Tuesday, 9 April 2013

3 blogs on Thatcherism for the price of 1

To make up for missing the instant-reaction-to-Thatcher boat, I have written three short blogs on the subject:

1. Why was Thatcherism relatively unpopular in Scotland?
This one is fairly self explanatory

2. Thatcherism and the Idea of Policy Imposition.
It suggests that the myth of Thatcherite top-down policymaking is exaggerated.

3. The Unintended Consequences of Thatcherite Policies
Nevertheless, Thatcherite policies often had profound effects and unintended consequences.

The Unintended Consequences of Thatcherite Policies

I suggest in this blog that we should not exaggerate the effect of Thatcherism on UK policymaking. Yet, Thatcherite policies often still had a profound impact, often in areas we might least expect. The same article in 2002 (here) outlines the start of National Health Service reforms that may now be taken for granted in England, including: (1) quasi-markets to allocate resources (the purchaser provider split, with health authorities and GP fundholding surgeries often buying the services of hospitals); and (2) the assertion of management hierarchies, with NHS managers challenging the traditional authority of doctors.  

It then shows the unintended consequence of those reforms in a pre-devolved Scotland. Scotland is a ‘best case’ in this regard because we might expect NHS reforms to be implemented in a less extreme way (Scottish Offices were given more time and discretion to implement). Yet, the effect of a ‘power shift’ from providers to purchasers had quite the profound effect on the way that health services were delivered, in an area (HIV/ AIDS policy) previously characterised as distinctively Scottish and often quite removed from UK Government involvement.

Thatcherism and the Idea of Policy Imposition

I was one of many PhD students to do a thesis on the (then) sexy topics of Thatcherism and ‘policy networks’. My first proper academic publication was about Thatcherism (here) and the idea that Conservative governments used a ‘top down’ policy style with no time for arguments within government or consultation with affected interests.  This line may be seen as exaggerated for the following reasons:

1. All ministers or governments only have the time to pay attention to a small number of issues for which they are responsible. So, they may try to impose new policies in some areas but leave most untouched.

2. Ministers delegate responsibility for most policymaking to civil servants, who engage in the sort of consultation that some ministers reject.
The article then shows how this process worked in UK health policy, identifying a top-down internalised process (led by Thatcher) to reform healthcare, followed by a much wider process of policy formulation in the Department of Health under Kenneth Clarke and much greater consultation under his successor William Waldegrave. It suggests that internalisation tends to fail because policymakers need information from (often a wide range of) groups, while policy imposition may only go so far before bruiser-style ministers leave their posts to be replaced by ambassadorial figures who take a more conciliatory approach to the longer process of policy implementation. This is not to say that policy does not change (it often changes radically) but that we should not exaggerate the overall effect of any government. In this regard, the Thatcherite reputation is based partly on a myth that cannot be sustained logically.

By lucky chance (or because I have not changed my views in over a decade), I make a similar argument in more recent articles such as this one, this one, this one and, most recently, this one with Grant Jordan. Some of them are free this month, but please let me know if you want an emailed copy.

Why was Thatcherism relatively unpopular in Scotland?

Discussions of Scottish constitutional change and Thatcherism generally go hand-in-hand for at least three reasons:

1. It contributed to the old argument in the 1990s that Scottish devolution represented “unfinished business”, and that a Scottish assembly in 1979 could have “defended Scotland from Thatcherism” (McCrone and Lewis, 1999: 17) (whether or not this argument is true is discussed here in the context of the current independence debate)
2. “Not identifying with the Conservatives” was more important to support for devolution than identification with parties like the SNP (Mitchell and Bennie, 1996: 101). 
3. Conservative rule from 1979-97 (and 1970-4) symbolised the ‘democratic deficit’ in Scotland – it voted for Labour but received a Conservative Government.

The aim of this blog is to clarify what Thatcherism often means and how different aspects of Thatcherism may be relatively unpopular in Scotland (these points are discussed at greater length in Mitchell and Bennie, 1996):

  • Thatcherism as personality.  Thatcher herself was fairly unpopular in Scotland and “perceived to be English and anti-Scottish”. For example, in 1989, 77% thought that Thatcher treated “the Scots as second-class citizens” (1996: 96-7). Yet, the removal of Thatcher as Prime Minister did not lead to a revival of Conservative popularity in Scotland (or even stop their growing unpopularity).
  • Thatcherism as British Nationalism (putting the Great back into Great Britain) – this proved to be not a good strategy in a country which demonstrates much higher levels of Scottish rather than British national identity.
  • Thatcherism as a ‘two nations’ electoral strategy. This involved focusing on core areas of support (including the south east of England) and accepting defeat in others (including Scotland).
  • Thatcherism as new right ideology. This may have had more of an effect in Scotland which often displayed a (not always markedly) greater tendency to support the role of the public sector (partly because things like public sector employment and welfare payments were often higher in Scotland) and to oppose privatisation (selling off nationalised industries, forcing the sale of council houses (there were more in Scotland), introducing charges for services, introducing quasi-markets and private sector methods in government). In fact, many of these initiatives (such as the NHS internal market) were part-reversed by successive Scottish governments following devolution.
  • Thatcherism as economic reform. The idea that Thatcher-led governments were willing to pursue policies that accepted higher unemployment and opposed subsidising major industries did not go down well in ‘the North’ as a whole and Scotland in particular.
  • Thatcherism as centralisation - treating the UK as a unitary state (with unambiguous central government control and administrative standardization) rather than a union state (with some preservation of Scottish governmental and institutional autonomy).
  • Thatcherism as ‘assimilation’. There is a long history of Scottish nationalism linked to the idea that the UK Government is trying to introduce UK-wide policies that do not recognise Scottish traditions. A great old and modern example is Scottish education reform in the late 19th century and the 1990s under Michael Forsyth.
  • Thatcherism as the poll tax. Much of the opposition was general (i.e. it was not popular in many parts of the UK) and much related to the idea that the policy was first imposed in Scotland which was used as a ‘guinea pig’ for UK initiatives (the latter is questioned by Alex Massie ).
  • Thatcherism as a challenge to ‘social democratic consensus’. A lot of the Scottish ‘new politics’ rhetoric in the 1990s, in the lead up to devolution and political reform, related to the idea that Scotland had a more collectivist and participative political tradition that had to be protected during the Conservative years.  

Further old-school reading

Marsh, D. and Rhodes, R.A.W. (eds.) (1992) Implementing Thatcherite policies: audit of an era (Buckingham: Open University Press)

McCrone, D. and Lewis, B. (1999) ‘The 1997 Scottish referendum vote’ in B. Taylor and K. Thompson Scotland and Wales: Nations Again? (Cardiff: University of Wales Press)

McGarvey, N. and Cairney, P. (2008) Scottish Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave) – a 2nd edition is out in September 2013.

Mitchell, J. and Bennie, L. (1996) 'Thatcherism and the Scottish Question', in C. Railings et al. (eds.) British Elections and Parties Yearbook 1995, pp.90-104 (London: Frank Cass)