By John Charles Dyer, UK Correspondent
10 April 2013. As all the world already knows, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is dead. Today, the Speaker recalled the House of Commons to special session to pay tribute to the late Prime Minister.
It was in-of-itself a befittingly and ironically controversial decision. Each MP is now able to claim £3,750 in expenses they would not have been able to claim had the House of Commons only waited until Monday. The funeral isn’t until the 17th. Reputedly the Speaker balked at the idea.
Memories of a Legend
As reflected in news coverage, the parties reportedly celebrating her death and the discussion in the Commons today, memories of the late Prime Minister’s career are as vivid and divisive today as Mrs. Thatcher was during her tenure as Prime Minister. Critics think Cameron seeks to milk Mother Margaret for all she's worth but if that's the idea it is a risky strategy. Mother Margaret's fans don't always see Cameron as her heir, enemies do. Resurfacing the cult of Margaret Thatcher may well benefit UKIP and Labour far more than Cameron.
Margaret Thatcher the person will be missed by those who loved her. But, some who claim to miss her now shunned her for years. As one friend, Lord Tebbit said today in the House of Lords that he regretted leaving his friend to her friends. She was swept from office not by the electorate but by her colleagues.
Another Tory politician this week claimed Thatcher “had to break a few eggs” in reference to the shutting down or privatization of whole industries at a severe cost to those the industries employed. Presumably, this was “necessary” in order to make omelets for her friends. For me, I count relatives among the eggs she cracked for their omelet. But I don't want to be a hypocrite. I've broken eggs too.
Prime Minister Cameron says Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher saved the nation and made it "great" again. One wonders about his definitions of save and great, but the verdict on the late Prime Minister now belongs to history and historians not politicians. Her legacy may well be written by China.
Her least debatable impact may be as the person who most framed political and economic debate ever since. Perhaps the mark of her impact is, no opposition leader since has managed to escape that framework. It is that framework that concerns me now.
The Householder’s Handbag
Margaret Thatcher famously "handbagged" Europe. She also handbags us today. George Osborne and David Cameron remain constrained by one PR gimmick in particular we owe to the late Prime Minister-- the Householder’s Purse analogy. “Any householder knows,” so the analogy goes, “you can’t spend money when there’s no money in the purse.” It was the government’s mantra as it first sought to sell austerity to the public.
But as applied, the analogy works more like the householder who married a fisherman.
The Householder who married a Fisherman
A young woman marries a fisherman. A few years and a few children later the fisherman’s business begins to suffer. The EU restricts his season and where he can fish. Climate change & overfishing deplete the shoals. The fisherman’s catch falls. The fisherman loses his lucrative contract with Marks & Spencer because he can’t provide fish in quantity or quality to their standards.
The householder says, “Dear, we are building up debts. We must balance the budget. No money in the purse. Diesel is just too expensive. Staff work too many hours. You must reduce diesel 18%, staff hours by 25% and wages by a third.
The fisherman looks twice but she is The Householder. He does as she instructs. The fisherman loses his remaining staff and along with them 3 of his 7 remaining contracts. The fisherman cradles his head in his hands.
The fisherman’s householder says, “not to worry. I have a bright idea. Uncle Nick will get you an internship in a dental office. After a year if you suck up really good they may move you into an apprenticeship. After 7 years indenture if you are really good they may loan you £75,000 for tuition fees to send you back to dental school. Why, with 60 being the new 40 and all, it will be no trouble at all for you that you won’t retire until you’re 90. There, don’t you feel better?”
Crew find the fisherman swinging from his yard arm. The moral of the story is, don't trust your economics to fairy tales. But the Coalition has yet to understand that.
Borrowing for Profligacy
The Prime Minister is fond of his corollary to the Householder’s Purse analogy. “You can’t borrow your way out of a debt crisis” he says. But the truth is, every government borrows. His government borrows. He will borrow substantial amounts of money this year due to Plan A's failure. His cuts fail to keep up with his deficit. Additionally, he will borrow to fund High Speed Rail. He will borrow to fund Trident. One could even argue he borrows now to fund Mrs. Thatcher’s tribute session and her “not a state funeral” state funeral-like funeral. The question isn’t, really, are you going to borrow if you are so unlucky as to find yourself in government. The question is, for what purposes are you going to borrow.
If the purse is too empty for food for the hungry or for a stimulus for the still utterly flat, dead in the water economy, how can that same purse be overflowing for nuclear submarines, fast trains, raises and expenses for MPs and, yes, funerals for dear departed leaders?
Enter the legend of profligate spending on social security.
It's all down to "the mess we've inherited from Labour" due to profligate spending particularly on "welfare." But it wasn't profligate spending on social security that made the UK indebted & poor. It was profligate outsourcing of industry and profligate investment in services, particularly the placement of all the UK’s eggs in the basket of investment banking. It was profligate spending on unfunded wars without exit strategy. It was profligate deregulation and the profligate bailing out banks from the consequences of deregulation. It was profligate free trade with few rules with partners without the same standards or costs. Ironically, the most powerful and longest term legacy of the Neo Liberalism Margaret Thatcher and “her children” embraced may be the UK now goes hat-in-hand to State-run China to save the UK with investment.
There is much to consider in weighing up the legacy of Margaret Thatcher the Prime Minister, but I am less interested in history than seeing the UK come to grips with its issues. The Thatcher framework hinders that. Instead of getting its economics out of handbags administered by a man with a second rank degree in history, the UK would be well advised to turn to real macro economists, people like Danny Blanchflower, Ann Pettifor and Paul Krugman.