Remembering Margaret Thatcher: Unemployment, Poverty, Inequality

On this side of the Atlantic, the story of Margaret Thatcher’s free market capitalist fundamentalism has been told as a tale of unmitigated success: Great Britain was a country in desperate economic decline, saved only by Thatcher’s brave assault on organized labor and her campaign to privatize all things public.

There is, however, another side to that story. Using data from the UK’s Guardian, I’ve charted some results of the Thatcherite Revolution, focusing on three measures of economic inequality.

Here, for example, is the unemployment rate before and during Thatcher’s administration (1979-1990):


Poverty also increased under Thatcher. This chart shows the percentage of people in Britain living below 60% of the median income:


And inequality increased. The Gini coefficient is used to measure wealth inequality on a scale from 0-100. The higher the number, the greater the distance between the rich and the rest of us. Today, the most egalitarian countries in the world (Sweden, Denmark) have a Gini score around 23-25. South Africa and Brazil, two of the most unequal societies on the planet, have Gini scores between 51-65. The United States stands today at 45. Here, then, on the Gini index, is the story of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain:


It is not true that the Prime Ministers or Presidents are solely responsible for all economic outcomes during their terms of office. Thatcher, however, came into office specifically pursuing policies of privatization, de-regulation, and de-unionization. These policies were intended to redistribute wealth and power from the working class to business owners – and they did so. This comes as no surprise to anyone who studies the history of capitalist economies. Public control of industry, regulation of markets, and collective bargaining lead to lower levels of poverty and inequality. As long as enough food exists to feed people, unemployment is always a political choice: every modern mass war has proven that. Free market capitalism is very good at making lots of money for a small number of people. But it also produces unemployment, poverty, and inequality just as dependably.

This is Thatcher’s legacy: unemployment, poverty, and inequality. The Iron Lady did not save Britain’s economy, but she certainly made Britain a more comfortable place for those who were already more than comfortable at the expense of those who could least afford it.

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