What Britain was like before Thatcher

David Bullard delivers a history lesson to assorted lefty hacks and political has-beens

Ding Dong....the witch ain't dead

None of us should be surprised at the amount of column inches and "expert" opinions that followed Baroness Thatcher's demise last week. Such is the power that a "divisive" (shouldn't that be decisive?) politician wields after death. The lefties became very excitable and decided to celebrate by giving the Wizard of Oz song "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" a new lease of life and providing some very unexpected royalties for whoever owns the song's rights.

Here on the Southern Tip there was also reaction. The ghastly Mail and Guardian headlined their painfully amateurish Weekend 101 video clip (it really does look as though some spotty adolescents have been given a video camera and told to get on with it) was headlined, with suitably leftish snide contempt, "Maggie kicks the bucket". One wonders what they have in store for Nelson Mandela. "Madiba croaks" or maybe "Tata Tata"?

The presenter of this abomination, one Adrian Ephraim, looks far too young to have lived through the Thatcher years but maybe he has simply weathered well. Or maybe he is just an insolent pipsqueak and knows that his job as a lowly lefty hack depends on sneering at those who have actually achieved something in life. In which case, my guess is that your job is safe Adrian.

The most disgusting comments came, unsurprisingly, from the loathsome Pallo Jordan who greeted her death with the news that he had just sent a letter of congratulations. "I say good riddance. She was a staunch supporter of the apartheid regime. She was part of the right wing alliance with Ronald Reagan that led to a lot of avoidable deaths". The letter Politicsweb published last week from Margaret Thatcher to P W Botha proves that theory is utter nonsense.

It is, of course, Mr Jordan's democratic right to express his view but I think we should also take into account that Pallo Jordan's main contribution to the new South Africa was the renaming of Johannesburg airport while drawing a fat salary courtesy of the taxpayer.

He has never been given anything significant to do by his own party since 1994, presumably because they also regard him as a bumbling, squeaky voiced oxygen thief with a silly beard. When Mr Jordan eventually snuffs it nobody will care either way. So his envy of Margaret Thatcher is quite understandable given that he is such an unpleasant nonentity himself.

What is urgently required this week is some proper perspective on Baroness Thatcher and as one of the few SA commentators to have actually lived and worked in London in the decade leading up to Mrs Thatcher's election I am clearly the man for the job.

First let me deal with the pre Thatcher era. I started my working life during Edward Heath's infamous three day week. Continual industrial action by the miner's unions meant that coal stocks were perilously low. So the government was forced to implement rules which meant that commercial users of electricity were limited to three consecutive days each week.

Obviously this meant that British industry was much less competitive than its European rivals. Add the three day week to the constant labour unrest at firms like the motor manufacturer British Leyland, British Steel, the shipyards and the mining industry and it's not difficult to see how the UK won the unenviable sobriquet "the sick man of Europe".

The frequent power cuts were unlike anything we ever experienced in SA during load shedding. It was quite common for the power to fail unannounced and to stay off for hours. This was no fun during the cold and dark winter months.

Most of the seventies were characterised by economic disaster of some shape or form. After the three day week Edward Heath went to the country and held an election in 1974, which he lost to Labour. That was even more disastrous and by the time the 1979 election came around (after Labour had run its full term never daring to call an earlier election) Britain was on its knees.

Inflation was rampant and in 1976 I received a 25% cost of living pay rise from my then employer. Unthinkable today but back then it just about allowed me to keep up with inflation. In 1977 the UK had to go with the begging bowl to the IMF for a bailout; just like Greece and Cyprus today. Things were that bad.

Tax rates had been hiked by the Labour government who took much the same view then as the ANC take today; that businessmen need to be punished rather than rewarded. The top rate of tax was 83% and various other punitive taxes were introduced to make doing business in the UK as unattractive as possible.

But it wasn't just the economy that was struggling to stay alive. The frequent strikes made our lives miserable. A very large number of people commute into London to work and some from a long distance away. I was still living at home in 1973 and travelled into London from our home in Suffolk, a train journey of roughly 70 minutes. On many occasions the rail unions would call a lightning walk out which during the day which meant that you couldn't get home and had to find somewhere to sleep in London. The wildcat strike might last a day or several days, depending on the mood. The only ones to benefit were the London hotels who hiked their prices accordingly.

During the seventies everyone you could think of was on strike. I remember walking past rotting garbage piled high in Leicester Square during one dustman's strike. It seemed as though the whole country was falling apart and nobody could do anything about it.

It's also not generally acknowledged that, apart from the industrial strife, the UK also had strict rules when it came to foreign investment and travel allowances. You were allowed to take all of £50 per annum on your foreign holiday. Even during the worst days of sanctions the SA travel allowance meant that you could still afford a decent overseas holiday.

By the time 1979 came the majority of Brits were heartily sick of being held to ransom by the unions and being heavily taxed by a grasping and anti-business Labour government. Anything had to be better and Margaret Thatcher was that anything. But she was still unproven and she could just as easily have turned out to be as much of a disappointment as Edward Heath.

Thankfully she didn't and she became the greatest peacetime leader the UK has ever had. The accusation that she was callous and destroyed entire mining communities is laughable. She was honest enough to recognise that the UK was uncompetitive and had no choice but to close down inefficient industries. The miners destroyed themselves with their own ludicrous demands. Thatcher saw no merit in pouring taxpayer's money down a bottomless pit. Her rule was simple....shape up or ship out.

Contrary to lefty claims it wasn't just the working class who suffered at the hands of the wicked witch. At the other end of the social spectrum she introduced deregulation (Big Bang) into the City of London in 1986 and did away with a couple of centuries of cosy collusion. The system of dealing through a stockbroker who would then deal with a stock jobber on the floor of the London Stock Exchange (a nice cosy club) was abolished as were fixed commissions.

This led to foreign banks flocking to London to set up major operations rather than representative offices and contributed hugely to the UK's balance of payments through what are known as "invisible earnings". To suggest that Thatcher is responsible for the culture of greed and the collapse of 2008 is equally risible. She simply invented the game. If players subsequently chose to cheat then that's hardly her responsibility. That would be like blaming the creator of the Tour de France for Lance Armstrong's errant ways.

It is no exaggeration to say that Margaret Thatcher changed the face of Britain forever. The losers are welcome to celebrate her death, turn their backs on her coffin as it passes and drink themselves into oblivion before going to collect this week's welfare cheque. For the majority of Brits though Margaret Thatcher was a saviour and her death will be given the respect it is due. Thatcherism enriched far more people than it impoverished. John Stuart Mill would have approved.

As John Kane-Berman appositely observed in the Business Day last Monday, we could do with a local version. The similarities between Britain in the 1970's and SA in the year 2013 are uncanny. But more of that next week.

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