What was life really like pre-Thatcher?

Was it all as dystopian as owlstretchingtime makes out?

I’m too young to remember much about those years, but here are some cites


They seemed alright to me, but then I was only nine when the Thatch came to power.

My memories include…

  • state-owned car factories, coal mines, phone co, steel mills, ports, bus/rail companies,electricity, gas, etc etc
  • strikes organized by unions in the above parts of the economy, demanding subsidies from the rest of the population
  • strikes in the private sector (such as it was) organized by unions abusing their rights to bully co-workers who didn’t want to strike
  • misery for consumers at the mercy of these exploitative vermin
  • a welfare system designed to compensate people left out of work by the above-mentioned economic inefficiencies, but not paid for by the perpetrators
  • income tax rates that drove anyone earning good money out of the country
  • the economy fell behind Italy’s
  • people were emigrating

…the country was going bankrupt. The psychological turning point, in my mind, was the Falklands War.

I don’t know whether Maggie was a cause or effect. I suspect that if she hadn’t come along, someone else would have. Her name is mud among a lot of people to this day. She pulled half the working class into the middle class and left the other half to rot. She won 3 elections in a row. Blair has kept most of her policies. The UK is now a strong, services-based economy with a labour shortage, and a magnet for educated immigrants from Europe, let alone the 3rd World

I think that covers it.

Of course not - it was just a different era and one the Oil Crisis of the early 70’s bought to an end.

The truly distopian era was the unnecessarry brutality with which Thatcher and her ilk approached needed economic reform. We are still feeling the effects of her slash and burn approach to the social fabric in the form of widespread drug problems, homelessless, the breakdown of social ties and mores and the embedding of an underclass as a permanet feature of life with all the problems that ensue.

Not to mention the spectacular undervaluing of public assets in her ‘get your snouts in the troughs’ firesales.

And how’s railway privatisation working out?

I was in Canada for a time in the mid 90s and something about it all made me think that it was like the UK had been pre-Thatcher…

I worked in an office in the late 70s & 80s and the Thatcherite wind of change affected us all - not just the Miner’s Strike and the gutting of heavy industry, but the culling of staff from almost everywhere. This was also during the rise of computing power and the combined effect on clerical labour was horrendous - our regional subscription dept. crashed from being the busiest dept. in the office to one of the smallest.
We still had staff whose jobs had been kept for them while they enlisted during WW2 and, as they retired, attitudes and practices changed and ‘new broom’ type managers, rather than the ‘safe pair of hands’ style came in. Morale plummeted and we all scoured the jobs sections of the newspapers… not that there were many jobs about.

Things had to change, but a bit more heart could have eased the process considerably.

I moved from the US to the UK in 1975, and though I was only a kid, the contrast was stark. Drab, dreary, horrible cars, inefficient services.

The drought of 76 was fun - I remember special assemblies at school telling us to economise on water (the whole time there was a burst water main in our garden that pumped millions of gallons of water into our lawn, the only green one in the street).

The Jubilee in 77 provided a bit of a lift, but then came the strikes, the strikes, the strikes, the power cuts, the non-collection of rubbish. For a bit of contemporary (right wing) coverage of the issues of the day, look up some of the old Giles cartoon albums from a jumble sale.

Every adult I knew voted for Thatcher out of anger, not necessarily out of principle, but out of anger.

The answer to this is yes and no.

In many ways it really was shite. The nationalised industries were appalling in their management and the goods/services they produced. British Leyland managed to make crappy jaguars, and as for their other cars – I refer you to the Austin Maestro or TVR7. TVN managed to make both triumph and Norton a dirty word in motorcycle circles. I can’t think of a single decent thing produced by the nationalised industries. And if you think the railways and tube are crap now – trust me they were worse then (Hard to believe isn’t it?)

