sporting events.  Camp Two – Margaret Thatcher was a vicious class warrior who closed down manufacturing and mining, and whose policies were aimed at the destruction of the welfare state and the transfer of money from poor to rich.  I suppose the posh word for my view of Thatcher is that it is ‘nuanced’: you may feel ‘confused’ is closer to the mark, but then, you would.  And one reason to write is to find out what you think.

And I’m not sure I believe either.  Here goes:

  • I think it’s a mistake to regard Thatcher’s economic policies as having saved Britain. Economic growth was actually slower after she came to power than before.  To some extent that reflects something that happened the world over, as the era of cheap energy came to an end, but it is still something that the Times, Express, Telegraph, Mail (and even the BBC) have not acknowledged.  Even those who presented a balanced view said she saved the economy at the expense of society; well, er, up to a point, because …
  • … we must not forget the enormous bonus of North Sea Oil which came ashore just as she took power. I remember attending a campaign meeting in 1979, where Shirley Williams – then Labour Education Minister – predicted that whoever won the election would be in power for fifteen years, because of the oil wealth.  At its peak, oil was supplying 16% of government revenues, and that (and the coming of floating exchange rates) meant an end to the exchange rate/balance of payments crises that had dominated 1960s politics.
  • But oil wealth is a double edged sword. It provides government tax income – funding a reduction in income tax at the top from 83% to 40%, and at the lower rate from 35% to 20%.  Maybe it would have been better for the government to keep its hands on the money, Norway style, to build up investments for the future, but then, we could have done that ourselves with our tax breaks, couldn’t we ?  We could have bought shares and bonds, rather than Japanese and German cars.  The down side of oil wealth is that it keeps your exchange rate higher than it would have been, making it harder for other industries to compete with cheaper foreign imports and raising the price of our exports.  At least part of the decline of manufacturing for which she is blamed was due to this.
  • The decline of manufacturing was replicated in other countries (such as the USA – see the Rust Belt). Given the rise of the Asian manufacturing superpowers, maybe this wasn’t a bad thing.  Did we really want to be competing with low cost Chinese manufactures in the 2000s ?  Wasn’t finance and services the sensible way to go ?  I think the main criticism of Thatcher’s government – and others, before and after – was that there was insufficient consistent support for the high tech, high skill industries that would have been part of a balanced economy.  Technical education was neglected then attacked (academic education was better funded throughout), university science ignored then cut, and government support for technology was patchy.
  • The relation with the trade unions is an area where the Thatcher government plainly and decisively broke with a post-war consensus where unions were regarded as a significant national interest. They were routinely consulted and involved in economic policy, because it was felt that they represented the working people, or at least could cause trouble if they were not involved in such discussions.  I think this is things should be – if employers are consulted, why not worker organisations.The problem came in a couple of areas.  One was the ability of some unions to threaten, and even deliver, strike action without ballots – as seen most acutely by Scargill’s NUM death-throe.  This was generally done in order to support the power of the union bureaucracy – to make employers obey the wishes of shop stewards and regional/local officials.  This power-play – and I speak as a former chief executive but also a former union secretary and known leftie – became tiresome and worked against the members’ real interests.  I arrived at a college known for its militancy.  On one occasion it looked like being the only college on strike in the whole country (the members had, of course, been told that everyone else was on strike and they had to support them).   On another, I asked why the strike was being called and what I had to do to prevent it: I was told “it’s not as simple as that”.  This all led to the second problem, of unions being blind to the needs of the efficient running of the business.  Hence the end of the British-owned car industry. (However, please note that Vauxhall had far, far, fewer strikes than Ford – maybe good management has something to do with rank-and-file militancy).

    Something had to be done to restore the balance.  Those with long memories will recall “In Place Of Strife”, proposals from Barbara Castle when she was Secretary of State for Employment under Harold Wilson’s government.  The unions, in cahoots with James Callaghan, torpedoed this modest reform.  More fools them – they got ‘reform’ a decade later, doubled in spades.  Conservatives often acknowledge that the way to maintain something (monarchy, marriage, House of Lords etc) is to accept modest changes.  Pity that the 1970 trade union leaders couldn’t see that.

