Inflation and unemployment – the Margaret Thatcher experience


From 1979, inflation doubled in the first year of the Thatcher administration from 10% to 22%. The recession that followed brought the rate down to 5% in 1980. At the same time, unemployment soared to a breathtaking three million – and that was the official figure.

For Thatcher, inflation was always a bigger priority than unemployment. This was unusual at the time because memories of the starving jobless in the 1930s still loomed large in Britain.

Whereas in Germany, memories of hyper-inflation chimed more with the Thatcher viewpoint. That’s not to say British people weren’t fed up with price rises in the 70s – but the spectre that haunted families more was the prospect of the breadwinner being out of work.

To combat inflation, Thatcher embraced an economic theory called “monetarism” that necessitated high interest rates, higher taxes (VAT doubled almost straight away) and sharp cuts in public spending. The result of what one politician dubbed “voodoo economics” was disastrous for millions of people between 1979 and 1981.

It didn’t even work very well as a theory. Inflation was brought under control by 1980 but the money supply continued to grow. So there were further spending cuts that led to calamitous falls in economic output and whole regions de-industrialised. Unsurprisingly – monetarism was dumped by 1984.

To get a clearer idea of Thatcher’s thinking on inflation, I found a 1974 speech made in Preston by Thatcher’s economic guru Keith Joseph. He made it very clear that inflation was regarded by the Tories as the main enemy and not the traditional bogey of unemployment.

In fact, he argued, governments had been so spooked by the Great Depression of the 1930s that they thought mass joblessness was always around the corner. So governments spent money and then tried to hold down pay with incomes policies – always unsuccessfully.

Keith Joseph’s words in 1974 make interesting reading given what was to happen in Thatcher’s first two years in power with unemployment leaping:

It is perhaps easy to understand; our post-war boom began under the shadow of the 1930s. We were haunted by the fear of long-term mass unemployment, the grim, hopeless dole queues and towns which died. So we talked ourselves into believing that these gaunt, tight-lipped men in caps and mufflers were round the corner, and tailored our policy to match these imaginary conditions. For imaginary is what they were.

“Inflation is caused by governments” – speech by Keith Joseph in 1974

Already by the mid-1970s, people were shocked by an unemployment level of 500,000. Joseph swept that aside. Public money should not be used to create jobs. And anyway, he went on, a significant percentage of the unemployed were shirkers and scroungers.

There are the drifters and hippies who draw “welfare” but engage in activities to earn money, legal or illegal. From time to time the Ministry carries out local checks, and suddenly the number of registered unemployed melts away. How many fraudulent unemployed there are at any given time can only be estimated, but they probably account for at least a tenth of the registered unemployed at normal times. We ought to do more about such people, but expanding demand will not turn them into honest men.

“Inflation is caused by governments” – speech by Keith Joseph in 1974

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