Margaret Thatcher’s legacy – 40 years on

Forty years ago this week, Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 General Election, becoming Britain’s first female Prime Minister. Her government was a radical one, committed to privatising state-owned utilities, cutting back the welfare state and supporting private businesses. Now, Professor Stephen Farrall, Research Professor in Criminology at the University of Derby, examines her legacy: what are the public’s view of her policies? What do they think of her and her governments now? Is she still held with the affection (and hatred) she once was?

In January and February 2019, researchers at the University of Derby commissioned BMG Research to run a survey to answer these questions, asking 5,781 people living in Britain how much they agreed with the following statements:

  • Margaret Thatcher made Britain Great again – 26% of respondents agreed, 37% disagreed.
  • Margaret Thatcher was right to sell council houses to tenants – 37% agreed, 31% disagreed.
  • Today’s housing crisis was a result of selling off so many council homes in the 1980s – against the more positive assessment of the right to buy legislation demonstrated above, 48% of respondents agreed while 22% disagreed.
  • Social and economic changes since the 1980s have ensured a brighter future for all – 22% agreed, 34% disagreed.
  • Margaret Thatcher’s governments decreased the quality of life for many ordinary people – 45% agreed, 22% disagreed.
  • Margaret Thatcher’s governments did a lot of damage to communities around here – 42% agreed, 24% disagreed.
  • Margaret Thatcher only looked after the interests of the rich – 44% agreed, 21% disagreed.

Despite these figures, which tend to suggest a rather downbeat assessment of her legacy, there was still a high degree of support for her general approach. When asked if they agreed that “although there were some losers, overall the changes Margaret Thatcher’s governments made were necessary”, 35% of respondents agreed while only 26% disagreed. When asked if “[she] was right to take on the trade unions”, 38% agreed, while only 25% disagreed. When asked if they agreed that “right now, the country needs a leader like Margaret Thatcher”, 38% agreed, while a much smaller 24% disagreed.

When Thatcher left office in November 1990, MORI asked respondents if they thought “on balance, her period as Prime Minister had been good or bad for the country”. We repeated this question:

  MORI November 1990BMG/Uni of Derby Jan-Feb 2019Difference
Good52%32%-20%
Bad40%38%-2%
No Opinion8%30%+22%

Although Britons leaned slightly in favour of Thatcher’s period in government (52%) at the point when she left office, this has since subsided, with only 32% now seeing her time in office as good. The proportion of people who think her time in office was bad has stayed broadly the same (40-38%). As one might imagine, the proportion with no opinion has increased. There are now more people who believe her time in office was bad than think it was good. Nevertheless, around a third of our respondents had a positive assessment of her time in office.

This is in line with the responses below from February 2019, which suggest that about 38% thought that “the changes her governments brought in” had gone too far:

Went too far38%
Were about right28%
Did not go far enough 6%
No opinion28%

All of the above questions referred to Thatcher, or to a period of time (the 1980s) or a policy (such as the right to buy) heavily associated with her. Another way of approaching her continuing influence is to ask people if they agree or disagree with values she promoted, without referring to her by name.

We asked whether people agreed or disagreed with two further sets of questions, about her economic and social values:

Thatcherite economic values/Neo-Liberalism

Ordinary working people get their fair share of the nation’s wealth.
There is no need for strong trade unions to protect employees’ working conditions and wages.
Private enterprise is the best way to solve Britain’s economic problems.
Major public services and industries ought to be in state ownership.
It would be better for everyone if we all paid less tax.
Welfare benefits should be reserved for only the extremely needy.

Thatcherite social values/Neo-Conservativism

Young people today don’t have enough respect for traditional values.
For some crimes, the death penalty is the most appropriate sentence.
People who break the law should be given stiffer sentences.
Schools should teach children to obey authority.

Respondents’ answers to these questions were then added up (once for each battery of questions), and then recoded into above and below the mean (average). We then compared responses by respondents’ age and gender.

Thatcherite economic values (Neo-Liberalism)

Men were more likely to be in the above average group than women (54.8% vs 47.5%).

In terms of age, 49.4% of respondents aged 16-24 were in the high group. This rose for those aged 25-34 (52.1%) and 35-44 (53.7%). The percentage in the high group fell for those aged 45-54 and 55-64 (both about 44%), before increasing again for older groups (55.9% for the 65-74 age group, and 66.6% for those over 75).

This suggests that those groups who grew up during the Thatcher era tended to hold different economic values to Thatcher than those who either voted for her (the older groups) or those who have grown up in the post-Thatcher era. In other words, young people (aged under 44) tend to embrace Thatcherite economic values more than those aged 45-64, perhaps without considering them ‘Thatcherite’.

Thatcherite social values (Neo-Conservativism)

Men and women were equally likely to be in the high neo-conservative group (men at 56.4% and women at 52.4%).

Here, age operated as one might image; the youngest respondents were least likely to hold Thatcherite conservative values, the oldest respondents were most likely to hold these values, and respondents were incrementally more likely to hold neo-conservative values the older they were. For the youngest group, only 31.3% were in the high group, but for those aged over 75 it was 66.9%.

What about Brexit?

Periodically, in the debates about Brexit, the topic of Margaret Thatcher and which way she would have voted (leave or remain) was raised. What did our survey suggest with regards to support for Thatcherite values and the EU Referendum? Of those people who agreed with the statement “Margaret Thatcher made Britain Great again”, some 27% voted to leave, while only 19% voted to remain in the EU. Of those who thought that “on balance, her period as Prime Minister had been good for the country”, 46% voted to leave the EU, with only 27% voting to remain in the EU.

Similarly, of those who had voted to leave the EU, 46% thought that “the changes her governments brought in” “had been about right”, while another 46% felt that the changes “had not gone far enough”. Only 8% felt that “the changes her governments brought in had gone too far”. Of those who voted to leave the EU, 45% “agreed that the country needed a leader like Margaret Thatcher”, while only 30% of those who voted to remain agreed with the statement.

Take-home messages

Younger (aged up to 44) and older (aged above 65) people tended to be those with most people in the high neo-liberal group. The consistently anti-neo-liberalism/anti-Thatcherite group are those aged 45-64. When we looked at who people had voted for at the 2017 General Election, almost one third of Labour voters were in the highly neo-liberal group, while just under half (44%) of Labour voters were in the highly neo-conservative group.

Brexiteers were more supportive of Thatcherism than those who voted to remain in the EU.

What are we to make of this? We appear, slowly, to have become less enamoured with Margaret Thatcher and the core beliefs of ‘Thatcherism’ if she is referred to by name. Despite this, there is a high degree of support for her beliefs – especially her economic beliefs – among both young people and even a large proportion of Labour voters.

Source note: BMG interviewed 5,781 GB adults aged 16+ between 17 January and 12 February 2019. In the region of 500 interviews were conducted in each Government Office Region in Great Britain. 5,581 interviews were conducted online, with 200 additional interviews conducted face-to-face with low internet users. Data are weighted. BMG is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by their rules.

For further press information please contact the Corporate Communications Team on 01332 591891, pressoffice@derby.ac.uk or @derbyunipress

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