  • Privatisation was a major change. I can remember writing an economics textbook in the 1970s that had a chapter on the management of the nationalised industries.  The change has been adopted internationally, partly because of the pro-capitalist ideology that everything is better done by the private sector, partly because sell-offs give governments lots of cash, and partly because it takes worries of their back.  Ministers can take a lofty tone when questioned about water wastage or electricity bills now – they will not lose their job if it doesn’t work well.  And, to be fair, politicians are not trained to run major businesses, and some businesses are nothing to do with government. I remember arguing with a Labour MP who was fighting to keep British Airways in the public sector: asking why should taxpayers subsidise those who want to do business or take holidays abroad ?   It was not a popular line in the Labour Party of the 70s.  Thatcher may not have made the trains run on time, but she made changes that got you a phone on time.  Whether governments have yet mastered the business of managing businesses – remember that the train companies charge more than British Rail ever did, and get bigger government subsidies – is a matter for debate.  After the 2008 crash and the revelations about tax evasion, we are beginning to understand that government need to be on the side of the people, not the corporate world, and it is a slow dawning realization.
  • It’s now a long enough distance to say that Thatcher seems to have been an unpleasant person. She was denied a research post at ICI because the interviewers were worried she was too over bearing.  A retired journalist friend remembers her as Secretary of State for Education replying to a reasonable question “I didn’t come here to answer stupid questions from stupid people like you”.  (The question was to ask why she was the first Secretary of State to be booed by a teacher conference.)  Cabinet colleagues speak of her habit of humiliating people who disagreed with her.  Right wing papers discovered some former colleagues with stories of her kindness are there, but they were mighty thin on the ground.  Let’s not forget that she did not retire graciously: she was fired because of policy errors (Poll Tax anyone ?), because her colleagues couldn’t face working with her any more, and because she was very unpopular with the public.

So, what’s the verdict ?  She was a competent and hardworking Prime Minister with a right wing agenda, saved for a second term by a quirk of history – the Falklands War – and for a third term by a quirk of geology – North Sea Oil.  I hope we never get her on our bank-notes, and don’t think we will.  There was hostility and delight at her passing in some places, but many young people has little idea who she was, and the main reaction was indifference. A tweeter said it all, really: that for most of the length of her funeral procession, the crowds stood one deep.

Cool Britannia

The reason for the lack of postings for the last week or so is that I have been on holiday in the USA.  I’ll do some reflections on the experience – which was really enjoyable – as the jet lag wears off.  Let’s start with the US view of England.

We stayed in B&B and travelled on public transport, so had the opportunity to talk to quite a few Americans.  Admittedly, they weren’t typical – they were middle income people on holiday, and we weren’t in New York or California.  But it was extraordinary to note how the view of England has remained almost completely unchanged over the years.  People just loved Downton Abbey – a well made period drama, sure, but basically a soap opera in frock coats.  We were asked about the Queen – even a drunk in a New Orleans bar wanted to talk about the Queen.  Prince Charles came up, as did the recent royal wedding.  One woman asked over breakfast if the British still argued about how best to make tea – did we warm the pot ?  Did we put milk in first or last ?  Two couples mentioned the Cotswolds as the first place that came to mind from their trip to England, another Canterbury Cathedral.

Tony Blair got a lot of criticism for trying to present a more modern view of Britain – the press called the campaign Cool Britannia and then used the very term they had invented to attack it.  Maybe asking Oasis to No.10 wasn’t an essential component of the campaign, but the general thrust was surely right.  It would stun many Americans if you pointed out that the UK had invented the jet engine, discovered antibiotic drugs, introduced DNA testing, ran the first programmable computer, opened the first nuclear power station, wrote the language that powers the internet.  We have more than our share of Nobel prizes, Olympic medals and No.1 pop hits.  I think it is actually damaging to think of our country as a permanent museum, in which morris dancing troupes jigged around Tudor cottages.  I don’t ask tourists to prioritise the inner city or industrial wastelands, but there must be a way of politely modernizing the outsiders’ view of the country.


