by David Jeffery
Thursday, 8
April 2021
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18:19

The North likes Margaret Thatcher more than you might think

The former PM polls well in the Red Wall and beyond
by David Jeffery
Margaret Thatcher visits Middlesbrough in 1987

Today marks eight years since the passing of Margaret Thatcher, and those eight years have made her legacy no less divisive, especially in the north of England. 

There is some political value in riffing on this divisive legacy — for example, Momentum used to sell t-shirts emblazoned with ‘Still Hate Thatcher’ across the chest. Or take these tweets from the Northern Independence Party, which appear to celebrate Margaret Thatcher’s death.

But is this a good strategy? Is the North as ‘anti-Thatcher’ as popular culture suggests?

In 2019 YouGov surveyed 1630 British adults about who they thought was the greatest British Prime Minister since 1945. Thatcher came first, with 21% of respondents, closely followed by Churchill on 19%. Among northern voters, Churchill came first with 19%, with Thatcher second at 16%. Blair was third on 7%. 

IpsosMORI’s polling in February of this year found similar levels of popularity for the Tory PM. When asked voters about previous prime ministers, 40% of northern respondents thought Thatcher did a good job, compared to 34% who thought she did a bad job. 

Of course, these are fairly small sub-samples of northern voters, and despite both pointing in the same direction, they might both be a fluke.

But back in 2014 the first wave of the British Election Study asked voters ‘Thinking about past Prime Ministers, do you think these Prime Ministers were good or bad for Britain?’. Half of voters in England said Thatcher was good for Britain (excluding don’t knows), compared to 35% saying she was bad for Britain, and among northern voters 40% said she was good, compared to 48% saying she was bad for Britain. 

It’s worth noting that voters in Red Wall seats were more likely to say that Thatcher was good for Britain than voters from non-Red Wall northern seats (42% to 39% respectively) and thus less likely to say she was bad for Britain (45% to 49%). Obviously these differences aren’t massive, but it’s just one extra piece of information to show how the North — and northernness — isn’t one homogenous lump. 

Why might Thatcher be more popular in the North than typically assumed? Firstly, there are Conservative voters up north — and always have been. Unsurprisingly, they’re more likely to rate Thatcher highly than supporters of other parties. Values also play a role — although the average Brit is to the Left on economic issues, they tend towards the authoritarian side of the authoritarian-libertarian spectrum, which chimes with Thatcher’s approach to issues like law and order. Emblematic policies from the era also contribute — for instance, even some Labour voters associate Thatcher with being able to buy their council houses.

It’s a strange quirk of our political commentary that the North is treated as barren when it comes to support for Thatcher: she’s certainly not universally loved, but anti-Thatcher rhetoric won’t unite the North either.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

I suspect the results of these polls reflect the fact that the conservatives in the UK (and republicans in the US) are becoming the party of the working class. That wasn’t true back when Thatcher was PM.
Amid the left-wing assault on traditional values, working class people, who’ve been largely excluded from the economic gains of the past thirty years, increasingly look to the conservatives as a party that reflects their social values if not necessarily their economic interests.

James Slade
James Slade
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Err you do realise that millions of council house tenants voted for her. It was the collapse in support for from the non industrial workers that killed Labour in the 80s. Del Boy was a tory.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Thatcher was very popular with the working class outside of those who lost their jobs in the nationalised industries. And even those voters knew, deep down, that those industries were an unsustainable basket case. That said, the closure or downsizing of those industries could and should have been handled a lot better.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

On the ‘handled better’ point you make, I broadly agree but there are two points that mitigate the way it was handled.

The main one, and one that applied to more unions than just the miners, was that most people thought the unions bringing down Ted Heath’s government in his ‘who rules Britain the unions or us?’ election, was fair enough or par for the course.

But when they brought down a Labour as well one five years later or so most, deep down, felt the unions had become over mighty.

That enabled her to run on an explicit anti-union message, amongst other equally important policies of course.

This coalesced with the feeling that the UK has been in managed decline and radicalism had some merit, and together these strands came together to deliver that big majority for her.

By 1984 the legislative direction had caused the most powerful union to decide they would either die a death by a thousand enactments or try again to overthrow the Conservative government and repeat the 1970s.

This specific realisation which other very powerful unions shared (like the print workers for example) was what made the miner’s strike so political on both sides.

Having raised the stakes, as to the print workers did over Wrapping, created a very antagonistic climate that made the ‘handling’ do difficult.

In the end of course the whole thing ended in the destruction of the miner’s unions, as later happened to the very similar print unions.

