UK: The Thatcher Legacy

Last Updated: 24 April 2013
Article by Lee Harding

The Thatcher Legacy

First appeared on People Management (online), 18 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher is for some people, like her Spitting Image caricature of the time, the all conquering uncompromising playground bully.  So the story goes, she smashed the unions, terrorized Europe and, as part of the crusade for de-nationalisation, abandoned long serving public servants to the mercy of a cold and unforgiving private sector.

For others, Thatcher was Britain's saviour, embarking on radical free market reforms to liberate and revitalise its stuttering, bloated and underperforming economy.  Whatever your political persuasion, it is hard to deny that the Thatcher years were a tumultuous time.

With the break-down of the post-war consensus, the spectre of the strike and the picket line was never far from the public consciousness. In the Spring of 1974 election campaign the Heath Government's attempts to subdue the unions were summed up by the question "who governs Britain?" The response of the electorate came with the toppling of the then Conservative Government.

Today, many might argue that the unions are a shadow of their former selves.  Whilst industrial action has not disappeared, the unions no longer wield the same power.  Certainly, the memory of the "three day week" seems consigned to the footnotes of history.  The spell of trade union omnipotence has been broken.

A timeline of some of her key reforms is below:

Employment Act 1980- restricted lawful picketing to an employee's place of work, created new conditions for secondary action and required a "closed shop" agreement to be approved by 80% of union membership.

Employment Act 1982- restricted industrial action by narrowing the concept of trade dispute and narrowed legal immunity in tort for unions.

Trade Union Act 1984- required secret ballots when electing union officials and before industrial action.

Public Order Act 1986- required written notice in advance of public processions and assemblies.

Employment Act 1990- abolished "closed shop" agreements and secondary industrial action.

Unlike her predecessors, Thatcher had learned that to take on the unions and win, she needed to proceed slowly and with caution.  She did not so much smash the unions, than wear them down.  It is hard not to be impressed with Thatcher's calculated, staged and relentless approach to achieving her goals even for those who disagree with her politics.  The overall effect was to maneuver industrial relations into a legal straight jacket where unions had to contend with the courts and the police in addition to the politicians and the industrialists. 

But this was not the whole story.  In Europe, Thatcher is often remembered for her ferocity.  But it is sometimes forgotten that in 1986 she signed the Single European Act, doing arguably more than any other previous British Prime Minister to integrate Britain further and deeper into Europe- ironic given the noise from the present government on grappling back power from Brussels- the obsession with "red tape", much of which is considered to stem from Europe. 

Finally, although Thatcher privatized much of the state, including British Telecom, British Airways, Water and Electricity, this result was not an overwhelming victory for capitalism.  As part of the privatization deal, unions won important concessions, preserving generous pension, redundancy and ill-health benefits.  These protections, many of them built into legislation, continue to be important to ex-public sector workers to this day.

In conclusion, Thatcher's greatest and most far reaching impact was on industrial relations but this was not her only contribution to employment law.  I was born in the year that Thatcher came to power which made me wonder what those born today would made of the present Government in future? "Radical reform" are the buzzwords of the day and on the horizon are changes to collective redundancy consultation, TUPE, unfair dismissal compensation and the introduction of Employment Tribunal fees.  Whether any of these changes will have the lasting impact of Thatcher's legacy remains to be seen.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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