The Thatcher revolution, 30 years later

On May 3, 1979 — 30 years ago — British voters went to the polls to elect a national government.

They went to bed that night as counting of the ballots continued into the early hours of the morning. They woke up the next day to the news that Britain was going to have its first female prime minister.

But the election wasn’t just a turning point because of Thatcher being one of the first women to lead a national government.

It was also a turning point because she was one of the first of a new breed of small-c conservatives to hold office: passionately determined to privatize and deregulate industries, roll back the welfare state, cut taxes, and to introduce a new bluntness into the normally genteel world of international relations.

Her battles over the next 11 years, and her determination to remake Britain, would lead many to refer to her time in office as “the Thatcher Revolution”.

BBC Election Night Coverage, May 3, 1979

Her policies and style would be imitated elsewhere, most notably by Ronald Reagan in the U.S., a succession of ideological prime ministers in New Zealand, and by provincial premiers Ralph Klein and Mike Harris here in Canada.

Some would even say that Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper is a kindred spirit of Margaret Thatcher to some degree.

There is little doubt that a lot changed in Britain between Thatcher’s election in May 1979 and her November 1990 resignation following a  mutiny led by disgruntled members of her own party.

However, even after Thatcher’s resignation, her Conservative Party survived in office for another seven years with John Major at the helm. The Labour Party’s victory under the leadership of Tony Blair finally ended 18 years of Tory rule in May 1997.

The hearts and minds of the British people show signs of having changed as well during those 18 years — but in ways that Thatcher herself might not have intended.

In 1981 — two years into Thatcher’s premiership — one thousand Britons answered the World Values Survey, a monstrous poll that asked their opinion about everything from politics to religion to how they raise their children.

In 1999 — two years after the 18-year Conservative reign came to an end — another 1,000 Britons answered many of the same questions again.


Margaret Thatcher’s first day as prime minister, May 4, 1979

Comparing the two surveys gives us the means to answer the question: “In what ways did 18 years of (neo-) Conservative government change how the British think and act?”

So, how did Britain change?

1. The British changed the values they impart to their children: When asked what they consider to be important qualities for children to have, people were more likely in the post-Thatcher Britain to emphasize the importance of:

– Good manners (92% in 1999, versus 67% in 1981)
– Tolerance and respect for others (84% in 1999, 62% in 1981)
– Unselfishness (60% in 1999, versus 40% in 1981)
– Responsibility (56% in 1999, versus 24% in 1981)
– Independence (53% in 1999, versus 24% in 1981)
– Determination and perseverance (40% in 1999, versus 17% in 1981)
– Hard work (39% in 1999, versus 16% in 1981)
– Imagination (38% in 1999, versus 11% in 1981)
– Thrift and saving (33% in 1999, versus 10% in 1981)

2. The British became less involved in religion: In 1981, 22 percent of Britons said that they belonged to a religious organization. In 1999, only five percent said they belonged to one.

3. The British became more concerned with getting a good-paying job with good hours: In 1981, 60 percent of Britons said that good pay was important in a job, and 35 percent said that good hours were important. In 1999, 81 percent said that getting good pay was important, and 55 percent said that good hours were important.

4. The British became alienated from work: In 1981, a majority of Britons (56%) said it would be a bad thing if less importance were placed on work in the future — suggesting that Britons worried that the work ethic was slipping away in 1981. Only 26 percent said that less emphasis on work would be a good thing. By 1999, the British had changed their minds: 54 percent said that it would be a good thing to put less emphasis on work, compared to 20 percent who thought that de-emphasizing work would be a bad thing.

Since 1999…

The British have eased up on their alienation from work. In 2006, 43 percent said that it would be a good thing to place less emphasis on work in the future — down from 54 percent in 1999. However there was little change in the number of people who said that de-emphasizing work would be a bad thing (20% in 1999, versus 22% in 2006)

5. The British became more active in boycotts: In 1981, only seven percent of Britons said they had ever been part of a boycott. By 1999, 17 percent of them had been part of one.

6. The British lost their faith in the press: In 1981, only 13 percent of Britons had no confidence at all in the press. In 1999, more than one-third had no faith in the press (35%).

7. The British became less enamoured with the police: In 1981, 41 percent of Britons said they had a great deal of confidence in the police. In 1999, only 18 percent felt this way.

8. Britons moved away from the political right: The British public were asked to rate their political views on a scale of “1” to “10”, where a “1” meant that they were on the far left and a “10” meant they were on the far right. For the purposes of this exercise, I’ll assume that those who rated themselves 1-4 are on the left, the fives and sixes are in the centre and the sevens through tens are on the right.

In 1981:

– 21% said they were on the left
– 49% said they were in the centre
– 30% said they were on the right

In 1999:

– 26% said they were on the left
– 58% said they were in the centre
– 16% said they were on the right

What’s noticeable here is that while the left gained a bit of ground, and the centre gained a bit more, the British right was only about half as large in 1999 as it was in 1981 as a proportion of the population.

