Trickle-down Economics – The Thatcher Legacy


This was originally posted in 2013 just after the death of Margaret Thatcher. Now that the Conservatives have amassed a majority at the General Election, I am re-publishing as the message holds even firmer today.

“In our system, everything is done according to a pyramid approach: the order is given from the top and carried out at the base.”

No, this was not Margaret Thatcher but Jiangwen Qu – professor at Kumming’s Centre for Asian Studies, talking about China. (Taken from China’s Silent Army, Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araujo).

He went on to say: “We believe that other countries should follow this model, because if you let everybody give their opinion it is difficult to make decisions.”

Yet, it demonstrates how in our so-called democracy, the top-down theory of decision-making was so faulty. Margaret Thatcher won three general elections because the Labour Party was split between the left-wing (originally led by Michael Foot) and the right, which broke away to form the Social Democrats. In the UK’s ridiculous “first-past-the-post” election system, a party needs only 35-40% of the vote for a substantial majority – that was Margaret Thatcher’s luck. This luck had already been seen in her victory over Edward Heath in the leadership contest in 1975 – although it has to be said that she took full advantage of that luck.

Margaret Thatcher always said that she believed in democracy but made great fortune from its deficiencies. Apart from a rigged election system that gives minor parties full majorities, she did not practice democracy in terms of decision-making. Her cabinet (where the Prime Minister is supposed to be prima inter pares – first amongst peers) was where “the order is given from the top and carried out at the base”. This was her style from the time she became Prime Minister to the time she was thrown out by those who had the substance to rebel after 13 years of her idiosyncratic style of democratic rule.

Leadership and Democracy

Within a system such as ours, Margaret Thatcher did not split the country – her support was far less than half the country (usually than 40% of the voting population) and even those that voted for were split between various streams of the Tory party. She fragmented it. Her supporters in 2013 would mainly be found in UKIP today  although she would have still used the Tory Party as it is the only vehicle for power. The split was far worse as it demonstrated that rule of a democratic party would be by just the largest minority and with extreme policies.

Those policies did change the economic landscape that had been moving to rigid control by sclerotic centrist organisations such as Trades unions, Public Sector, old-style corporations and successive governments that had no vision for society.

Thatcher destroyed the comfiness of society in her own terms and put in its place more top-down doctrines around monetarism. Because liberalism had floundered after the first World War, centrist forms such as socialism and corporatism were, it seemed, all that there was left. Even the linking of Liberals and Social Democrats in he 1980’s was to prove a failure of liberalism as the Liberal Party moved towards a centrist European ideal and away from the localism and bias away from the centre that had characterized the party from its inception.

Strong leadership takes advantage of democracy in the UK (and still does) and the trade-off between the two is a constant battle. Where no leadership exists (and this is a story of today) then democracy does not replace it until some form of leadership appears. In the UK, we still have sclerotic centrist organisations that support the status quo and no vision or leadership for the 21st Century that would inspire the change that wealthier and better-educated citizens would aspire to.

The Centre going Forward

There is a massive danger that the completely centrist and statist system operating in China (as quoted in the first paragraph above) will, because of China’s growth and rapid ascendance, come to dominate political thinking the world over. Liberal Democracy is already wilting in western Europe as major decision-making is made by the unelected (in Brussels and for some time in Italy) with nations such as Portugal, Spain, Cyprus and Ireland ruled from the centre (read Germany). This is far away from localism and screams about the loss of Liberalism. The now-disgraced and jailed Chris Huhne remains a fan of the EU and the Euro – not a surprise that his background is social democracy not liberalism.

The 20th Century was a battleground between the forces of darkness epitomized by  extreme Nationalism, Communism and Fascism on one hand and the forces of democracy on the other. Millions lost their lives and millions more suffered in gulags and concentration camps for democracy and the end of extremism.

The 21st Century battleground is more complex as the war between the different political forces of centrist and localism is splintered by the battles for resources and markets (and by the impending battle for climate and conservation) and between north and south and rich and poor and corruptors and corrupted.

Thatcherism knew only Hayek-style liberalism – an understandable reaction against socialism and the fear that fascism was created around that fear. In its place, The Road to Serfdom (Hayek’s best known work and Thatcher’s quasi-bible) postured a place for Government in monetarism and information provision – working to ensure that the market could work through transparent pricing. This was its limit and disregarded the essence of society (although Thatcher did not assert that society did not exist, she might as well) as did Hayek in his complete opposition to anything that wreaked of socialism – even social democracy was something that Hayek viewed as naturally leading to totalitarianism.

The problems that Hayek missed and that Thatcher and Reagan made possible (and that China is already risking) is that while socialism runs everything from the centre, the opposite camp of economic liberalism naturally tends towards a small minority at the top owning all the assets and all the decision-making apparatus. It is clear from the history of the last 30 years that the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer (in terms of direct wealth and the supporting services offered to them) and that the dynamism needed in society from the other sectors is dying. Margaret Thatcher notoriously believed that there would be a trickle-down effect. That was nonsense and that is now proved.

