Maggie and me: Why I could never be “one of us”

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Ahead of her funeral, ANDREW PELLING assesses Margaret Thatcher’s legacy for Croydon

margaret-thatcher 1The Croydon Guardian reports that Dudley Mead, the deputy leader of the local Conservatives, can’t recall Margaret Thatcher ever visiting Croydon.

Maybe it’s a sign that I was involved in Croydon politics before Dudley and long before almost all local Tory party members that I can remember being there when the then Mrs Thatcher addressed a packed Fairfield Halls in the mid-1970s as the relatively recently elected leader of the Conservative party and the Leader of the Opposition.

I attended as a 16-year-old Young Conservative.

The inspiring themes of her speech reveal how different the political times were then.
Thatcher spoke of the importance of Britain seeking its future destiny in the European Economic Community, the EEC. Her message of hope contrasted with the largely recidivist Labour party of the time, with its antipathy to a Europe then without social and working rights that needed to go with the common trading zone.

There was, in reality, still starry-eyed optimism about one western Europe bound together in peaceful co-existence and as a bulwark against a Soviet behemoth. The complications over a shared sovereignty in a European Union would come much later.

That day in Croydon, Thatcher also spoke about the jealousies that very much existed in the 1970s, when a 98 per cent marginal tax rate stood against excellence, effort and entrepreneurism.

In a party still bruised by its losses in 1974’s two General Elections, fought around the power of the big trade unions and a “Who governs Britain?” slogan that came back to haunt Edward Heath, Thatcher found a ready audience in Croydon that still remembered the blackouts that came with the oil crisis and the strikes of 1972 and 1974.

These days, the pendulum has swung far too far in the opposite direction, with highly leveraged capital dominant over unrepresented workers on minimum wages that have to be boosted by the state through taxpayer-funded benefits, so that employees and their families can exist as hapless consumers at the mercy of highly profitable privatised utilities, under-regulated landlords, and purveyors of dubiously sourced foods.

Things were so different then.

At first, it was doubtful whether Thatcher could take on the trade unions. Initially, her governments only took to step-by-step reforms. There were 10 major labour acts in all, each slowly undermining the trade unions.

It was Croydon Central’s MP, John Moore, when Thatcher’s Under Secretary of State for Energy, who built up the coal stocks that proved essential in the crushing of the National Union of Mineworkers by 1985.

Moore had been a precinct captain for the Democrats in Chicago. No one saw this as a contradiction in the local Tory party then.

But although Thatcher was often a pragmatic politician – major public sector spends and interventions in post-riots Brixton and Toxteth are a testament to that (unlike David Cameron and the shabby treatment of post-riots Croydon now) – the Conservative party under her minions became a party of “wets” and “drys”.

Francis Pym: not "one of us", as far as Thatcher was concerned

Francis Pym, one of the “wets” in the Tory cabinet: not “one of us”, as far as Thatcher was concerned

The Conservative party had long defined itself within the post-war Butskillism consensus by what it wasn’t: it was not a party of ideology, unlike the allegedly socialistic Labour party. It had a paternalistic interest in its own self-preservation through a strong belief in pragmatic, centrist policies built to buttress social cohesion.

After winning the 1979 General Election, as she and her government gained in self-confidence (especially as the Labour party’s prospects disintegrated with the creation in 1981 of the breakaway SDP formed by Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers), the “wets” in her cabinet such as Jim Prior, Francis Pym and party chairman Lord Thorneycroft lost the argument as Thatcher sought conforming loyalty.

As Pym said in 1986: “To be loyal means 100 per cent acceptance of government thinking: any dissent, or even admittance of doubt, is treachery and treason. After nine years as party leader and five as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher still asks the question, ‘Are you one of us?’, by which she means, ‘Are you completely free of any doubt as to the utter rightness of everything we are doing?’ It will come as no surprise that I am not ‘one of us’.”

The “Are you one of us? Are you wet or dry?” became the common debilitating question from Tory Central Office. For myself, a confirmed supporter of Edward Heath who never forgave the party for its betrayal of him, I abstained from any interest in a parliamentary career until Mrs Thatcher had departed.

An ideological approach to politics was a foreign notion introduced into British (now merely English) Conservatism. That unfamiliar approach left the Conservatives with a legacy of vituperative factionalism and a poison that has left them unable to win a General Election outright since 1992.

