For the past ten or so years, a small group of colleagues and I have been exploring the consequences of ‘Thatcherite’ social and economic policies on UK society, and crime in particular.
Very little criminal justice legislation reflected Thatcher’s instincts
Despite my obvious substantive and biographical interests in the 1980s and Thatcherism, the project is fascinating for a number of reasons.
First of all, and perhaps unrecognised outside of criminology, Margaret Thatcher’s governments actually passed very little criminal justice legislation that reflected her neo-liberal and neo-conservative instincts.
A lot of the legislation, which was passed, had been planned several years before, and it was not until after Thatcher had left office we see a clear shift towards much more punitive criminal justice policies (which, by and large, were left in place and built upon by Labour after 1997).
Partly this lack of Thatcherite action in the criminal justice sphere reflects everything else which her governments were dealing with (there are, after all, only 24 hours in a day, even if, famously, you do only need four hours sleep!). But also it reflects the fact that Thatcher’s Home Secretaries were mainly of a ‘wet’ (her term for Thatcherite non-believers!) disposition. None wanted to bring back the death penalty, despite her wish to do so.
Trying to explain the 1980s crime rates
Another reason why this era is so interesting is, because of this lack of radical-right interventions in criminal justice, we need to explore lots of different policy domains in order to help us explain why crime rates increased so much during the 1980s, and why they came down again in the period after around 1993.
The statistical modelling we have undertaken suggests rising unemployment (a result of ‘restructuring’ the economy and job losses in heavy industry) and decreases in the amount spent on social security help to push crime rates upwards.
Changes in housing policies (in particular the famous ‘right to buy’ your council house for sitting tenants) helped to concentrate crime in particular parts of our towns and cities, and the policies associated with school league tables inadvertently encouraged head teachers to exclude poorly behaved children from school, which fuelled low-level crime (vandalism, graffiti, ‘nuisance’ kids and the such like). This phenomenon also provided Tony Blair with a ready-made critique of Thatcherism; it produced ‘anti-social behaviour’ which they dealt with by focusing on young offenders more than Thatcher ever had.
But why did crime start to come down? Again, our research suggests that this was due to the economy improving (there is a debate to be had as to whether Thatcher’s governments helped or hindered the economic improvement) and the ‘toughening’ of the criminal justice system, which started to send more people to prison, and kept them there for longer. What this suggests is that the reasons why something starts to come down are not simply the opposite of why they went up in the first place.
The nature of the political legacy
The other really interesting thing we can learn from studying Thatcherism relates to the idea of political legacies.
Secondly, legacies take all sorts of forms; ideas, the things societies are concerned about, how we think about and debate social and economic problems and policies, the outcomes of such policies, and ideological ‘touch stones’ are all possible legacies which we can explore.
But Thatcherism also underlines the ease and difficulties of studying legacies. Of course, one needs to wait a long time for these to become apparent. But also it is easier to talk about a legacy which is attached to one government or political philosophy when it marks a radical departure from what went before and when it had time to become ingrained in the ways we think and the organisations with which we deal.
Few people talk of Thatcher’s predecessor Edward (Ted) Heath’s legacy for the UK (although his programme of policies given the nickname ‘Selsdon Man’ did have a legacy for Thatcher’s own ideas) as his actual policies were similar to what went before and he was Prime Minister for such a short time.
Similarly, few talk of Thatcher’s successor John Major’s legacy. His ideas were very similar (but not identical) to Thatcher’s – some referred to them as ‘Thatcherism with a human face’. So Margaret Thatcher stands out in the pantheon of recent British Prime Ministers because what she tried (and in many cases succeeded) to do was so radical compared to what had preceded her, and because she was in power for such a long time (over 11 years).
A fascinating figure in British political history
Whatever we think of Margaret Thatcher, whatever we think of her governments’ policies, she remains a fascinating figure in British political history and for political scientists.
If I had to pick one Prime Minister who shaped modern Britain, I think I would pick her over all of those who came after 1945 (with the possible exception of Clement Attlee – who helped to build much of what she helped to reshape and dismantle).
Whatever one thinks of modern Britain and its place in the world, it is hard to imagine it without the influence of Thatcherism.
About Professor Stephen Farrall
Stephen is a sociologist by training and is Professor of Criminology in the Centre for Criminological Research at the University of Sheffield, where he is also Deputy Head of the School of Law.