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Margaret Thatcher: Creating a Neoliberal Culture Essay

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Margaret Thatcher had a resounding career as a Prime Minister in Britain. She was loved and hated for her strong handed nature to politics. She drove down unemployment and brought Britain out of a recession through utilizing neoliberal policies. Thatcher increased the power of the private sector with a reduction of government regulation and privatization of public facilities. She took charge at creating a culture that was focused on the individual. Lastly she battled any unions, which sought to challenge the neoliberal values she was fostering.

In order to claim Margaret Thatcher as a neoliberal, a solid definition of neoliberalism is needed. The ideology of neoliberalism is grounded in individual freedom. In order to achieve this, neoliberals ask for a system of government that is minimal. There should be almost no regulations that aim at restricting an individual’s freedom (Hall 2011 11). This allows people to act as free agents in accordance to their personal aspirations. To supplement this goal there is a desire for open, competitive and unregulated markets.

State-led social engineering must never prevail over corporate and private interests.(Hall 2011 10-11) Capitalism as a market system provides freedom from state intervention and social collectivities. Stuart Hall states how Neoliberals see this “as the optimal mechanism to social-economic development,” (Hall 2011 11).

They want to provide equality of opportunity and understand that this has a propensity to create inequality. This inequality is seen as a necessary evil in the creation of freedom, and ask that government not make any attempts to ameliorate the gap between people. The government’s role comes to the provision of securing the freedom of the people it sees over (Hall 2011 11). It does this through various things such as state guided military, police force, and law that protects private contracts. These state facilities protect the individuals and allow them to operate within the state. Neoliberalism is an ideology that acts to create individuals free to make choice and to succeed or fail by them.

One of the main facets of neoliberalism is the reduction of government to minimal levels. When Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979 she was determined to separate herself from the more socialist values of past leaders. Thatcher immediately sought to reduce power of the government in the private sector through flotation of government owned facilities. There where a series of small sell offs and then in 1984 the privatization of British Telecom proved hugely successful at reducing public debt. Then in 1987 opened the floodgates with the privatization of British Airways, Rolls-Royce, British Airports Authority, and later British steel (Hall 2011room and Sylvia 2011). After this Thatcher also was able to privatize British oil companies. She even privatized utilities such as water and electricity (Moore 2011).

Besides the privatization of organizations, she also removed regulations on private corporations. The fair wages resolution created a wage floor that restricted the ability of corporations to pay competitive wages (Robertson 1986 288). In 1983 the government removed this resolution, opening a large gap in this wage floor (Robertson 1986 288). The Employment Act of 1975 gave workers the ability to submit low wage claims for government arbitration. Thatcher removed this with her updated Employment Act of 1980 (Robertson 1986 286). She was even willing to work around the law to increase the power of corporations When unable to make reparations to council law on minimum wages, she introduced the Young Workers Scheme (Robertson 1986 287).

This grated subsidies to employers who paid less then legal minimum wage to workers 18 and younger (Robertson 1986 287). After the YWS was phased out she continued to avoid law with the New Workers Scheme (Robertson 1986 287). She provided government subsidies of £20 to workers between the ages of eighteen and twenty who were paid less than £80 per-week (Robertson 1986 287). This allows corporations to set prices lower than legal and incentives workers to take those positions.

Along with increasing the strength of the private sector, Margaret Thatcher wanted to change British culture to be more in line with neoliberalism. She did this by promoting individual values and the reduction of state dependency. In Thatcher’s own words, “There is no such thing as society. There is only the individual and his family,” (Hall 2011 11). One of the first things she did was instate the Enterprise Allowance Scheme (Robertson 1986 288). This replaced employment benefits by giving £40 a week to 65,000 people and then a £1000 if they start their own business. This promotes individuals to create their own solutions in an economic environment that was riddled with unemployment. She then went on to make unemployment even less appealing by cutting benefits offered to real values not seen since 1951 (Robertson 1986 288).