THE THATCHER GOVERNMENT’S belief in poorly regulated free markets at first brought a boon to Croydon as the “Big Bang” in The City spilt over prosperity into London’s suburbs. Privatised control, or rather lack of control, over the money supply led to asset price inflation that benefited Croydon’s homeowners with financial windfalls.

Peter Bowness: Conservative leader of Croydon Council undermined by Thatcher's government policies

Peter Bowness: Conservative leader of Croydon Council undermined by Thatcher’s government policies

But many changes made during Thatcher’s 11 years at No10 are at the roots of Croydon’s 30-year decline.

It’s a fault of politicians of both main parties to have a dismissive and condescending attitude to local government. Thatcher was particularly irked by irresponsible “Militant” Labour councils unwilling to set a legal budget. Capping of increases in the rates drained political accountability away from councils, a problem for Conservative-controlled Croydon which sold itself as a low rates council, and was often near the bottom of rates charged by London boroughs.

Croydon was a council that prided itself as a local education authority in having its own curriculum and testing of pupil attainment. But nationally, Thatcher’s Conservatives were moving away from LEAs. Croydon abetted this process by flogging the poorly performing Sylvan High School to a carpet entrepreneur for £4 million and selling part of Selhurst School to the BRIT School that would later tutor Adele, Katie Melua, Leona Lewis and Amy Winehouse. The introduction of opting out of schools from LEA control and local management of schools financing, a devolved formulaic approach to funding schools – that included the pupil premium 20 years before Nick Clegg pretended it was a good new idea – undermined Croydon Council’s own, nationally renowned Town Hall-directed education service.

Sir Peter Bowness was a great ambassador for Croydon within local government associations but Conservatives nationally found new local government heroes in Wandsworth with their privatisations and council house sales.

Wandsworth won very good central government grants compared to Croydon.  Croydon found that the amount of government grant it received was directly linked to the amount it spent, and so not unreasonably, they opted to spend more, abandoning their reputation of being a low-spending, low-taxing authority.

The Thatcher government’s confiscation of the local business rate, becoming a centrally pooled fund for redistribution at a national level, may have targeted Labour-run local authorities, but here, it took away another element of Croydon Conservatives’ council success. A low business rate had underpinned the local economy and the Conservative hold on the town.

Croydon’s back-office-based economy was further undermined by competition from the Docklands, an enterprise zone created by the Conservative government and offering hugely advantageous tax breaks for businesses that based themselves there. Faced with competition from the East End, Croydon was then presented with another competitive disadvantage when Thatcher opened the M25 in 1986. Businesses left the traffic-clogged south London borough to migrate to greenfield sites outside the orbital motorway. With a Thatcherite relaxed planning regime for out-of-town retail and warehousing, what was left of Croydon’s industries left the Purley Way.

Thatcher’s antagonism to Ken Livingstone and her abolition of the GLC gave Croydon greater powers to direct its own fortunes as a unitary authority, but complacency about Croydon’s economic strengths left the council poorly placed to set about renewing its declining stock of 1960s office buildings.

So it was part of the Thatcher legacy that, at the 1994 council elections, and for the first time in history, Labour took control of Croydon Town Hall.

Thatcher’s community charge, the Poll Tax, although dropped by the Tory government after her forced exit as Prime Minister, had further undermined the Conservatives in Croydon.

In that post-Thatcher Conservative government under John Major, Black Wednesday, the day when Chancellor Norman Lamont lost the plot trying to maintain sterling’s link to the European currency mechanism, did most of the damage to Tory prospects in Croydon. Financial literacy has long been the most effective calling card for Conservatives in Croydon – a problem for them again at the 2014 local elections following their increase in Council Tax, axed services and newly furnished £140 million council HQ.

Perhaps Labour would have gained control of Croydon Council sooner if it had not been for the Falklands War. With Croydon North-West won at a by-election by Liberal Bill Pitt and the SDP rampant, the Conservatives were bracing themselves to lose council control in 1982.

But the electorate turned on a sixpence once the war got underway and the Conservatives took 65 of Croydon Council’s 70 seats. It took Labour in Croydon 12 years to recover from that blow from Thatcher’s war in the south Atlantic. It is less than 12 months before we will see whether the Conservatives have re-established the firm grip that they had on Croydon politics before Thatcher.

  • Andrew Pelling was a Croydon councillor from 1982 to 2006, standing down from the Town Hall after he had been elected as MP for Croydon Central
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