Here’s a suggestion.  Why not ask Arizonans if they still ride horses to corral their cattle ? Or Californians if they use a shallow dish to pan for gold ?  Or maybe see if Chicagoans know a good source of bootleg liquor ?  The questions sound ridiculous, but they are actually more up to date than much of the view of Britain that we faced across the morning waffles.

Euro in 1975

What I wrote in summer 1975

When I was a young further education teacher, I belonged to “Further Left”, a socialist group centred around a quarterly magazine of that title.  We weren’t boggle eyed extremists – had a few MPs on our advisory board, plus that dangerous radical Jack Straw, and one of our assistant editors has become a Lord.  In 1975 the big political campaign was around the Common Market Referendum, and I was a member of the “No” campaign.  Whether I would be for the next referendum is doubtful: there may be slimier things than sharing a stage with Nigel Farage, but I’m struggling to think of them.  I remember writing an article expressing the economic case for staying out, and I found it today when burrowing through some old personal records.  It included this extract on a single currency:

“ … monetary unions tend to create areas with lower incomes and higher unemployment than the average.  The reason is simple.  All countries have different rates of productivity change and inflation, and generally they can adjust by devaluation.  If this policy is forbidden because of membership of a monetary union, the only alternative is deflation: that is, unemployment and short-time.  It is a mistake to believe that economic theory demands large currency areas.  In fact it seems to commend smaller ones in order that changes in prices and productivity may be accompanied by gentle devaluation rather than unemployment and stagnation.

“The polite story now going the rounds is that the EEC has shelved its plans for monetary union.  We must realise that this is not true.  The momentum was  lost in the early seventies, but is being picked up again.  The Paris Summit of last December affirmed that in this area the Community’s will “has not weakened, and objective has not changed”.  Indeed, the Belgian Prime Minister was asked to go away and come back with a report on the matter: he will deliver his wisdom after the UK referendum …”

Yes, I know people who say “told you so” are pretty unattractive, but … “told you so”.

USA reflections

I promised some more reflections on my American holiday, and I need to clear them out of my head before I can get on with curing the economy and being the last blogger in the west to give my views about Margaret Thatcher.  It was a terrific holiday – five days in Chicago, the overnight City of New Orleans train to New Orleans, five days there with friends drinking cocktails and cheering Easter parades, then a few days in French Louisiana talking, eating and visiting Cajun.  The Americans we met were, without exception, charming and positive, even the beggars and car-hire clerks.  They were also (might be the folk we met) more socially progressive than Fox News might suggest.  So I wouldn’t like the comments below to be thought of as hostile, but I hope American friends will feel that critical is OK.  The remarks that follows are pretty disconnected, but here goes:

