As a longtime critic of many of Mrs Thatcher’s economic and social policies, I was somewhat taken aback by the enthusiasm with which the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, recently bracketed her with Clement Attlee and Tony Blair.
I don’t think I am alone. In what was a none too subtle, indeed blatant, attempt to attract voters away from the fissiparous remains of the Conservative party, Starmer has taken quite a chance. It can be hazardous to venture behind enemy lines: he risks alienating traditional Labour voters, indeed whole communities, for whom the memory of the social scars of the 1980s is still very much present.
I wrote several books about the careless way in which the evangelical doctrine of monetarism was applied, with huge damage to our manufacturing industry, and hence to employment. The bad joke came when, at a lunch with the Financial Times in 2003, Milton Friedman, who had sold monetarism to Mrs Thatcher, recanted!
One ill-thought-out consequence of Thatcherite policy that is very much with us to this day is the housing crisis. Many people benefited from being able to buy council houses at knockdown prices. The problem is that social housing was not sufficiently replaced. Today, signs of homelessness are brushed aside by the likes of Suella Braverman, who evidently regards this as a “lifestyle choice”. I am reminded of the comedian who said: “There is no housing crisis. It’s just a rumour put about by people who have nowhere to live.”
The damage to manufacturing industry was such that Mrs Thatcher embarked on a twofold rescue operation. Part one was to attract overseas investment, not least from the Japanese. The second was to cement our membership of the EU by encouraging the formation of the single market and becoming an enthusiastic participant.
Here we come to the irony of ironies about Starmer’s sudden enthusiasm for Mrs Thatcher. Kenneth Clarke, one of her longest serving cabinet colleagues, says in his memoirs that joining the single market was Mrs Thatcher’s finest achievement. Yet the leader of the opposition and our putative future prime minister has persistently ruled out rejoining. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt recently told an event hosted by the Resolution Foundation and London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance that Brexit had caused more than half a decade of political instability and undermined investment.
The damage wreaked by our departure from the EU in general and the single market in particular is manifest: investment, productivity and trade have all been badly restricted as about 4% (according to the Office for Budget Responsibility estimate), or up to 6% (according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research), has been knocked off our potential output, or GDP.
Our politics, our culture, our educational system, our sciences have all been affected.
Yet I read of diehard Brexiters who argue that Brexit has been a success because other European economies also have their problems. To which I say: “pull the other one”.
This is one of the strange arguments adduced by my good friend and colleague Larry Elliott in the Guardian, which seems, not surprisingly, to have offended a lot of people. He argues that those of us who want to reverse the 2016 decision “need to do two things: convince voters that the UK economy had become a basket case since the Brexit vote, and that life for those still in the club was so much better”.
This, to my mind, is a classic case of setting up a man of straw to be subsequently knocked down. The British economy may not be “a basket case”, but it has been damaged badly by Brexit and its performance has been markedly below the pre-referendum trend. Businesses are suffering. This was freely acknowledged in those frank remarks made by Hunt recently. It was also tacitly implied by Rishi Sunak’s statement to the Northern Irish not long ago that by being in the UK and the single market they had “the best of both worlds” – not bad from a dyed-in-the-wool Brexit prime minister.
As for the EU, to some extent its recent problems have also been caused by the impact of Brexit on pan-European trade. In most respects, its economic and social record continues to be an example to us all. As Elliott concedes: “The EU remains prosperous. It is certainly rich enough to act as a magnet for those in poorer parts of the world seeking a better life … ”
Both the UK and the EU would benefit enormously if we rejoined. And, as Steve Richards points out in his new book, Turning Points, Edward Heath did not even feel the need for a referendum when we joined the European Economic Community in 1973.