Thatcherism did actually make Britain richer, compared to everyone else


A new report by economists at Cambridge University’s Centre for Business Research purports to show that the post-1979 liberal reforms introduced by the Thatcher government did not boost the British economy. In a sense, that’s true. As the report shows, trend GDP growth and productivity were slower in the thirty years after 1980 than the thirty years before that. I hadn’t realised that this was new information, but OK.

The problem with the report is that it mostly looks at the UK in isolation. What it doesn’t mention is that this slowdown in trend growth was a global phenomenon. The real question should be how the UK did relative to the rest of the developed world.

Taking the US as a benchmark – the ‘technology frontier’ – the best any major economy can hope to do, basically – I’ve compared GDP per capita, adjusted for purchasing power parity, of France, Germany, Italy and the UK (German numbers include East Germany after 1991, so I’d more or less ignore them after that point). The UK is purple:

And here’s those countries’ relative performance, indexed to where they were in 1980. What we see is the UK's position basically not changing until 1980, with (West) Germany, France and Italy all converging on the US up to that point, then stagnating or declining slightly afterwards:


In this relative picture, the UK’s economic performance looks a lot better post-1980. There is a clear inflection point in the early 1980s where the UK begins to converge on the US, with GDP per capita as a percentage of the US's rising sixteen percentage points from 66% to 82% in 2010. In 1950 the UK GDP per capita was 69% that of the US's. The highest it was during the pre-Thatcher period was 73%, in 1961.

France, on the other hand, falls ten percentage points from 86% in 1980 to 76% today. Germany doesn't do much until the end of the 1980s, when political events render the data basically useless. Italy's decline tracks France's closely. In every case the UK improves relatively, and of course with the US at 100 the UK is improving relative to them, too.

This is probably mostly to do with labour force participation rates, not productivity. That might mask the true welfare situation: I might be much better off retiring early, but that would make me appear poorer and reduce GDP. But it still points to a large change that seems to have happened in 1980 that the report’s authors virtually ignore.

I say “virtually” because they do, actually, show this comparison in their report, it’s just hard to find. In a report with over thirty charts, all but one start during the postwar period. The only chart that doesn’t is this one – which, weirdly, starts in 1880. I cannot understand why, but it does make the UK’s relative recovery much more difficult to spot.

It is quite interesting that the Thatcher reforms don't seem to have boosted trend productivity by very much. As Pseudoerasmusnotes, there doesn't seem to be anything the UK can do to reach US levels of GDP per capita, and the Thatcher reforms only really brought Britain up to European levels of wealth. It looks as if boosting trend growth, not just playing catch-up, is really, really hard.