Once upon a time, public service was thought of as an honourable profession. Then along came Margaret Thatcher, and those public servants working in local government found their honour not so much questioned as stridently dismissed. Here, once more, was Thatcher the vindictive. And this part of her legacy endures.
What had local government done to wrong her? Ah well. For this we have to delve deep, and go back a long way. For the wronged party was not Thatcher, but her father, Alderman Alfred Roberts. In Margaret Thatcher’s personal recollection of history, Dad was the good guy, and his ousting from power was driven by the bad guys. This crusade was to score one for him.
Local government had always obtained much of its income from central Government grants. The Thatcher administration, looking to cut spending, forced councils to cut their spending in turn, and then took powers to cap the budgets of those they deemed to be spendthrifts. That much, although it may have been unpalatable, was straightforward. But there was more to come.
The Tories’ allies in the media also rounded generally on local government, particularly councils under Labour control. These were held to be not merely “left”, but “looney left”. Leading Labour figures in this area, such as Ted Knight in Lambeth, Derek Hatton in Liverpool, and Ken Livingstone at the GLC, were treated as if they were the reincarnation of Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zhedong.
The screaming media campaign continued as the Thatcher Government moved to abolish the GLC and the six Metropolitan County Councils. The legislation was called “Streamlining the Cities”, but Private Eye cartoonist John Kent caught the public mood when he labelled it the “Abolition of Red Ken Act”. The fact that all these bodies retuned Labour majorities, and that they were perceived by the Tories as sources of dissent, was presented as mere coincidence.
Thatcher got her legislation passed, and those Labour power bases were dissolved. But the idea that the power simply evaporated does not stand serious analysis: it was still there, but had moved to central Government. And there it has stayed. Neither Blair nor Brown has moved seriously towards renewed localism, and any suggestion that David Cameron would do so is not credible.
Thatcher and Europe, as mentioned previously, is considered next.