Ann Ceely
Ann Ceely
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

There are differences in Working Class experiences.
For example, I grew up in boom-town Birmingham in the early 60s which means I saw the “workers” having non-stop strikes over nothing – apart from stopping really poor cleaners having a decent pay rise.

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I downvoted you because I feel that your post refers more to England than the UK.

Whilst I do not support the SNP I do live in Scotland and attitudes up here are different.

Chris C
Chris C
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Out of interest, since you say that “working class people, who’ve been largely excluded from the economic gains of the past thirty years“, please could you remind me which economic system we live under?
And since political power during those 30 years has been (in sequence), Conservative – New Labour – Conservative coalition – Conservative, and New Labour was very much an accommodation to the Thatcher/Reagan orthodoxy rather than dismantling it, what sort of political policies have been associated with “working class people, [being] largely excluded from the economic gains of the past thirty years” ?
Just asking.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Thatcher was popular with working class people who wanted to get ahead in life. She wanted to smash not just socialism but the stultifying paternalism of One Nation Tory wets, which many bright and enterprising working class people were sick of. It was, I suspect also a big part of the support for Blair in 1997 (Mondeo man) and Boris in 2019 because despite what some ‘Red Tories’ on this site think, there were plenty of working class people who were fed up with their stagnant communities dominated by lazy unions, staid uncompetitive businesses and people who wallowed in their own poverty that were prepared to put in hard graft to get a better life for themselves and their children. This isn’t even new, it has been a phenomenon for a while, as the series The Likely Lads showed.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
1 year ago

I think this is spot on. Sometimes the Left come up with so much conceptual verbiage a run through like yours is like a chain saw and strimmer session in an overgrown garden…it cuts away all the rubbish.

George Bruce
George Bruce
1 year ago

 although the average Brit is to the Left on economic issues, they tend towards the authoritarian side of the authoritarian-libertarian spectrum, which chimes with Thatcher’s approach to issues like law and order. 

I wonder if it is true to say that lots of ordinary people in many countries are like that. So they would like to see a government that does do those so fundamental law and order things like securing the border and not allowing rioting and rape, and also – while allowing a reasonable amount of economic freedom – protects workers from being exploited by business, particularly big business and avoids things like ballooning house prices.
Yet we get a stream of politicians who do the reverse. The borders are barely protected, the BLM crew could vandalise what they wanted, the mass rapes get occasional fitful punishment.
The big corporations do what they like on the economic front, with the politicians helping them, and the housing bubble goes on and on.
Okay, you might get a Tory a bit in less in favour of the rape gangs, a Labour person who does not love Uber and AirBnB.
But in general, there seems to be a big and increasing gap between what ordinary voters want and what politicians are prepared to try to give them.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  George Bruce

Or is it even more complicated? You can support the right to asylum and hate rape gangs. You can support peaceful protest and hate looting. You can support Uber and air BNB as innovative services as long as their drivers and cleaners are well paid.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago

I live in an ex-mining area and Margaret Thatcher is still hated by those who were around 35 years ago. But almost everyone realises that the mines weren’t making any money and they were unsafe. Today nobody would ever work in them.
She was years ahead of her time but nobody wanted to know that then.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Sadly, I expect many of those who were around 35 years ago are no longer around to be polled and express their view. As you say, an unsafe job that would not be allowed now. The 1980’s strike, though, was not the result of Thatcher wanting to protect miners from their awful working conditions or to protect the environment from carbon emissions – as some now put forward. She wanted to destroy the industry in order to destroy the Miners’ Union and send a lesson to other Trades Unions that collective working class action would not be tolerated in the capitalist nirvana she wanted to create.
Thatcher had no qualms about closing British mines and substituting British mined coal with coal imported from what was then Communist Eastern Europe.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

If she wanted to destroy the industry (which had been in decline ever since 1913 -https://ourworldindata.org/death-uk-coal ), why at the end of her time was the industry as a whole in UK still producing nearly as much coal as it did before the strike? (1983 119M Tonnes – 1991 94M Tonnes).Yes she wanted and needed to smash a TU movement that was making us the sick man of Europe by demanding a fair week’s wage for a fair day’s work (including lots of tea breaks). Yes in order to re-balance the books so less money needed to be extracted in taxes and yet still fund services people did need, she needed to stop subsidising totally uneconomic pits. The pits that closed were not producing much coal and were just keeping miners employed in jobs that would kill them at public expense. That is why the UK still produced almost as much coal at the end of the Thatcher era.
I would put Maggie marginally ahead of Winston (a man with views on many things that were just par for the course in his time) as the greatest PM of the last century. I would put Phoney Tony in jail as the war criminal he is. If his offensive wife could be locked up too that would be a bonus.