Worse, a market-led economy which is based around numbers only (with GDP growth as the religion) leads to huge societal dislocations. The NHS is a valid case where management by statistics leads to deaths and the complete abandonment of human character – as evidenced by the maltreatment of the elderly. The opposite system (as in the USA) based on insurance only leads to only the wealthy having good medical services.

Worse, the motivation by quantity alone means that quality of life is abandoned in the drive for more goods. This is the market at work when left to its own devices. The market is driven by the simplest routes to success – numbers. We cannot be solely market-driven even if the market is the best form of driving entrepreneurialism.

People-centricity not Centrism or top-down

Society has experimented with many forms of government and economics. On the latter, we have a general agreement that market-led economics works best, but it is market-led not liberal or libertarian markets. Market-led means that other decision-making mechanisms are relevant wherever the market tends to extremism – such as domination of the market by monopolies or when the rich 1% control all the assets.

In the West, we believe that democracy works best because we all have a stake and are all equal under the law. Huge, developing countries like India and Brazil have similar philosophies but are riven by corruption. China is a centrist “civilization state” which directs from the core and will, at some stage, erupt into democracy. Russia is a centrist state by tradition and a mafia-dominated chaos.

Where we believe in equality under the law, we have to strike balances which Hayek / Thatcher / Reagan economics cannot achieve. This balance has to ensure that the drive is towards the individual but that society steps in to take out excesses. The balance is developed by society – with civil society and civil society organisations strengthened against the powers of the centre wherever they are.

This is far away from a socialist state where assets are owned and / or controlled from the centre and where equalization is the norm. Balance (whatever it is called) rewards entrepreneurship but would not award bankers or managers in the same way. It would not have made the reduction to 45% in the top income tax rate in the UK – whether or not this had been financially sensible in the short-term – as it shows a total disregard to society and the motivation of the great majority of its citizens that are struggling to prosper.

People-centricity and a focus on society using the best of the market and democracy but using brain power and ingenuity as well as technology represent the 21st Century as we struggle against top-down, centrism, climate change, resource degradation and inequality.

It is not what Margaret Thatcher intended as it requires not just the whip but also the driving force of human capability in all areas of society to see beyond the numbers or the desire to control from the top. It is leadership by motivation and inspiration.

With the death of Margaret Thatcher, let’s lay to rest trickle-down economics  along with socialism and fascism.

When Bush Senior said “it’s the economy, stupid”, society was shelved.

Let’s talk society not just economics. Human brain power not numbers. Ingenuity not GDP. Well-being not hospital stats. Quality not quantity. Society not just economics. Real leadership, motivation and inspiration.

Left-right, left-right: Parties and cliff edges

In the UK, Members of Parliament go back to work after the summer recess. All the talk is about Cameron’s reshuffle and leadership issues: Cameron is accused of acting like a “mouse”; Clegg’s leadership is under threat from his own party; the two Ed’s of Labour (Miliband and Balls) are said to be continuously arguing and that the phrase “two Eds are better than one” may not be true in this case.

More seriously, as the post-summer issues are traditionally short-term nonsense, last week’s Prospect Magazine has Peter Kellner (President of the pollsters, youGuv) writing an intriguing article on how the Liberal Democrats’ support has collapsed since the last General Election As a result of entering into coalition with the Conservatives, their support has gone from 24% to 10% – which would result in a fall from 57 to around 10-12 seats if an election were to be held today.

While much of Kellner’s response to the polling made good sense, one aspect of the questions his pollsters asked concerns me greatly. This aspect focuses on how much to the left or right the party is.

The concern is this: surely, this form of questioning is out of date in the realpolitik of 21st Century thinking and 21st Century politics. Surely, in an age of individualism and the lobbying by NGO’s and many one-issue organisations of one issue arguments, the left / right analogy is no longer relevant?

Is politics really about left vs right anymore?

The left and right of politics were named after where the French parties sat in the National Assembly in 1789 at the time of the revolution. In 1791, the Legislative Assembly had the “innovators” on the left, moderates in the middle and the defenders of the Constitution on the right. This became the dominant march of politics in the 20th Century. Different and violently opposed political doctrines literally fought it out on the battlefield throughout the 20th Century. Fascism and Nazi-ism on the right, Communism on the left were the extremes in the battlefields of China, Spain, Cambodia, Europe (in WWII) or wherever the post-feudal wars (those that we fought up to the end of the first world war) were fought. Innovation became muddled with socialism and communism; defenders of the constitution became muddled with economic rigour and libertarianism capitalism (never the manner of the “ancient regime”).

Right and left became doctrinal and, with the fight for the rights of labour against the owner class, the 20th Century adopted the political norm.

Is economics an argument of right and left?

Now that the 21st Century is into its twelfth year, the left / right argument appears completely out of date. Sure, there are arguments about economics that will be with us forever: from libertarian, tea party protagonists all the way to Keynesian interventionists. But, because capitalism is now the standard economic and accepted model, the battle is not right vs left in economics but which form of economic model around the capitalist norm. Arguments are much less severe in developed nations and turn on moderate changes in taxation.