  • I reckon there are about five days of tourist interest in any major city, and after that you feel that you’ve got the idea. Major art galleries, superb buildings, restaurants, bars and cafes, scenic walks and parks, a museum or two, they’re all great but then you’ve got to a point where you need contacts and networks to go to the next stage.  That’s why it is so wonderful to be shown around by locals, where you can get into the districts and activities that make a place magical.  I’ve had that in Jerusalem, Paris and Vienna, and a friend with exceptional local knowledge in Lisbon.  The difference is marked.  In the absence of native friends, I have rarely felt that I needed to stay another few days in any great city, and there are only a few – Budapest, Florence, New Orleans, Lisbon – where I’ve wanted to go back.  A couple – Rome, Prague – I’ve actually felt at a bit of a loose end on the final day: what a Philistine !
  • Why do airlines say “We hope you’ve enjoyed flying with us’ ? Enjoy ?  En-bloody-joy ?  Any long haul air trip is at best a minor ordeal, with crying babies, barely edible food, arthritic knees and the guy in front reclining his chair for eight continuous hours.  There have been times when I have had really good service – Emirates Airbus 380 to India was very well done – and my wife has the charm to get the odd upgrade that allows sleep and glassware and metal cutlery.  But basically, air travel is a necessary evil, and after the first couple of trips, it is not something to justify the word ‘enjoy’ in the way that a meal, or a concert or a warm day by the sea do. And remember the hassle of baggage weight, of security, finding the terminal, returning your hire car miles away, or turning up two hours before the flight and all the attendant crap.  For neither of our transatlantic flights were we able to sit in the seats we thought we had booked before Christmas.   Sometimes, the term ‘cattle class’ is flattering; I await the first mutiny of passengers.
  • Driving around Louisiana we were struck by the vast number of churches, an endless supply of religiosity, often supported by posters and neon signs. Every small settlement would have two, or three, or four churches, often the best building in town and sometimes the worst.  I recognise the atypical strength of faith in the USA compared with other advanced countries, but perhaps being a neighbourhood religious leader is a way of making a good living, particularly in a society where tithing is not uncommon.
  • The American habit of tipping – where 15% is considered the basic and more is expected for good service – is unique in my experience. In the UK we think that 10% has to be earned, and that is high compared to, say, France, where loose change is the norm: yet there are tales of American waiters chasing guests down the road to insist on a bigger tip.  Parties of six or more routinely get 18% added to the bill, often on top of an unstated local sales tax that makes the meal 30% more costly than anticipated.  Where did the tip culture come from in the USA ?  I guess it is the way that waiters and bar staff get a livable wage – which makes you wonder why their employers don’t pay them enough out of the company proceeds.  After all, the USA is no longer a cheap place to dine or (try the wine, for heaven’s sake) drink.  Am I being a cynic in seeing this as a way of transferring a business expense – adequate wages – from the owner to the customer ?
  • We enjoyed visiting southern plantations indeed, that was one reason we went back to New Orleans.  The history is fascinating, the buildings elegant, and many of the plantations know the background of the owners and their families for two hundred years or more.  The plantations we went to – in the lower Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge – were devoted to sugar rather than cotton, but that crop created great wealth for the owners. It seemed to us, however, that slavery formed a very minor part of the narrative.  Individual stories of the owners were told, but none of the slaves apart from lists that showed their sex, age and skills.  The only anecdote about splitting slave families was told to show how the owner’s wife had stepped in to prevent it.  Most of the slave huts had been demolished, with a few kept to show visitors after they had been to the big house.  No-one wants any nation to live in an endless froth of guilt – least of all the British, as we shall see in a moment – but much more could have been made of the origins, trade and lives of the slaves.  The fact that one middle-aged American lady asked the tour guide “And did the slaves dine with the family in the evening ?” indicates that there is something of an educational task there.
  • For example: we visited Natchez, a town founded on the steamboat traffic that docked under a protecting Mississippi bluff, and the neat streets and historic houses were interesting enough. The visitor centre was well laid out but seemed to present the Civil War as a tragic intervention into a colourful and romantic local way of life, rather than a bloody struggle for justice.  This was reflected in the way that the civil rights struggle of the 1960s was totally absent.  Have a look at the Wikipedia entry, which speaks of all-white juries acquitting plainly guilty murderers, of the first promoted black worker being killed by a car bomb, of Natchez as the centre of the KKK, of a progressive local lawyer being all but ruined when he stood up for local black residents, all in living memory.  Where does the myopia come from ?  Is it because the municipality feels that visitors will be kept away by an acknowledgement of the brutal past ?  If so, they are wrong: tourists would be attracted by an approach which celebrated the courage and achievements of the local people who fought for the right.
  • Interesting fact. Those who owned more than 25 slaves were excused from military service in the American Civil War, because they had an important task at home.  Like the Orthodox Jews in Israel, like the rich in Vietnam, when it comes to dying for the cause, we are not ‘all in it together’.
  • The British shame I hinted at above was our role in expelling the French Canadians from Nova Scotia in 1755, driving them from land that was peacefully and well farmed. The Acadians became the Cajuns, and they celebrate a wonderful local culture, rich in music, craft skills, food, language: but about a third of them are estimated to have died in the forced expulsion, which was justified by little more than a suspicion that they would not be totally loyal to the British crown in the French Wars of the period.  This episode is unlikely to appear as one of our imperial glories in Michael Gove’s new history curriculum. Longfellow wrote an epic poem around Evangeline, an Acadian young woman separated from her love by the expulsion: we saw the oak in Martinville where she finally found her man again.  We visited a lovely reconstruction of an Acadian village, complete with smithy, church (RC of course) and school house.  One memorial has a wall giving the names of those who survived the journey and came to Louisiana – and the host of our B&B was a descendant of one such.
  • American localities seem to regard signage as an option. It took us 30 minutes to find the train from Chicago O’Hare Airport to the city.  Traffic signage involves simply the number of the road – very rarely showing the name of the next significant settlement.  Luckily our hire car (yes, we did drive a Chevy to the levee) had a compass reading on the rear view mirror, so we could have some idea we were following Highway 61 north and not south.  Road surfaces were awful – the car hire folk from Enterprise (who were great) attributed this to being a poor state but when petrol is sold at a third of European prices, surely a few cents of fuel tax would provide the resources for the road system a modern country should expect.
  • Town centres generally seem pretty down on their luck. Outside of the main cities, we saw plenty of empty shops and closing businesses, even in pretty and distinctive towns like St. Martinville.  Don’t know whether this is due to the recession, like the Chicago beggars mentioned in an earlier post, or (more likely) due to the omnipresent strip malls that follow the arterial routes out of town.
  • American beer is improving greatly. I remember as a student being offered the omnipresent light lager – Budweiser, Coors and so forth.  Now local microbreweries across the States offer drinkable, tasty beers: ‘amber ales’ are on offer – similar to British bitter or light ales, and drinkable with meals as well as over the bar.  Goose Island in Chicago was very drinkable indeed, as was Abita Amber in New Orleans.  It’s a trend recently noticed by the BBC, and one that might offer the advantage of reducing the massive US production of ice cubes.  Has anyone calculated the energy that goes into filing every available glass with ice ?