Strikes were commonplace. The unions were the de facto government on many ways. To try to give you an idea of how powerful they were Mike Yarwood used to do (dreadful) impressions of trade union leaders, people like Scargill Gormley, Moss Evans, Jack Jones and that bloke with the Jimmy Edwards moustache that led the postmen. That’s how high profile they were. They had higher profiles than most cabinet ministers (and some would say more power). To give another instance the BBC used to show the whole of the TUC conference, in full, live. This was in the days before regular afternoon telly.

The economy was in a dreadful state – this impacted on many things. For example it was illegal to take more than a certain amount of money (from memory £250) out of the country in cash – this was to prevent another run on the pound.

In general the country had a downtrodden, defeated feel about it. It was physically shabby and derelict sites were a common sight, even in central London.

It is no coincidence that punk came up in this period with its nihilistic outlook. People really did feel that there was “no future”.

Having said al that there were also some good things – most brits were getting abroad for the first time in their lives and bringing back greater expectations regarding things like food etc. It was post-pill and pre AIDS so we had a lot of fun, with no comebacks. The music was better, and we all got to wear Lionels without pretending to be ironic.

I do over-egg the situation from time to time when the trappy left are getting on their high-horses. But they really do have NO idea of how grim it was.

The contrast between Britain then and Britain now is the contrast between East Germany and west Germany (yes that big a gap).

Quite how much of this would have happened any way is open to debate. However it definitely did happen under Mrs T and for that I for one am eternally grateful.

I am also grateful that I am not reading this board on a line provided by the GPO!

And didn’t Dennis Healey have to go cap in hand to the World Bank? I just about remember the power cuts from the miners strike.

The IMF had to pretty much bail the country out (I don’t think the funds were actually used, but they did make the facility available).

Exchange controls - if you bought foreign currency or travellers checks you had to show your passport at the bank, which put a little stamp in the back saying how much of your GBP250 allowance you had used up.

And let’s not forget 26% inflation. Ordinary items in the supermarket went up a penny a week.

Having said all that, the place didn’t ‘feel’ poor. I remember seeing a horse-drawn plow in France in the early 70s, and some family members recall seeing barefoot kids in W Virginia. We’re talking 3-decades ago.

Reminds me of Los Angeles in the '80s (only replace “drab, dreary” with “smoggy, dreary” My entire childhood was spent in drought education. And the nuclear-attack-duck-under-the-desk training… and the eathquake drills… and the earthquakes… and the gangs…

Y’know what? I think pretty much everywhere is better than it was 20 years ago.

I’ve also just remembered the other wonderful thing - 98% tax rates.

So yes, things were as bad as owlstretchingtime makes out.

Told you so! :stuck_out_tongue:

owl, jjimm and Hemlock sum up my recollections pretty accurately. I went through secondary school and university in the 70s, and still remember revising for important exams by candlelight.

Through the 50’s and 60’s our economy expanded hugely, higher education expanded, and ownership of all consumer durables increased, as did house ownership.

This was not due to Thatcherite economics, it was down to a post war boom, but unfortunately our industry bosses did not have the foresight to invest their profits into new plant, or training, or research.

The seeds of the UKs poor performance in the 70’s were sown in the 60’s, despite politicians urging investment in new technology.

Neither Labour, nor Conservative administrations could get investors to look any further than their immediate short term returns, but in Germany, and Japan, industrial leaders were prepared to take a loss if it meant building a secure industrial base, even major US companies did the same - look at Boeing for instance.

It was obvious what would happen to UK industry if it did not keep up, and it didn’t, we had plenty of warning as our motorcyle industry declined alarmingly, but did we invest, no, we did not.

We pretended we were big players on the world stage, with large military spending that would have been better directed at tax cuts.

Add to all these woes, two oil price hikes and the UK was very badly placed to deal with them, not having a modern efficient industrial base.

The oil price shocks are what led to massive inflation, its why we had to borrow from the world bank, its why pay demands were made to keep incomes on par with price rises, and when wages could not keep up, the strikes ensued.

The reality is that France went through much the same, but it continued to support most of its manufacturing, and lets fact it, Renault and Peugeot were bywords for state run industrial innefficiency.

