Alex Massie

The Lady Wasn’t For Turning (Thank God).

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Tyler Cowen takes a look at Paul Krugman's book and says Krugman isn't prepared to think broadly on the question of why conservatism triumphed in the 1980s:

Conservatism rose in the 1980s in large part because the mid to late 1970s were such an economic mess and because American had lost so much relative status internationally.  Krugman won't face up to that; instead he blames the Republican manipulation of "the race card," even though at the time racial tensions arguably were lower than ever before.  Of course in a relatively close election any single factor can be called decisive but I found this discussion well below the standards of the political science literature, even the popular political science literature.

Krugman calls for single-payer health insurance, tax hikes, and raising the minimum wage.  He doesn't come off as all that radical.

His theory of government failure is that wealthy right-wingers hijack the state to redistribute wealth to themselves, and that's all we hear on what's wrong with government.  That's the part of the book I find hardest to swallow, but if you're asking "should I read this?" the answer is yes.

Tyler then asks:

Is Paul Krugman willing to come out and simply pronounce: "Margaret Thatcher turned the UK around and for the better"?  If so, how does this square with his broader narrative?  And if not, why not?

Matt Yglesias says perhaps that's because the US and UK are different countries and then says that:

even after Thatcher Britain has a health care system that's so statist virtually nobody on the American left will defend it.

Well, Thatcher never tried to dismantle the NHS. It is to British politics what Social Security and what have you is to American. The untouchable shibboleth that will destroy anyone who tries to reform it.

Now it's true, of course, that Reagan's battle with the air traffic controllers has assumed totemic importance in histories of the Reagan years. And it's equally true that the 1970s were tough times on both sides of the Atlantic.

I have no real  - or at least no political - memory of life before Thatcher but it's easy to forget how grim things were in Britain. The retreat from Empire was accompanied by a domestic malaise that seemed destined to confine Britain to basket-case status in perpetuity. The country was the basket case of Europe.

The 1970s had begun with a three-day week and ended with the Winter of Discontent. Inflation reached 25% at one point. In 1974 Prime Minister Ted Heath, buffeted by industrial action from the miners, asked "Who governs the country?" The electorate replied: "Not You, Mate". The unions destroyed one Prime Minister and would make life impossible for Heath's Labour successors. In 1976 Britain took it's begging bowl to the IMF for a vital loan, amidst fears that the entire economy faced the prospect of "liquidation". That then necessitated wage restraint (almost impossible, mind you, since wages were linked to prices and inflation was rampant) and spending cuts - leading to the infamous Winter of Discontent. Nearly 30 million work days were lost to strikes in 1979. Most infamously, the gravediggers went on strike in Liverpool. Elsewhere garbage went uncollected. The country was falling apart and the government seemed clueless. Poor old Jim Callaghan may not have quite said "Crisis? What crisis?" but people believed he had. No wonder Labour were out of power for 18 years.

It didn't end in the 1970s of course. In some respects the 80s only began in 1984-85 after another miners' strike - aimed at toppling another conservative government - was defeated in vicious and unpleasant circumstances that, yes, led to the destruction of old mining towns. The unions brought their destruction upon themselves however and if they were treated harshly by the Thatcher government, well, few could plausibly say they had not had it coming. But it's a testament to how much has changed that in the mid-1980s the annual Trades Union Congress was guaranteed as much television coverage as the party conferences and the General Secretary of the TUC was a household name, known even to 12 year olds in the Scottish Borders. Now? Well, not so much.

In that respect then, the battles of the late-1970s and the early to mid 1980s weren't just questions of economics, they were fundamentally about politics. Who runs Britain, indeed. The rest of it - privatisation of hopeless companies such as British Airways and British Telecom etc etc - would come later. But that's basically why she's considered the greatest Prime Minister of the past 50 years.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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