In the US, for people of a certain age, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was a superstar, and Americans have been surprised at the sharply divided views on display in the Britain that she governed for 11 years. However, Britons were not astonished. Like former British prime minister Tony Blair, Thatcher has long been a British product with more appeal in export markets than at home.
All aspects of her legacy are earnestly disputed. Was she prescient about the problems of European monetary union, or did she leave Britain isolated on the fringes of the continent?
Did she create a new economic dynamism, or did she leave the UK bitterly divided, more unequal, and less cohesive than before? Did she destroy the power of vested interests and create a genuine meritocracy, or did she entrench bankers and financiers as the new elite, with disastrous consequences?
Indeed, one issue that has come under the microscope is Thatcher’s reforms of the City of London in the late 1980s. In 1986, her government was instrumental in what is known colloquially as the “Big Bang.” Technically, the main change was to end “single capacity,” whereby a stock trader could be a principal or an agent, but not both.
Before 1986, there were brokers, acting for clients, and jobbers, making a market, and never the twain could meet. This system had been abandoned elsewhere, and the reform opened London to new types of institutions, especially the major US investment banks.
The first and most visible consequence was the demise of the long lunch. Beginning with a gin and tonic just after noon, and ending with a Napoleon brandy at three o’clock, lunch prior to the Big Bang was often the most arduous part of a stockbroker’s day. That cozy culture ended soon after the thrusting, brash Americans, who worked even over breakfast, hit town.
However, some believe that there were downsides, too. Philip Augar, the author of The Death of Gentlemanly Capitalism, argues that “Good characteristics of the City were thrown out along with the bad,” and that Thatcher’s reforms “put us on a helter-skelter course towards the financial crisis.”
How justified is this charge? Can we really trace the roots of today’s malaise back to the 1980s? Was the Iron Lady an author of the world’s current misfortunes?
Nigel Lawson, Thatcher’s chancellor of the exchequer at the time, denies it. (Full disclosure: I was an adviser to Lawson in the 1980s). He points out that the reforms were accompanied by new regulation. The Financial Services Act of 1986 put an end to the pure self-regulation regime. Financial interests opposed it vigorously at the time, viewing it as the thin end of a dangerous wedge, though they could not have guessed just how thick that wedge would eventually become.
It is also difficult to trace back to the 1980s the origins of the credit explosion and the proliferation of exotic and poorly understood financial instruments that lay at the heart of the 2007-2008 crisis.
The most dangerous trends, including the upsurge of global imbalances and the dramatic financialization of the economy, accelerated dangerously from about 2004 onward.
Thatcher herself was not an enthusiast for credit, once famously saying: “I don’t believe in credit cards.” Indeed, she espoused a rigorous philosophy about borrowing: “The secret of happiness is to live within your income and pay your bills on time.”