The debate about the 80s had moved on. Now Thatcher is dragging us back

There were institutions that Thatcher loathed but which still got away with a lot

Share

As a public voice, Margaret Thatcher died not a week ago but a decade ago.

Iain Duncan Smith was her party’s leader when she issued a statement that she would not be speaking in public again. On this commitment at least, the Lady was not for turning. She never did utter another significant word as a public figure.

And yet in her actual death she has come vividly to life once more. Her voice is everywhere and, as she makes her shrill, simplistic arguments, doting admirers clash with raging detractors. It is almost as if her political children, David Cameron and George Osborne, do not exist. In her second coming, it is Mrs Thatcher who is the issue not her bewildered successors.

Even so, there is something off-beam about both the adulation and the anger. They are authentic and deeply felt but, until death brought her back to life, the debate about the 1980s had moved on to a new level. Big, shocking stories have been surfacing that shed fresh light on a decade that had hitherto been only superficially considered. It was David Cameron who made a Commons statement on the Hillsborough disaster and the shocking police cover-up. George Osborne has delivered several statements of similar significance on the misconduct of banks, and is pledged, in theory at least, to implement radical reforms of this once-venerated institution. Newspapers that were rampant in the 1980s, some of them casually wrecking lives of innocent victims, have been subjected to the full glare of a judicial inquiry, once more instigated by the current Prime Minister. Cameron yearns for the support of newspapers but was propelled to make life uncomfortable for them, and for some of the owners who held sway when Thatcher ruled.

In the years before her death, a common theme emerged about the 1980s, as troubling as the more famous recklessness of some trade unions in the 1970s. Too many institutions, in both the public and private sectors, functioned in the dark, not held properly to account. In some cases, as a direct consequence of Thatcher’s support of a light regulatory touch. In other cases, more as an indirect result of the culture that arose from her smaller-state instincts, lots of services on which we depend or which have great influence over the way we think and behave were out of control.

With the still-evolving response to recent revelations comes a new transparency. The BBC investigates allegations of sexual abuse on its premises, and its new Director-General promises that its senior managers will become more directly accountable for the output. In the NHS, the reforms that David Cameron outlined after the Mid Staffs scandal are the ones that are likely to improve delivery, in marked contrast to the chaotic changes contained in his NHS Act, one last gasp at 1980s-style reform that will not work. Again Cameron implicitly accepts the need to learn from the 1980s and move on. The key principle of his original NHS reforms was to transfer any responsibility for delivery from the Government. Yet it was he, the Prime Minister, who made the statement on the lessons from Mid Staffs. There is no greater acknowledgement of responsibility for future improvements than that.

Not all of these events were triggered by specific policies from the 1980s. Mid Staffs happened under Labour’s watch and the Savile affair spanned several decades. But they are part of a common theme that relates directly to that mythologised decade. Evidently, parts of the police force thought they could get away with the crudest cover-up possible in relation to Hillsborough; there was a wider culture in which it was acceptable for some officers to be outside the law they were enforcing. No awkward questions were asked and their pay continued to rise. It is to Cameron’s credit that he is at least seeking to reform the police, instead of treating them as a special case as Thatcher did.

But because she was not greatly interested in less immediately glamourous issues like transparency and accountability, other public institutions that she loathed, or was wary of, also got away with quite a lot. John Birt was the best of the recent BBC Director-Generals by some distance, but it was in the 1980s under his leadership that the number of managers with only limited connection with the output started to increase. In the same decade, poorly funded hospitals struggled to deliver a quality of service enjoyed in eastern Europe. But as the squalor became an accepted part of national life, some poor NHS managers got away with incompetence, largely unquestioned and deemed to be without blame.

I have been struck by how few commentators and politicians have noted the appalling state of public services by the end of the 1980s. The lack of investment was one factor largely addressed by the Labour governments that followed, a significant achievement for which they deserve more credit than they are likely to get until history takes a calmer look. But only now is the other factor for underperformance or shoddy behaviour being addressed.

In spite of the current silly deadlock over Leveson, newspapers at some point in the near future will be regulated more robustly, and it is possible that a few senior journalists will be jailed. Messrs Osborne, Cable, Miliband and Balls are committed to radical changes to the way banks conduct themselves. The actions of the police at Hillsborough are finally being exposed. In the NHS after Mid Staffs, there are widespread demands for a duty of openness and candour. NHS organisations are told that it is not acceptable to suppress complaints or attempt to sweep sub-standard practice under the carpet. In recent times, and to its credit, the BBC has gone out of its way to reveal almost all, however embarrassing.

The debates, briefly revived, about the poll tax, about the miners, about the Big Bang, are a part of history. The question of how we make institutions more accountable, better-regulated and transparent without stifling them is the new challenge from the 1980s. The answers are not easy. After tomorrow’s funeral frenzy, they must be urgently addressed.

Twitter: @steverichards14

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 1 Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are recruiting...

PPA Cover Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are recruiting...

Year 4 Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is urgently re...

Lower Key Stage 2 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education and recruitin...

Day In a Page

Read Next
High and mighty: Edinburgh Castle and city skyline  

i Editor's Letter: We're coming to Edinburgh

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Members of the community farming group at work in their community fields near the town of Masi Manimba, Bandundu Province, DRC.  

The five biggest myths surrounding overseas aid

Billy Hill
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?