Thatcher’s Legacy?

In 1979, no-one, least of all the left, could have imagined the extent of the shift brought about by the government of Margaret Thatcher, who died this week. Her reform of the socio-economic landscape would outlast her time as Prime Minister, and would affect the global economy.

Within Britain, Thatcher broke the power of the unions and singlehandedly undid the post-World War II social democratic consensus initiated by the Labour Party government of Clement Attlee. She also set about privatizing and deregulating parastatal corporations and other parts of the creaking Welfare State.

The results were dramatic. On one hand Britain rapidly modernized, growing richer than it had been since before World War II. A new middle class benefitted from this. Services improved in most areas, but cost more for the poor, some of whom became a kind of permanent underclass.

The social costs were even more dramatic.  The gap between rich and poor grew. More than that, the new wealthy were less likely to be filled with a certain Old World noblesse oblige towards the poor. Greed was good, being poor was one’s own fault.  Unrestrained capitalism was sexy. Her ideas spread throughout the world, to the point where her thinking became more or less socio-economic orthodoxy.

When Labour finally regained power in the 1997 election, the impact of Thatcher’s reforms was such that ‘New Labour’ policy was simply ‘Thatcherism lite’. It has taken global economic crises, banking scandals and highly publicised corruption cases to challenge the Thatcherite idea. Even now her thinking remains highly influential.  And the British underclass who were the losers in Thatcher’s ‘great leap forward’ remain…

Many  in South Africa hated Margaret Thatcher. During the 1980s she and her transatlantic buddy Ronald Reagan were seen as propping up apartheid by not taking a stronger stand against the then National Party regime. Moreover, she was quoted as having called Nelson Mandela a ‘terrorist’. This was particularly ironic given her closeness to some of the nastiest dictators – state terrorists – at the time: General Pinochet of Chile, and Ceausescu of Romania, not to mention the usual cabal of sheikhs courted for cheap oil.

Her economic programme has never succeeded here either.  The National Party was always a national socialist party, committed to the well-being of the minority. The present ruling party, the African National Congress, is a strange combination of socialist vision committed especially to the well-being of particularly, but not exclusively, the majority (most notably at elections) and the pursuit of wealth. The old elites and new elites of South Africa show decidedly Thatcherite interests in ‘cool’ and conspicuous consumption.

On the other hand, there has been very little privatisation of state industries and services. That they are as inefficient as ever, if not more inefficient, makes some South Africans reconsider their antipathy to Thatcherism. Similarly the aggressive and disruptive power of unions, combined with general low levels of labour efficiency, make many in business think nostalgically to Mrs Thatcher’s demolition of British unions. For some perhaps, Thatcherism is the future.

In any already unstable and unequal society, would this be a benefit? Or would Thatcherism simply push the country over the edge?

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
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