The Thatcher Legacy

The Thatcher Legacy

First appeared on People Management (online), 18 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher is for some people, like her Spitting Image caricature of the time, the all conquering uncompromising playground bully. So the story goes, she smashed the unions, terrorized Europe and, as part of the crusade for de-nationalisation, abandoned long serving public servants to the mercy of a cold and unforgiving private sector.

For others, Thatcher was Britain's saviour, embarking on radical free market reforms to liberate and revitalise its stuttering, bloated and underperforming economy. Whatever your political persuasion, it is hard to deny that the Thatcher years were a tumultuous time.

With the break-down of the post-war consensus, the spectre of the strike and the picket line was never far from the public consciousness. In the Spring of 1974 election campaign the Heath Government's attempts to subdue the unions were summed up by the question "who governs Britain?" The response of the electorate came with the toppling of the then Conservative Government.

Today, many might argue that the unions are a shadow of their former selves. Whilst industrial action has not disappeared, the unions no longer wield the same power. Certainly, the memory of the "three day week" seems consigned to the footnotes of history. The spell of trade union omnipotence has been broken.

A timeline of some of her key reforms is below:

Employment Act 1980- restricted lawful picketing to an employee's place of work, created new conditions for secondary action and required a "closed shop" agreement to be approved by 80% of union membership.

Employment Act 1982- restricted industrial action by narrowing the concept of trade dispute and narrowed legal immunity in tort for unions.

Trade Union Act 1984- required secret ballots when electing union officials and before industrial action.

Public Order Act 1986- required written notice in advance of public processions and assemblies.

Employment Act 1990- abolished "closed shop" agreements and secondary industrial action.

Unlike her predecessors, Thatcher had learned that to take on the unions and win, she needed to proceed slowly and with caution. She did not so much smash the unions, than wear them down. It is hard not to be impressed with Thatcher's calculated, staged and relentless approach to achieving her goals even for those who disagree with her politics. The overall effect was to maneuver industrial relations into a legal...

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