Last edited 1 year ago by Adrian Smith
Allie McBeth
Allie McBeth
1 year ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Mrs Blair and i were born on the same day. She, Socialist that she is, set about stuffing her face with many expensive properties. Thatcher gets blamed though for giving people a chance of a home of their own. Me? I lost my house when my husband got sick, despite working all my life. Astrology sucks!

Chris C
Chris C
1 year ago
Reply to  Allie McBeth

Selling off council houses gave one generation of council tenants the chance to own the home they were living in anyway. But all following generations found that there were no council houses available (they had been sold), and they had to rent at spiralling prices.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

I suppose it’s a subjective question around how you judge people’s motives as well as outcomes.
Outcomes:
Between 1980 and 1997 UK coal production dropped from 125 mil tonnes to 50 mil tonnes. Imports rose from 5 to 50 mil tonnes. Production dropped 60% and imports grew by 1000%, consumption dropped 20%. Production levels by ‘the end of the strike’ is not relevant as the strike was about preserving future employment opportunities and associated communities – not a 15 month window. In 2014 government documents (released under 30 year rule on release of public documents) revealed that while 20 pit closures were publicly proposed in 1984 plans for an additional 55 over three years were prepared in secret.
In the same period, from 1980 to 1997, employment in coal mining dropped from 250,000 to under 10,000. Almost all of this drop was by 1993.
Motives:
I agree that the UK coal mining industry needed reform and eventual closing. The way it was done, and the speed it was done, without regard for the individuals or communities that depended on the industry was a deliberate act of violence (politically and literally) against people because they disagreed with Thatcher about politics.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

The fact remains that in the overall decline of UK coal, which has declined not just in production but also in use, the Thatcher era was a period of less dramatic decline than most others, excluding the post war rebuild.
The pits closed were not only uneconomic, they were the least automated and therefore most unsafe as putting capital investment in to upgrade them would not have made any sense. How many miners and potential miners lives were saved by shutting those pits? Unfortunately there is not a graph that shows that.

Mike Wylde
Mike Wylde
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Margaret Thatcher did not close the pits. Arthur Scargill and his thugs did that by trying to hold the country to ransom with strikes and a refusal to accept change of any form as far as mining was concerned. Those strikes made it essential to move away from coal for power generation.
I lived through those times and they have ensured that I never have, and never will, vote Labour or support a Trades Union.
The NUM even now seems to refuse to modernise, lending local General Secretaries tens of thousand of pounds for his house with a membership that could be counted on his hands and a large number of ex-miners who could have done with the help that money would have provided.

Chris C
Chris C
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Wylde

I lived through those times and they have ensured that I never have, and never will, vote Labour or support a Trades Union.”
So your political attitudes are stuck in a period 35 years ago, and you haven’t registered what has happened over the last third of a century, including the pendulum swinging so far that management walks all over workers and they NEED trade unions to stand up for them.
Take my example in the late 2010s: relentless erosion of employee conditions, and pay rises less than inflation year after year, while a new CEO was paid NINE times as much as his predecessor and the dividends paid to shareholders rose by 60%. And please don’t tell me the CEO was paid like that to attract better talent – he was eventually forced out for buying assets at the top of the market and destroying shareholder value on an epic scale (the difference between business success and growing dividends was taken out of the company’s reserves), whereas his lower-paid predecessor was regarded across the industry as a success.

William Harvey
William Harvey
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Wylde

“I lived through those times and they have ensured that I never have, and never will, vote Labour or support a Trades Union.”

I lived through those times and the preceeding debacle of the late 60s and 70s union driven poverty that was inflicted on the UK. Funny how the liberal media (BBC) dont treat those times with the same critical eye that they do the Thatcher years. … but maybe they are all too young to remember empty shops no electricity 3 day weeks and piles of rat infested rubbish in the streets.

Dedpite being very working class those times soured my view of unions and left wing ” state driven” politics for ever more.

L Paw
L Paw
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Notice that you do not recognise that the Labour Gov’t 1974-79 closed more UK coal mines than did Thatcher’s Gov’t of 1979-90.
No the large scale closure was not violence against the miners & their families but a detemination by Thatcher that never again would Marxist union leaders like Scargill dictate who ran Britain.

