In March 1981 Margaret Thatcher reached the lowest point of her premiership, with opinion polls showing just 16 per cent of the country satisfied with her government. She remained undaunted, and in an interview a few weeks later spelt out her ambitions: ‘Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.’
Did she succeed? Well, certainly the economics changed. By the time her successor, John Major, left office in 1997 – after eighteen years of Conservative government – a new settlement had been reached and mostly accepted.
There had been a switch from income tax to sales and other indirect taxes; the state no longer owned large swathes of industry (though some services still remained in public ownership); inflation, the great scourge of the 1970s, had been conquered; trade union power – and therefore strikes – had been curbed; industry and, particularly, finance had been deregulated. And in the process, much higher levels of unemployment had become the norm.
Less noticed, there was also a marked rise in self-employment, from 7.5 per cent of the workforce in 1979 to 13.5 in 1990. That too has become the norm: the latest figure is over 15 per cent, nearly 5 million people. Elsewhere, the changes seemed less secure. Part of the rhetoric was a call for Britain to become a property-owning, share-owning country, and for a while it looked as though it had succeeded.
There was a huge increase in home ownership – nearly five million more dwellings were owner-occupied than when Thatcher had first been elected in 1979 – but that started to fall after the 2008 crash. The number of first-time buyers in 2015 was back at the same level as in 1980. Similarly, share ownership, which tripled during Thatcher’s premiership, fell back sharply in the recession of the early 1990s.
This was meant to be part of changing the soul: the encouragement of self-reliance. And that was to be combined with rolling back the frontiers of the state. In economic terms, government spending as a share of GDP did fall at the peak of Thatcherism, but rose back to 1970s levels under Gordon Brown and David Cameron.
"The use of illegal drugs grew to a level where the government felt obliged to launch an anti-heroin campaign"
In our everyday lives, though, government became more intrusive, telling us off for our smoking, drinking and sexual habits. The phrase ‘the nanny state’ predated Thatcher, but only became commonplace during her premiership.
If, broadly speaking, Thatcher won the economic argument, she lost the battle for the nation’s soul. She sought to reassert traditional morality, but during her term the number of abortions rose steadily, the proportion of children living in single-parent households doubled and the use of illegal drugs grew to a level where the government felt obliged to launch an anti-heroin campaign.
The attempt to reverse the liberal revolution of the 1960s was symbolized by the passing of Section 28 outlawing the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities and in schools. But the anti-gay agenda didn’t take; just three months after Thatcher’s death in 2013, a Tory-dominated Parliament passed legislation permitting same-sex marriages.