Murnaghan 14.04.13 Interview with David Blunkett MP on Thatcher and her legacy

April 14, 2013


DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Margaret Thatcher’s death has served as a reminder of how she divided opinion when she was Prime Minister and one of those dividing lines is of course the north/south divide, so what is Margaret Thatcher’s legacy in the north of England? David Blunkett has been a Labour MP in Sheffield since 1987, he was also Secretary of State for Work and Pensions amongst other things in Tony Blair’s government and he joins me now from Derbyshire. A very good morning to you Mr Blunkett. Let’s start with the north/south divide, did Margaret Thatcher make it much, much worse because of course it pre-existed her time as Prime Minister.

DAVID BLUNKETT: She accelerated what was already happening. Heavy industry was not necessarily in decline, in my own city it was being restructured. Had that been done over a period of time and in a sensible way it would have resulted in what Germany managed to do which was to hold on to craft jobs, if you like the motor of the economy in the industrial sense. What really happened under Margaret Thatcher was that the acceleration led to decline, decline in jobs but also a massive upsurge of people dependent on benefits so one of the contradictions was that she preached, and I believe she meant it, that people should be independent and self-reliant. By putting three and a half million people on the dole and by accelerating and using incapacity benefit, she actually made them more dependent and more likely to turn to welfare so that was one of the contradictions.

DM: So are you prescribing a degree of protectionism, a counter charge to that would come that we had some pretty rough bucket industries that due to globalisation, a process of course already taking place in the 80s, they were doomed anyway and it was better to get on with it.

DB: Yes, I think one of our problems was the failure to accept and acknowledge globalisation and the competitiveness challenge that that brought. Germany did subsidise, they did actually protect but they did so in a much more clever and effective way in terms of protecting those parts of the economy which were going to grow, which were a reflection of modernity rather than trying to protect everything and if you like, pull the shutters down and pretend we could isolate ourselves from world changes. That was something that Margaret Thatcher did understand, it was part of what they called at the time the new enlightenment. They were taking the intellectual high ground, you could see this across the world, Margaret Thatcher was a reflection of that rather than a driving force for it but it mattered and we were floundering about without a narrative or a clear idea how we were going to do this. We could have picked up the residue of North Sea oil, the massive benefit that that brought for about 15 years after what, 1977, 78, really effectively to modernise our economy. Instead we did see her taking on what she described as vested interests and many of them were very protectionists but she also then invented new vested interests in the City of London, the great crash, the recession that took place after 1988. People seem to be forgetting this over the last few days, she didn’t leave office with a benign economy, she left office with an economy that was in free fall with unemployment rising again and with growth falling.

DM: And you talk about the narrative, you and Tony Blair, we have just been discussing this third way narrative, using the benefits of capitalism and markets to benefit the many and not the few. Now he’s been writing last week in the New Statesman, you’re writing in the Observer today and some of your comments have been interpreted as slight criticisms of the current narrative coming from the leadership of the Labour party. Do you think they are in danger of losing that centre ground that Mr Blair and others planted Labour so firmly on?

DB: No, I don’t think we will. I mean, if ever time we write sensibly and this is, if I have a criticism it’s that many of my front bench colleagues, not just the Cabinet but junior shadow ministers, aren’t writing and speaking enough. The idea that every time you write in the way I have, it is part of the think tank Progress policy development and I’m speaking on Tuesday in the House of Commons about this, every time you write it is seen as a criticism we are literally going to go nowhere. We have got to have the confidence to be able to say where we’re going and not just a narrative about what the government are doing and the two things go together obviously, a criticism of David Cameron’s government which in many respects is even worse than some of the things that Margaret Thatcher did in the 80s.

DM: Okay Mr Blunkett, great to talk to you. David Blunkett there, thank you very much indeed.

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