Chris C
Chris C
1 year ago
Reply to  L Paw

Don’t fixate on coal mines. Britain was massively deindustrialised under Thatcher. Germany hung onto its industries, and in extensive (multiple times a day) contact with Germans including living there for approximately 6 months in total, I never heard a single German ever say “we wish we had had Margaret Thatcher”. Not one. They pity us that while German graduates go into designing things for Siemens or VW, British graduates go onto supermarket checkouts.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

The NUM called the strike without a ballot. Its intention was quite explicitly to bring down the elected government. It had worked with Heath but failed with Thatcher.
If the NUM had not declared war on the Tories, perhaps the rundown of the mining industry would have been achieved more sympathetically.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

I think bringing down Ted Heath’s government was seen as pat for the course.
But thus emboldened, when in the Winter of Discontent they then brought down the Labour one that reactivated the Heath question about ‘who governs Britain?’
More precisely ; who ought to govern US?

People decided it should be an elected government and people also largely voted in Thatcher with an explicit mandate to reduce the power of the Unions.

The 1984 strike and those of other unions around them, eg Wrapping, were as much about this political reckoning as about wages and conditions.

Thatcher also was instrumental in the Development corporations which , amongst other things regenerated the Newcastle and Gateshead riverside, attracted Nissan, created via rate free enterprise zones some of the largest office parks around today, kicked off Canary Wharf and the resurgence of London into a, if not ‘the’. Global city…etc.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ted Ditchburn
Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Thanks for editing to include your numbers.

Phil Mac
Phil Mac
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

That’s not true, she didn’t want to destroy it but she wasn’t going to subsidize it and she knew the NUM would come for her like it did Heath. So, she ran a bonus scheme stockpiling like crazy then poked the bear. Like the dope he is Scargill reacted as expected and the rest is history, she stuffed him.

Chris C
Chris C
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

We’re getting very fixated here on coal mining. (And a lot of the pit closures were under John Major, not Thatcher.) Deindustrialisation under Thatcher covered an awful lot more than coal mines.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris C

Red Robbo etc. de-industrialised the car industry. Thatcher’s personal intervention brought Honda and Nissan to the UK and resuscitated the industry.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago

Although of course, owned by Japanese companies, which was a big part the wave of globalization over the last 40 years which is now apparently officially a Bad Thing ™.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Giles Chance
Giles Chance
1 year ago

Northerners like people with bxxxs and conviction. Love her or hate her, Thatcher had those qualities.

Last edited 1 year ago by Giles Chance
Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Its just a shame that she, like many today, didn’t realise that many would never be knowledge / (financial) service workers and come up with a plan to develop new jobs for those.

Martin Adams
Martin Adams
1 year ago

Mr Jeffery’s explanation of why there is significant admiration for Margaret Thatcher in red-wall areas of the north is persuasive. However, I submit that there is more to it than that — cultural and historical forces that are neglected in almost all such discussions in UnHerd and elsewhere over recent years.
The phenomenon of the working-class Tory is so distinctive among the nations of Europe generally that it has attracted a number of academic studies. One German academic study I read some 20 or more years ago (sorry, but I can’t find it now), noted the prevalence of values that made such folk refuse to vote Labour (though some of them might have voted Liberal). I remember two of them. One was the conviction that financial reward was deserved principally via hard work and personal discipline. A second was that, although such voters were often sympathetic to those is difficulty, they also had a profound antipathy to collective action. — to what they saw as the power of the mob. The German author argued convincingly that those beliefs rested on the fact that what his great compatriot, Max Weber, had called “the Protestant ethic” was deeply embedded in the UK’s culture — in religion, in education and in institutions.
An older study of this kind appeared in The British Journal of Sociology in 1967 (“Working Class Conservatives: A Theory of Political Deviance”). Its author, Frank Parkin, rejected the Marxist perspective of “class interests”, which saw a working-class Tory as a traitor to fellow members of his class. Noting that approximately one third of working class voters tended to vote Tory, Professor Parkin developed a much more nuanced theory, capable of incorporating the infinite variety of human nature. He emphasised the lack of uniformity among such voters, and suggested that the main area they had in common was a sense of identification with:
the dominant institutional orders and central values of the society — of which the Conversatives may be said to be the political guard.
It must be the case that the support for Mrs Thatcher that Mr Jeffrey identifies rests partly on those perceptions of moral and personal virtue. Of course, people will always be inclined to follow the money, as did those who bought their council houses under Thatcher. But it was noticeable that on election night in December 2019, and for several days after that, many people interviewed in the “red-wall” seats spoke in terms strikingly compatible with those outlined above by the German sociologist and by Professor Parkin.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Adams

