By Paul Gable
The passing of Margaret Thatcher brings to end the life of one of the remarkable political personalities of my lifetime.
The “Iron Lady” is a sobriquet that was well earned and will always evoke her image. Above all else, she was tough.
The U.S. Navy, in its infinite wisdom, stationed me at a little base in eastern Scotland from 1971-74. I remember “Thatcher the milk snatcher”, as she was called when she was Minister for Education, from first-hand experience.
I was there for the 1972 and 1974 coal miner’s strikes. I remember getting four hours of electricity per day, two in the morning and two in the evening, in 1972, as the government of Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath scheduled rolling electricity blackouts throughout the country to save coal at the power stations.
I was shocked at how one labor union could effectively shut down a country.
The 1974 strike resulted in a general election being called in February, which the Heath government lost when Labour leader Harold Wilson was designated to form a minority government. Heath lost a second general election in October 1974 when Wilson consolidated his earlier victory.
In January 1975, Thatcher won election as Conservative Party leader to become the first woman to lead a major political party in Britain. In 1979, she followed up by being elected the first woman Prime Minister, and only one to date, in British history. She went on to serve 11 ½ consecutive years in that office, the longest for any British prime minister in the 20th century.
In 1984, the miners went out on strike again and Thatcher effectively broke the miner’s union and forever changed the relationship of labour unions in British politics, allowing the Thatcher government to consolidate its conservative fiscal program.
It is for her industry privatization, tax cutting, laissez faire economic programs that Thatcher will be both revered and reviled in British history.
But it wasn’t Thatcher’s economic policies that changed British economic fortunes, much as staunch conservatives would like to claim.
It was North Sea oil. While Thatcher was instituting her fiscal policies, North Sea oil production was exploding.
Britain went from importing 100% of its oil to a net exporter. The balance of payments deficit was eliminated, significantly strengthening the British pound versus other world currencies.
But, Thatcher’s government maintained a 90% tax on extraction of North Sea oil, bringing increased government revenues while personal taxes were cut. Trickle down economics and the Laffer Curve did not strengthen the British economy. New revenues from North Sea oil did.
Can you imagine the revenue the U.S. government would have realized throughout the 1900’s with a 90% extraction tax on all the oil drilled in this country?
For me, it’s not Margaret Thatcher the fiscally conservative politician that will resonate. It is Margaret Thatcher the woman politician who took on the old boys’ network in Britain, stomped on it and rose to the top.
Along the way, she destroyed the coal mining industry in Britain and many of the families and towns it supported.
And that is the lesson we learn from Thatcher – No political philosophy, policy or program is all good or all bad.