Much bigger issues, such as ending tax havens, transfer pricing, corporate power, corporate governance, the role of banks, corruption and many other crucial issues are stymied as politicians argue over the short-term vote catching issues – 1p or 1c on income tax, for instance.

Is the way we are governed right vs left?

Communism or socialism now only survives on the periphery. China is not a communist state – its economics are capitalist within a statist structure and the party ensures a legalist control (it is above the law). This is not communism. Russia is now a centrally controlled capitalist enterprise (run as a large corporate machine). The rest of the world operates in a democratic to quasi-democratic state. Hereditary monarchy is now mainly for the tourists and the press (celebrities within a celebrity culture).

There is little traditional right vs left in government.

Is the environment a subject for right vs left?

Here, confusion reigns. Traditional right-wingers in the UK (from a Tory mould) can be classed as conservative when it comes to the environment. They often oppose untrammelled modernity and defend the right to conserve (as “Conservatives”). Yet, they oppose green movements because they associate them with restrictions on economic growth. Roger Scruton in “how to Think Seriously About the Planet – the case for an environmental conservativism” puts the case for the right to take back control of the agenda.

The affects of CO2 are now disputed only at the periphery but the case for changing our ways is not agreed. This is now much more about individual nations wanting their own freedom and more about the problem of worldwide agreements – not a right vs left issue at all.

Does politics need right vs left?

Less and less people vote in general elections. Maybe the reason is that the left vs right arguments that drew people’s interest and motivation are no longer prevalent. The motivation to vote for broad platforms which mainly focus on short-term issues designed to entrap voters based on their short-term economic concerns is weak. Tradition still subjects most voters to choose their party and most political parties focus on swing votes – the 2% that Romney and Obama will work to win over in the USA, for example. The 2% that means that 98% are virtually disenfranchised!

The traditional view of politics is one where political parties are formed to organize themselves so that they can attract votes from the individuals who are not organized. This is changing.

Individuals have always formed into non-political party groupings – from trades unions to employer associations, from charities to NGO’s. Many of these groups are single-issue campaigning groups or lobbyists that work hard to influence political opinion and political parties directly and via the media. These range from economic groups to environmental, from governance to charitable, health to education – the spectrum is vast.

This third sector (usually a reference to charities, but comprising all citizen action groups, from sports clubs onwards) is not primarily left of right, but single focus – taking up an issue or cause around some issues. Their influence on government is substantial. Most Government Bills are developed as a result of significant lobbying from single-issue groups. For example, the Bribery Act came into being as a direct result of such lobbying and formal meetings between Government and a diverse range of lobby groups from CBI to NGO’s.

This means that the ancient Greek form of democracy – where every individual is supposed to have an equal say in Government – which was never the norm in most democracies as political parties formed – is now fractured into more layers. Government now relies on the lobbyists and reacts more to them than the community or study groups assembled from the general populace prior to elections.

This means that the left and right of politics (already under strain anyway) are meaningless. Single-issue groups lobby on single issues and political parties, no longer fighting on the issues of left vs right, sway as they are buffeted by those who are able to articulate the issues and now the means to communicate effectively. This means that the individual voter is now even more disenfranchised as it is only a small fraction of the population that is engaged in this process – and that, even at elections, the driving force behind vote-catching is bound to short-term or lobby focused.

A new politics?

In an era of globalization and instant communications, individual nations are less able to maintain an individualist position. Nevertheless, as the Olympics and Paralympics have shown in the UK, national pride remains important and is a reason why the Eurozone crisis will endure much longer than hoped.

However, within this national pride, it is likely to be an era when individualism is also crucial. The mass movements of left vs right are no longer relevant and single issues are much stronger in motivating and exciting.

If there is any truth in this then it is interesting to note the preamble to the Liberal Democrats Federal Constitution:

“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.”

In the nonsense over cabinet reshuffles and personalities, it is probably the case that very few even know where to look for the above statement  – (which is found on the Liberal Democrat website after its coalition agreement – which is all short-term).

Yet, it could be the clarion call for our age – a liberal theme that is far more “of our age” than the 20th Century arguments of right or left.

If right vs left is truly out of date, then open society, balancing liberty, equality and community, individualism cherished, developing talents, creativity and the rest within a coherent community is a proper and enticing call that should be further developed. Apart from a better focus on the environment (our natural capital) which demands more from us, the preamble is not right or left – it is also not middle ground but moves the argument away from traditional left vs right.

Citizens of the 21st Century world maybe deserve something more from our governing elites that have not moved from their 19th Century models.  How we balance our competing single issues and how citizens get to have their say in the crucial issues that determine how we spend our lives is what 21st Century politics should be about. Maybe parties like the Liberal Democrats should think of the themes that will dominate thinking in the 21st Century. Maybe that is a way to get some common ground with citizens – the voters.