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.
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