Thatcher: The Real Deal

By Riddell, Peter | Public Finance, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Thatcher: The Real Deal


Riddell, Peter, Public Finance


The real Margaret Thatcher has got lost in the outpouring of reverential praise and vituperative attacks since her death on April 8. These have obscured both the style and substance of her record.

Many of the themes of the 1979-1990 era - tensions in Whitehall, attempts to make the civil service both smaller and more efficient, brushing aside local government - have obvious echoes now.

Thatcher is often accused of being both hostile to the civil service and of politicising it. Both charges are gross over-simplifications. She was certainly unsympathetic to civil servants as a group and to the public sector in general.

However, she had excellent personal relationships with mandarins at Number 10, who admired her strengths, not least her relentless and demanding working style. In many ways, she was a traditionalist in her view of the civil service. The Cabinet and its committees met regularly, even if her style was to lead from the front, rather than to sum up the collective view.

Rather, and in contrast to some Conservative ministers now, she did not regard vigorous discussion by civil servants as obstruction, provided the advice was well argued. Some officials became permanent secretaries who might not have done before - not for partisan reasons but because she saw them as 'can-do'. However, after her third victory, some advice was no longer welcome, but that is true of all longlasting governments.

The Thatcher era also saw the dismantling of much of the postwar Whitehall apparatus. Close links with the trade unions, through Whitley councils settling pay, were ended. This was symbolised by the abolition of the Civil Service Department in 1981. Yet the assault on civil service pay, perks and numbers looks modest by current standards. The Thatcher government cut the civil service by a little over 10% in its first four years. This is less than the coalition achieved in its first 18 months, let alone the cuts to come before 2015.

Nevertheless, the Rayner efficiency reviews in the early 1980s produced substantial savings and new approaches to financial management, foreshadowing what became known as the New Public Management and other initiatives (roughly one per Parliament). …

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