It’s interesting for example that Margaret Thatcher could have killed off the OU founded by Wilson in the previous government when she was education secretary as many in the Tory party wanted her to. But she didn’t as she thought working class people who were prepared to study after what would often be a hard day of work were more deserving than many of the school leaver students who bounced into university without much effort. It seems to align with the moral perspective you were talking about.
She gets remembered for the whole free milk incident from this time, but this strikes me as far me consequential.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Martin Adams
Martin Adams
1 year ago

Excellent point! I had forgotten about that support for the OU. As you say, far more consequential than the free milk incident.
Thank you!

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
1 year ago

Someone once said: “We are all the architects of our own destruction” Maybe the left and particularly Sir Kneel need to chew on this?

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Thompson
brittiana19
brittiana19
1 year ago

I am not typically from the north but from the West Midlands but I always remember how much my father hated her although some repulsed her . Truth is I think there was a kind of Steel to her mindset .I remember walking to school a group of us when we was about 14 and the discussion was about the empowerment of this decisive Prime minister and how she was going to put Britain first. .On reflection if Margaret Thatcher was the Pm now all that pantomime of Europe would not have existed and further more She would of made the army vacinate the whole country in Six months and locked the borders down with emediate effect. Her slogan Would of been come when you feel better .Love or loath historically it was a beautifully executed onslaught of the trade unions strangle hold on Manufacturing industry’s and black gold was for one was always going to be on that radar .Arther scargell was the equivalent of the pied Piper come along with me only to give himself up in the form of a ridiculous golden handshake .
For me she was just what the doctor ordered Britain was sick she was the prescribed medicine the antidote to the relevant down tools satorial behaviour .Her this lady’s not for turning speech will hang up there for eternal . The impact of her historic reign at number 10 ended in as much pain as she had inflicted on certain aspects of northern life .

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago

I wonder what the survey results would be in the north of the UK ie Scotland.

Martin Adams
Martin Adams
1 year ago

I have wondered about that too. The studies I referred to, by the German sociologist and by Prof. Parkin, all concentrated on England; though I don’t remember that they excluded Scotland and Wales. I was brought up in Wales; and during those decades the phenomenon of the working-class Tory was less widespread there than in England. I therefore imagine that nowadays, admiration of Mrs Thatcher is likewise less widespread in Wales than it is in England.

Chris C
Chris C
1 year ago

There are plenty of middle class people even in red wall constituencies. Much of the measured support for Thatcher in such constituencies will be coming from them, not from the stereotyped “red wall” voter (who obsesses so many on Unherd) of a 60+ working class voter who voted Leave.
And there’s some contradiction in the figures quoted: “back in 2014 ……Half of voters in England said Thatcher was good for Britain (excluding don’t knows), compared to 35% saying she was bad for Britain, and among northern voters 40% said she was good, compared to 48% saying she was bad“. In other words, Thatcher was on +15% in England as a whole but -8% in the North. Presumably, after subtracting the North from the rest of England, Thatcher’s lead in non-Northern England was above +20%, compared to the -8% in the North. Then once you also allow for the middle class in the North, you get even less support for Thatcher among the Northern working class in (2014).

Last edited 1 year ago by Chris C
Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris C

Part of the problem is that ‘working class’ and ‘lower middle class’ as sociological entities have become much more blurred since WW2. Before that they had difference dress and working habits, but since then many people slide easily between the two classes and the distinctions have blurred.

Jorge Toer
Jorge Toer
1 year ago

Nostalgic British soil,,I ask my self about age and intelectual freedom from this choice ,people memory is a fragile thing,
today’s love is a rejection of tomorrow.
No valid information.

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
1 year ago

The distortion comes from the first past the post electoral system, which means that minorities, even very large minorities, in a region win few seats in Parliament, and thus tend to be ignored in commentary. Because the Scottish Parliament has a system of PR, however flawed, there are a good number of Tory MSPs and we talk about Scottish Conservatives much more than we did when they were down to one seat in the Westminster Parliament.

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
1 month ago

I’m from South Wales and my mother will always be grateful to Margaret Thatcher for the opportunity to buy her council house. I’m not commenting on whether the policy was right or wrong only that it was very popular in some labour areas. I read somewhere a comment by Tony Blair before he was Labour leader that he recognized that being able to own your own home was a strong aspiration for many in the north.