Italy supported its bike industry, and guess what, it thrives, even if it does seem to change hands rather frequently.

We in the UK simply do not support our industry, we have a short term view, if a company performs under market expectations, it won’t last long, we close it and put all the workers out to grass.

Its all too easy to blame unions, but the reality is that poor investment decisions, and lack of modernisation, both in plant and industrial relations are the main reasons why we did so badly, there are no bad employees, but ther are plenty of bad directors.

Good directors don’t allow bad employees to cause problems, they manage, the deal with the indolent, they lead and take responsibility.

British management has always been shite, we have a class ridden industrial system, where the workers eat in one canteen, the supervisers another, and managers yet another, but Japanese companies all eat in the same canteen, at least the bosses can see for themselves who is tossing it off.

Far from being a saviour, Ms Thatcher actually used the new found bounty of North Sea oil revenues to prop up the UK and pay for her schemes, such as 5 millions unemployed.

People seem to forget that during Thachers reign, she had acces to a resource no previous govenrment had enjoyed, all that oil revenue, and because of the increased price of it, which had so screwed us earlier, this higher price bailed her out for nearly two decades.

She was not a great as some folk think, she was in the right place at the right time, no administration could have looked good in the 70’s due to the oil shocks, and almost any administration would have looked good with the oil revenues coming in.

I’ll go along with other posters and say that the 70’s certainly had problems, but even during those years the lifestyle of just about everyone that I know did improve.

At the end of the Thatcher reign, it was starting to become obvious that for the first time in many generations, children would have a lower standard of living than their parents, this process has not improved, I know many folk around here whose lives have been damaged seriously by Thatcher, whose unemployment was ‘A price worth paying’ from one of her own closest ministers, who was at a banquet at the time.

Thatcher has probably come as close as it is possible to get to breaking up the UK into its component parts.

What has happened is that her policies were so divisive, and strikingly aimed at the South Eastern end of the country, that both Scotland and Wales simply voted them out of their nations, and this has led to them having their own administrations.

Her polices were so detrimental to the North of the country that there were demand for a Northern England assembly.
Labour partly got into power by promising to set up a separate Scottish Parliament and Welsh assembly and a promise that Northern England would have a referendum on having its own regional assembly.

People in the South East of England have not yet understood just how bad the Thatcher years were to the rest of the country, and they still don’t understand why we in the regions wanted our own assembly, or why Scotland wanted to break away completely, so Owly before you think of how great Thatcher was, think also, why it is that so much of the country does not want to be part of the United Kingdom.
I imagine you are a British patriot, just how much damage did she do with her administration to the cohesion of our nation ?

This is very serious fundamental stuff, it might seem an exaggeration, and it is I guess, but with the break up of nations, much more sinister events soon follow, and the fact is, we do have spearate assemblies, and that is not too far from declarations of independance.

The true legacy of Thatcher is that she very nearly broke up the union.

You seem to be asserting that the British economy was doing just fine, thank you very much, before Thatcher came along, or at least until the 70s. But compare our 1945 - 1970 growth to that of other Western countries, we’re right at the bottom. And since the 1980s we have been doing rather well, comparatively. North Sea oil revenues are nowhere near big enough to account for the difference.

You also seem to lament the move away from manufacturing towards a service economy. I don’t understand why. Who cares if we don’t make motorcycles here any more? If people in other countries are prepared to make them more cheaply than we can, or their governments are kind enough to subsidise the production of motorcycles for us, that’s a good thing, surely? Frees us up to do more profitable things. Anybody can assemble motorbikes, FFS.

I don’t know what you mean by “a class ridden industrial system, where the workers eat in one canteen, the supervisers another, and managers yet another”. I have never encountered any such thing in Britain, and I’ve worked in offices and factories up and down the land.

And it’s not true that there is great demand for more regional government in the north of England. In the recent referendum in the North East, 78% voted against a regional assembly.

