In this post, DPhil Candidate Dominic Aitken discusses our second All Souls Seminar of Hilary Term by Professor Stephen Farrell on the legacy of Thatcherism.

To those of us born after 1990, Margaret Thatcher seems more mythical than real. We know a thing or two about strong female Tory leaders trouncing the Labour Party as it flounders in irrelevance, and it certainly rings a bell to hear that in days gone by the Prime Minister, disenchanted with Europe, forged alliances with an ageing, inexperienced, celebrity US President, notorious for his public gaffes and brash rhetoric on law and order. But the details of Thatcher’s premiership (1979–90) are often lost in polarised debates about her overall legacy. The Iron Lady is vaguely associated with some key concepts (monetarism, unemployment) and crucial events (the Falklands War, the Poll Tax), but beyond that it gets a little hazy.

The ideology that bears her name, Thatcherism, is usually said to have changed Britain, emphasising the free economy and strong state, market liberalism and social conservatism. Political change in the 1980s came in many forms, most notably reduced employment in the manufacturing industry, tax reform and heightened economic inequality, financial market deregulation, the privatisation of publicly owned industries and assets, and the sale of council houses. The speed and extent of these reforms suggest they were authorised by someone intent on leaving her mark. Moreover, social conflicts inherited from earlier decades were given a distinctive Thatcherite twist, from the trade unions to the Provisional IRA, Tory Euroscepticism to striking miners. Although her ideas were probably longer in the making than we recognise, and some major changes were likely to have happened anyway, there is no doubt that Margaret Thatcher was one of the most significant twentieth century British Prime Ministers.      

Beyond these points of general consensus, what can we say about Thatcherism? Specifically, what can we say about the legacy of Thatcherism on crime and criminal justice? Enter Professor Stephen Farrell from the University of Sheffield. In our second All Souls Seminar of Hilary Term, he analysed the impact of four policy areas – economic policy, housing, social security and education – on property crime and criminal justice.

Farrell began by expressing his frustration at lopsided, misleading accounts of the Thatcher years in criminology. There is, he suggested, too little discussion of particular people, events and policies. Tricky questions about class and region, race and nation, are omitted. Instead, the New Right is reduced to an economic ideology, neoliberalism, known for its suspicion of state planning and enthusiasm for competitive, efficient markets in public life. The main problem with this picture is that the new right was much more than an economic programme. It was neoliberal and neo-conservative. There is no doubt that economic neoliberalism was distinctive and important, but political parties cannot win over the electorate just by talking about the money supply. The new right was, in rhetoric if not always in substance, socially neo-conservative. As Thatcher put it in 1981, ‘Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul’. Her moral language may be less measurable than economic statistics, but they are essential parts of the story. Anyone who spoke of Britain as a ‘Christian nation’ and lamented ‘a loosening of standards, a weakening of the bonds which hold us together as a people, a decline of manners, of morals, of shared beliefs’ is concerned with more than inflation.

Focusing exclusively on a broad and historically variable label such as neoliberalism is especially puzzling when it comes to criminal justice. Although there is presumably some relationship between economics, crime and punishment, as will be discussed later, it is neo-conservatives who talk of traditional values, personal responsibility and the law-abiding moral majority. Social critics like Charles Murray and James Q Wilson might therefore be better starting points than economists like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.

Fortunately, it is possible to bring these two sides of the new right together to give a more rounded picture. To simplify somewhat, Farrell argued that neoliberal policies affected crime rates (sometimes directly, sometimes not), which eventually led to neo-conservative government responses. The majority of his discussion focused on property crime, which rose markedly in the Thatcher years and peaked during John Major’s time in office. Time series analysis shows that this offence category changed with levels of unemployment, and that the crime-economy link strengthened over the 1980s. Although income inequality, which rose markedly in the 1980s, is often thought to increase crime rates, Farrell suggested that for the Thatcher years unemployment is the more relevant factor. Additionally, the sale of council houses created a residual stock of poor quality properties for those who could not afford to buy their home, concentrating social and economic need among poorer, more ethnically diverse, groups. Renters, the data suggest, were twice as likely to be victims of property crime as owners.

Education policy provides an interesting case study on patterns and perceptions of youth crime. Having introduced school league tables to satisfy people’s desire for choice in all areas of life, schools began to game the system. Difficult students whose exam results were likely to be poor were more likely to be excluded. School expulsions reached a high of more than 12,500 in 1996–97, up from around 6,000 in 1991. (No one kept official records previously, as school exclusions were relatively rare.) Children who previously might have acted up in school, but not had their transgressions recorded, were now left with nothing to do during the day, so hung around their neighbourhoods, sometimes causing trouble. Public perceptions about the ‘problem’ of young people followed this development, paving the way for the controversial anti-social behaviour policies of the New Labour years.

Increased crime rates, and corresponding levels of fear and punitive attitudes, set the stage for a new political consensus on toughness. Content analysis of the Queen’s Speech and Hansard debates illustrates growing concerns about ‘law and order’, which began to be explicitly politicised in the 1970s. The punitive policies and culture of the 1990s resulted in the prison population nearly doubling in the two decades after 1993, sentences lengthening and the criminal net widening. These developments originated in higher levels of crime and corresponding fear of crime, but they were driven forward by political competition between the Conservatives and Labour Parties as they sought to out-bid one another, both in rhetoric and in substance. Whether these developments can fairly be called Thatcher’s legacy is a thorny question, but the rightward shift of New Labour on crime and justice must be partly explained in terms of the Tories who they had spent 18 years trying to oust.   

There were many refreshing aspects of Farrell’s talk. For a start, he did not portray Thatcher as an omnipotent leader, capable of transforming Britain unopposed. He painted a far more accurate picture of a party seeking office, mobilising support from different groups and facing organised opposition. 1979 was not implicitly treated as year-zero, but part of a longer sequence, particularly postwar politics, economic ‘decline’ and the turmoil of the 1970s. Given these political constraints and historical inheritance, Thatcherism, like any successful ideology, was often pragmatic and opportunistic, even if some of its proponents went far further than many would have liked.

Thatcherism does have a legacy in criminal justice, although it is in many ways indirect, and complicated by a time lag between cause and effect. Where many other writers start by blaming neoliberalism and busk from there, Farrell specified mechanisms linking broad policy changes to particular outcomes. His discussion of unemployment, housing, social security and education illustrated how major political changes, filtered slowly through institutions over time, bring about many unintended effects. Prison population growth, increased sentence lengths and expanded criminal law are all partially the legacy of Thatcherism, even if they were not chosen directly by her. Whether anyone can credibly challenge these developments any time soon, or whether enough people care about them in the first place, remains to be seen.