Thatcher had even raised the idea of refusing supplemental benefits to youth who didn’t register for jobs or job training, but had to back off when faced with accusation that this would be tantamount to conscription (Robertson 1986 289). These reforms had the effect of raising self-employed citizens to ten percent, declared by Britain’s Department of Employment (Jenkins 2007 164). Britain’s rank in economic freedom and entrepreneurial welcome has risen from 15th in 1989 to 1st in 1990 (Jenkins 2007 164). The above references show that Thatcher was trying to, and in many ways succeeded in creating a culture of individualism and self responsibility in Britain

A source of resistance to the culture she had created was worker unions. Margaret Thatcher goes on to dismantle union power and stands cold faced and firm against any resistance they show. There are several key years in Thatcher’s battle against unions. In 1980, 1982, and 1984 there were a series of acts that undermined union economic and political power (Robertson 1986 286). The Employment Acts in 1980 and 1982 served to strip legal rights from unions such as secondary picketing and sympathy strikes. In 1982 there was an act that relaxed rules to unfair dismissal. What it did was to exempt small businesses from rules that enabled workers to file unfair dismissal claims if they had less than two years of service (Robertson 1986 286). She even went to try and extend this exemption to all business in 1985 (Robertson 1986 286).

In response some unions organized strikes to confront Thatcher’s crackdown. The most well known attempt was the miners’ union organizing a strike that lasted for over a year (Moore 2011). Throughout this Thatcher did not relent any of her conditions or regulations. In the end the union gave in and the strike broke (Moore 2011). Throughout her time in office the yearly money lost to days of strike fell from 29.5 million to 1.9 million (Moore 2011). Margaret Thatcher drove union membership down sixteen percent between I979 and I984 (Robertson 1986 287), showing that she was further driving Britain into Neoliberal ideals

Some people have suggested that Margaret Thatcher’s assault on government and claimed her to be as far right as libertarian. The previously stated quote “there is no such thing as society. There is only the individual and his (sic) family,” (Hall 2011 11) is a radically right saying people could point towards. Also her privatization of essential goods and services such as water points towards a far right standpoint. The difference between neoliberal and libertarian mainly comes down to degree. This means that both are right aligned, holding a focus on freeing of people and reducing government. It should be held that Margaret Thatcher is not as far right as libertarian.

Though she took Britain along with her in a huge sweet politically in that direction, she held some key businesses as private for the benefit of Britain’s economic well being. She also did not really undermine the post-war welfare consensus. She retained such public sector giants as the NHS, British Rail, the Post Office (Jenkins 2007 162). These could have been privatized, but it was held that doing this could hurt Britain economically. A libertarian would have to cut these as they are not seen as being responsible to the state. She also kept the structure of social welfare and benefits (Jenkins 2007 162). Though she did restrict funding and brought it down in degree, a libertarian would have eliminated such state run benefits For these reasons Thatcher is politically right, but not to the degree of libertarianism.

Margaret Thatcher’s career as a Prime Minister in Britain was controversial at best. She took to neoliberal values to drive down unemployment and foster economic profit in Britain Thatcher stripped the public sector of many of its organizations and then cutting government regulations to increase the power of the private sector. She sought to create a culture in Britain around the individual and their responsibility to their own success. She also broke down unions as they stood to fight against the neoliberal culture she had created. This is why Margaret Thatcher is a neoliberal.

Robertson, David. 1986. “Mrs. Thatcher’s Employment Prescription: An Active
Neo-Liberal Labor Market Policy” Journal of Public Policy. 6: 275-296.

Groom, Brian. And Pfeifer, Sylvia. 2011. “Privatisation defined Thatcher era.” http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/docview/909517457 (November 21, 2012).

Hall, Stuart. 2011. “The neoliberal revolution: Thatcher, Blair, Cameron – the long march of neoliberalism continues.”Soundings. 48: 9-27.

Moore, Charles. 2011. “The Invincible Mrs. Thatcher.” http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA276179927&v=2.1&u=ucalgary&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w (November 21, 2012).

Jenkins, Simon. 2007. “Thatcher’s Legacy.” Political Studies Review. 5: 161-171.

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