Actually no, I was not saying that our economic performance in the 70’s was fine, I’m saying that due to the oil price shocks it was not, I also mentioned that throught the boom years to he 50’s and 60’s, industrial leaders did not invest in new plant, research, training, and in fact if you look at engineering in particular, we were using plant that was pre war.

Our performance in the 50’s and 60’s was reasonable, despite our lamentable investment.

I worked at Woodhead springs for a time, one of the three largest manufacturers of truck suspensions in the UK, it used plant dating back literaly to the industrial revolution.

As for working in offices, well for many years, and to a certain extent even now, white collar workers looked down on their blue collar counterparts, so don’t bother with the class system nonsense here, in fact it used to happen within the same factory.

As for not having a manufacturing economy, you are totally missing aren’t you, we import most of our manufactured goods, which is a loss to our economy, why do you think that every other industrialised nation makes manufacturing a priority, are we so great that we don’t need to compete, this just smacks of institutionalised national laziness.

Service industry is either low paid, or rewards relatively few very highly.

If we actually look at the service industry in this neck of the woods, we find that well paid and skilled manufacturing work has been replaced by low paid low skill services such as call centres, very big around here, warehousing and storekeeping, importing and maintaning the products of importers.

As for it not being true that there is demand for a Northern regional assembly, well obviously you were not in the North during the Thatcher years, there was plenty of demand, now there isn’t and Thatcher is no longer in office.

You cannot deny the reasons why Scotland and Wales wanted to go their own way, it was very significantly down to just Thatcherite policies which basicly closed down these two countries, her hated poll tax did not help either.

If you recall, during her misrule, every single one of her government colleagues was voted out of office in those two areas and in the North of England they became an endangered species.
This you cannot deny, effectively Scotland and Wales served warning that they did not consent to be ruled from Westminster, I just can’t understand how you do not appreciate just how serious this was.

As for the canteens issue, well obviously you never worked for BL, or the Steel industry, in fact aat BL they had 7 differant standards of eating facility.

Reasonably you can point out that these were both nationalised industries, and this was a symptom of what was wrong with them.Fine I’ll go along with that, but the reason they were nationalised in the first place was that they were seriously under invested and so could not keep the pace with their competitors.

If you want an industry that still shows the scars of 50 years of utterly inadequate investment and all the problems that can cause, look no further than the railways, and even the magic pill of privatisation didn’t work because you cannot put right in five years what took 50 to screw up.

Why should we not manufacture things anyway, France, Germany, Japan, the US seem to think, its a good thing and despite having to take losses and subsidise such industries during set up phase, they are now income generators. Its not the case that workers have to be paid a pittance to make such industries profitable, as such conditions would certainly not be acceptable in those nations.

Japan does not lose money on the manufacture of motorcycles, we have lost a certain critical mass in manufacturing, it means that there isn’t the technical and industrial production mass to set up major manufacturing, I cannot simply make a phone call to a British company and order the plant to set up my factory, because we simply don’t make the stuff to do so any more.

I would be interested to read if any US poster, or any poster from other major industrial nations thinks manufacturing is not important, that it can all be shut down and all their goods imported, what do you think the answer is likely to be ?

I would be interested to see your cites for the above. If it’s just your memories, then I don’t agree (and I lived through it all).

Yes, I agree British Leyland was a mess. The problem there was mainly (as Casdave has said) that industry underinvested.

I see you don’t rate the NHS. Hospital care for all not a decent thing, huh?

I think that it is incredible that the railways were privatised - that was just a political decision. The Conservatives gave huge amounts of money to bankers, consultants and stockbrokers before the sell-off, huge amounts of money to persuade companies to run trains, huge amounts of money to set up and run railway regulators (you get the idea). They achieved magnificent ideas such as that if you wanted to go from London to Rutland, changing at Peterborough, and the London train was a couple of minutes late, the connection wouldn’t wait. You see they were two different companies. Clearly Thatcher had never heard of a natural monopoly.