Just to repeat – overall a fascinating and friendly experience, and we’ll certainly be back.  You just have to remember you’re in a foreign country !

Loose change

I’m still working on the Thatcher assessment.  I know it’s overdue, but the dog ate my homework.  In the meantime, can we sniff around one of the clichés that has filled out papers recently – that the reason Thatcher was unpopular was that “people hate change”.  This trotted out whenever some government department or mega-corporation decides on a new way to reduce services or screw their workforce.

People do not hate change.  Many changes they like a lot.  I like the fact that dentistry no longer hurts, that I can get raspberries in February, that cars don’t break down and that clothing can be washed without shrinking or running.  I like the way people can have sex without getting pregnant, or if they want to get pregnant, they get help to enable them to do so.  I like the way that road casualties have fallen by three quarters, that cancer survival rates are constantly rising, that gay friends don’t have to worry about blackmail or physical assault.  Change is just great.

What I may react against is cancelling a convenient bus service, or taking a government service centre miles away from its clients.  I can be heard to gruntle as train fares go up again, or as a perfectly serviceable public industry is sold to some Tory jack-the-lad.  When I worked in colleges, I may have raised an eyebrow when the funding system was changed for the eighth time (back to what it was the second time), or the inspection regime changed for the fifth time. I can restrain my pleasure when my road is dug up for two months to create designated parking spaces for cars in the exact same spot where they park peacefully at the moment.

Let’s cut to the chase.  What I dislike is not change, but things getting worse.  And I think that is what ministers and chief executives and PR spinners know, under their skin, when they smile through a firestorm of public opposition to their latest idiocy.  Problem is, we now live in a society where a firestorm of opposition is felt by those in charge to indicate that changes are dynamic and desirable. Politicians have moved from saying that some tough decisions are justified to a position where no decision is justified unless it is tough.