Thatcher: Thirty years on


Thirty years ago, on May 4th 1979, a feeble and bankrupt government was swept to oblivion by the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher, and Britain began the process of recovery. Few thought it could be done.  Indeed, those of the postwar consensus waited smugly for the U-turn when Mrs Thatcher would find that markets, incentives and private ownership were simply not relevant in the modern world.  It never happened, and Britain was rapidly restored from being the sick man of Europe and an international joke to recover its self-confidence and become one of the world's leading economies.

It has taken a Labour government only a few years to run that recovery into the ground. Profligate spending and reckless borrowing were hidden by the sleight of hand of stealth taxes and false accounting.  Financial downturns were smoothed for political advantage by pumping vast amounts of credit into the system, credit that sent false signals about how cheap money was, and to whom it could prudently be lent.

Now it all hangs out.  The financial crisis has exposed the hidden follies and destroyed reputations.  Britain is more deeply indebted than ever, and faces a contracting economy beset by job losses and no visible means of repaying those vast debts. Yet there is hope, as there was 30 years ago. When this sad apology for a government is finally put down, a new team can repeat the success that was gained then. The problems are different, but financial prudence combined with spending cuts and a boost to private enterprise can work the same magic. It is a magic so potent that it can take on even so daunting a task.

Adam Smith thought little was needed to lift a country from poverty to affluence save "peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice." We have none of these at present, and could use a spell of all three.  Will the next government please take note.