Much of the controversy surrounding the late prime minister stems from the failure to cushion the effects of industrial change - green leaders should take note
Yesterday, the Conservative MEP and self-styled right wing firebrand Daniel Hannan asked a thought-provoking question. The question, voiced on Twitter, was directed at "all the Lefties complaining that Margaret Thatcher closed coal-mines", and asked whether they were "after all, in favour of burning coal?"
The answer for most "lefties" and greens (regardless of what Hannan thinks, the two constituencies are not synonymous) is, of course, "no, we are not in favour of burning coal, at least not without working carbon capture and storage technology".
And yet, he raises an interesting point about the way in which many of Thatcher's critics have mistakenly aimed their ire at her historic decisions to close the mines, privatise key industries and generally de-industrialise the UK, when their frustrations more accurately lie with the brutally swift way in which she enacted nation-shaping reforms that a clear majority of people, both now and then, regarded as necessary and desirable.
This overly simplistic criticism of the recently-departed former Prime Minister by many on the Left has allowed those who wish to deify Thatcher to argue, entirely reasonably, that she was brave enough to push through reforms that the experience of other countries in Europe and North America have shown to be largely inevitable. It would take a particularly intense commitment to socialism to argue, for example, that the UK should have continued to operate nationalised car companies, travel agents and airlines. Equally, it remains difficult in retrospect to argue that some of the UK's uncompetitive heavy industries should have been retained indefinitely when they were being undercut by emerging markets.
No, the real reason that Thatcher, rightly or wrongly, remains such a divisive figure is not because she delivered these reforms, it is because of the manner in which she delivered them - through police lines, broken strikes, communities blighted by unemployment, and the controversial assertion that there is "no such thing as society". You can argue that her experiment in creative destruction may have worked at a macro level, restoring growth to the economy, pride to the nation's sense of self, and competitiveness to companies that had previously been hampered by over-powerful unions and restrictive state control. But only Thatcher's most one-eyed cheerleaders would fail to acknowledge the devastating impact many of these reforms had at a local level, through levels of public underinvestment, joblessness, poverty and hopelessness that ended up tearing at the very social fabric of the nation.
Many of the eulogies prompted by the death of the most successful and yet most controversial prime minister of modern times have argued that these reforms were necessary, regardless of the collateral damage that ensued, and that despite the caricature of unrelenting indifference Thatcher cared deeply about the people who lost out during the 1980s revolution. According to many of those who worked with her, she believed firmly that the rolling back of the state and the closing of the mines would magically unleash private sector jobs and entrepreneurialism in the communities that were affected and could not comprehend why things did not pan out as planned. This may well have been the case, but a quick glance at the reaction to her passing proves that any good intentions did little to appease those communities who suffered under the Thatcher government. You can argue, again entirely justifiably, that on balance the reforms were to the benefit of the nation. But it is worth noting that Germany and the Nordics proved that it was possible to undertake similar transitions without the same level of controversy, divisiveness and at times outright brutality.
As was eloquently highlighted by Ed Miliband in the House of Commons yesterday, Thatcher's time in office holds significant lessons for the UK's green economy through the way in which she married a very modern form of environmentalism with conservative thinking. But there are also lessons for the sector contained in the controversial industrial reforms Thatcher enacted, and more importantly the failure to deliver a smooth and planned transition towards a new economic mix.
The simple fact is that the UK and other major economies are now embarked on a new economic transition as we seek to decarbonise – a transition greater even than that experienced during the Thatcher era. Just as with the contrasting fortunes of the City and the miners in the 1980s, a decarbonisation programme that requires industrialised nations to cut emissions 80 per cent by 2050 will inevitably lead to winners and losers as some of the more carbon-intensive industries are forced to embrace new clean technologies or face the end of the road. Many people in the green economy do not like to talk about this reality, hoping that CCS technology and other breakthroughs will ease the transition, allowing many carbon-intensive industries to evolve and survive. But while this happy scenario may well materialise for some carbon-intensive sectors, others will inevitably face a bleaker future as cleaner and more cost-effective alternative technologies materialise. From whaling to the UK coal industry, history is littered with industries that failed to adapt to changing realities and suffered as a result, leaving communities to cope with the socio-economic fallout.
Politicians and green business leaders have to decide if they want to make this inevitable transition in as orderly a fashion as possible, where new clean industries are developed and strategically located to support the communities that suffer as a result of declining carbon-intensive sectors. Or whether they want a repeat of Thatcher's creative destruction, where the market (aided by proper pricing of carbon emission externalities and regulation of environmentally damaging polluting industries) is let rip and the chips are left to fall where they may. The most effective answer, as demonstrated by the Germans and the Nordics, is probably a mix of both approaches that allows for a cost-effective low-carbon transition, while diluting the worst of the impacts for those communities who face short-term costs as a result.
There are countless lessons to be drawn from the Thatcher era and the remarkable life of a prime minister who genuinely transformed the UK, both economically and socially – sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. But one key lesson for those political and business leaders engaged in the transition to the green economy is that if you want to avoid the risk of dividing the nation you need to manage the low-carbon transition in a way that shows consideration to those communities that will be adversely affected. The opprobrium heaped on Thatcher by the miners will only be repeated for green leaders if they fail to carefully replace high-carbon jobs with their low-carbon counterparts.
The other key lesson is that if you want to deliver an economic transition that will be regarded by history as genuinely transformational, you will need the staggering conviction, bravery, and downright belligerence that both supporters and opponents of Baroness Thatcher agree were the essence of the Iron Lady.
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