Since 1999…

The British right made slight gains, climbing back to 21 percent of the population in 2006

9. The British became more socially liberal: In both 1981 and 1999, the British were asked to rate the acceptability of several types of behaviour on a scale of “1” to “10”, with a “1” meaning that that behaviour is never justifiable and a “10” meaning that it is always justifiable.

A large shift in public opinion occured on two of these items between 1981 and 1999: homosexuality and taking soft drugs.

I’ve collapsed the 1-to-10 scale into three categories: those who say that the activity is not okay (1-3), sometimes okay (4-7) and usually okay (8-10).

On homosexuality:

– In 1981, 58% said that homosexuality was not okay, 30% said it was sometimes okay and 12% said it was usually okay.
– In 1999, 35% said that homosexuality was not okay, 40% said it was sometimes okay and 25% said it was usually okay.
– Their average rating on the 10-point scale went from 3.41 in 1981 to 4.89 in 1999

On using soft drugs:

– In 1981, 88% said that soft drug use was not okay, 9% said it was sometimes okay and 3% said it was usually okay.
– In 1999, 64% said that soft drug use was not okay, 25% said it was sometimes okay and 11% said it was usually okay.
– Their average rating on the 10-point scale went from 1.73 in 1981 to 3.10 in 1999

Since 1999…

The British became even more socially liberal. In 2006, 36 percent said that homosexuality was usually okay, with the average rating on the 10-point scale rising from 4.89 in 1999 to 5.70 in 2006. The proportion who were “not okay” with this dropped to 30 percent in 2006. (The “soft drugs” question was not asked in 2006.)

Margaret Thatcher announces her resignation following a party revolt, Nov. 22, 1990

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

3 Responses to The Thatcher revolution, 30 years later

  1. Very interesting.

    I wonder the degree to which British social and political values changed from the mid-1970s to 1981, when the baseline data was collected. Presumably, British values shifted considerably to the right during this period, which included the Winter of Discontent and the sustained Tory campaign that eventually swept Thatcher to power. While we can of course only use the data that’s available, I wonder if a better pre-Thatcher baseline would be 1977 or 1978. Comparing 1999 to that benchmark, I think it’s possible the right-left shift in political values would be much more nuanced.

    Overall, though, the numbers you present are certainly positive for those of us with socially liberal values. They’re also quite positive for those who, even in 1999, were lamenting the supposed hegemony of neo-con views everywhere.

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    Thanks for your comments, PT. You raise good points as always.

    I wish they did have data going back before 1981. It would be interesting to see how much things changed between 1977-78 and 1981.

    You’re right, the Winter of Discontent was almost certainly a turning point. I was just reading an article today about how different history might have been had James Callaghan called a ’78 election ahead of the crisis. He probably would have been re-elected, Thatcher would have been a historical footnote, and Labour would have followed a course similar to that of the Hawke Labor government in Australia — which made effective economic reforms without polarizing the country, unlike what happened in the U.K. and N.Z.

    As a former Thatcher fan who is now more of a small-l liberal, I also find some of the numbers positive. Even though part of the shift would have been due to factors beyond the politicians’ control, it suggests that heavy-handed ideology might be counterproductive, in that it might actually push the public in the other direction. (We might have also seen this in the U.S. more recently.)

    And it suggests that ideological governments might have less power than they think they have to remake a society in their image.

  3. philanthropicwall says:

    Being British, I love ‘Wallflower’ by MC Frontalot with the lyrics “I’ve got a new dance called The Margaret Thatcher.
    It’ll get in your pants, you’d better call the dispatcher.
    and don’t do anything I wouldn’t condone
    except a dance named after a villainous crone.”
    Songs featuring Margaret Thatcher continue to be produced, such as The Magggie Thatcher Experience with Thatcher’s Death Anthem and ‘The Lady’s not for Burning’ who are trying to Flash Mob Thatcher’s Death by using social networking sites such as Facebook. They are a one piece spoof band from Sheffield, Yorkshire who make use of Flash Games related to the iron lady or the Miners Strike to gain popularity (http://www.milksnatcher.com). They are not the only ones, however. Chumbawamba also have an E.P out called ‘in Memorium’ which will be sent out to everyone who orders one the day Thatcher dies. The genre ‘Geek or Nerd Hip Hop’ have also produced songs featuring Thatcher such as MC Frontalot with the lyrics “I’ve got a new dance called The Margaret Thatcher.
    It’ll get in your pants, you’d better call the dispatcher.
    and don’t do anything I wouldn’t condone
    except a dance named after a villainous crone.”

    [Moderator’s note: I vetted this one carefully before letting it through, and reduced the number of hyperlinks to one. To celebrate someone’s death is pretty distasteful, IMO. However, as many North Americans are not aware of just how polarizing a figure Margaret Thatcher was and still is in Britain, this is a good learning opportunity.]

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