I can’t believe you quote an annual TV program as evidence of who used to run the country!
It is true (as always) that politicians listen to the wishes of those who fund their campaigns. Bush has Halliburton, Bechtel (etc); the Conservatives obey the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) and Labour was reliant on trade union contributions.

All this shows is that you don’t know what is was like in East Germany.
Although surely you remember Thatcher provoking massive riots over the miner’s strike and the poll tax.

You’ll note that the Conservatives completely failed to set up a genuine market in telecommunication services. Clearly, since according to them all monopolies are bad, there should have been several companies digging up the street to each offer you a telephone wire.
And of course since there is no ‘profit’ in rural Post Offices, they are being rapidly closed. Thatcher of course didn’t believe in ‘society’.

Do bear in mind:

  • Thatcher’s economic ‘policy’ (monetarism / poll tax) has been completely discarded

  • her Chancellor, John Major, lost £15,000,000,000 in one day when Prime Minister

  • she was dropped by her own party and is now a complete embarassment to them

  • the Conservatives are still, decades later, struggling to win any election

Strange how the policies of such an ‘impressive’ person have been completely forgotten. Why it’s almost as if they wasn’t any use.

There were a very large number of days lost to strikes in the 1970s. I’ve not been able to locate complete data - the ONS only gives stats back to 1983 - but this written Parliamentary answer (you’ll need to scroll down a bit ) shows the large number of days lost to strike action in the period.

Oh yes it flippin well is, up to date the UK has benefited to the tune of over £160 billions over the total UK oil production years to now.

What you also must realise is that the actual value per annum is actually far greater, since oil was a net loss during the 60’s and 70’s, and the real value of oil revenues was much greater during the 80’s taking inflation into account.

What’s also worth mentioning is that we have already passed peak oil production, Thatcher had an equivalent income of at least £20 billions during her misrule, and depending upon your cite, up to £35 billions, quite enough to make an immense differance.

Don’t take my word for it, look up the tables and see how our oil revenues fared during the Thatcher years, then tell me just how significant this was to our economy,


from a very reputable source indeed


This gave us an oil trade surplus of around £8 billions, where in the 70’s we imported oil, we became the fifth largest exporter


If you read the following article, you will see exactly why manufacturing is important, we have a non-oil deficit in goods and services of £40billions, just how in heck are we going to overcome that without a manufacturing sector of major significance.


Oil and gas exports are actually the only reason at all that we had a balance of trade surplus during the Thatcher years where they accounted for 20% of our exports, meanwhile manufacturing has declined, and the problem is that oil is still significant at just under 10% of our export totals but that figure is falling and will continue to do so.


This deficit is rising and will continue to do so, it’s only oil that’s keeping us afloat.
Japan has no oil reserves, but even though its economy is relativley stagnant, it is far better placed to deal with the future as it is not dependant upon an unreplaceable resource, we on the other hand are well screwed.

Honestly, the arrogance of Britons who think we can just sit on our collective arses and not get dirty and sweaty from actually doing work is just breathtaking, its as if they are saying that all that dirty, smelly , tough hands on stuff is beneath us, well here is news for you, without manufacturing, which Thatcher has so comprehensively destroyed, our future over the medium term is not good, but over the next 20 years, especially with the likely reduction of working age people, we are in purest and deepest doo-doo.

Thatcher used oil money to destroy manufacturing, she nearly presided over the break up of the UK, she created wider societal divides and regional divides as has not been seen since pre industrial revolution, and our future has already been sold of and spent, with little or no investment for the future.

How can anyone say Thatcher was such a success when she squandered a limited resource, did not reinvest, used it to finance the destruction of manufacturing and no government since, including the current one, has done anything to address the fact that at some point we will have to pay our way in the world through non-oil exports, which will almost certainkly mean manufacturing, which has not recieved any favours whatsoever from any shade of government.

Our children will look at the bounty of the oil rich Thatcher years and condemn us as being short termist fools.

Are you sure it wasn’t the unions who destroyed manufacturing with their wage demands? And lets not forget the better quality of foreign goods at the time.