There hasn’t been much written in the Gazette about the death of Mrs Thatcher. Maybe the other contributors are too young to have lived through her premiership? I was not a fan, and so if you are one of the millions who voted for her and continued to adore her to the end, stop reading now.
This is a personal take on her influence on the legal profession and me, and not a comprehensive account.
Personally, she was a sort of guardian angel to me, but not in the way she intended. When she was first elected, I was a young advice worker, and so a member of the group she considered the enemy within. The publication of her Housing Bill (before its passage as the Housing Act 1980) gave me the first step up in my career, because I made my name in the organisation for which I worked by giving endless training to droves of other young advice workers who would need to advise on it. We were staggered by a policy to reduce an already inadequate public housing stock (we were advising people on long waiting lists at the same time) through selling off parts to the lucky few who happened to be in occupation at the time, and at an attractive discount.
The current bedroom tax is a direct consequence of this policy, and Lord Heseltine recently blithely shed all responsibility for today’s shortage of public housing by saying he had intended to buy new stock with the proceeds, but his department had not followed up on it. Believe me, he might be surprised by this outcome, but none of us in that series of training sessions over 30 years ago thought anything else would happen.
She continued to guide my career secretly. I was busy applying for advancement in advice centres or organisations specialising in housing or immigration advice. Whenever I was turned down for a job, the curse of Thatcher, as if she had personally tapped her wand, closed down that particular centre almost immediately, filling me with guilty relief that I had not impressed my interviewers more. There is a serious point, though – her assault on local government funding removed a large amount of legal advice and other support for local communities, which no amount of Big Society has ever replaced.
By the time I joined the Law Society in the mid-1980s, her attention had turned to the legal profession. She was going to change everything, after all. The break-up of the conveyancing monopoly and the introduction of licensed conveyancers in the Administration of Justice Act 1985 was supposed to be the first step. Interestingly, it was a rather damp squib, and changed not much at all. Her urge to do to the liberal professions what she had achieved against the trade unions seemed to wane after that, and it was left to her spiritual heir, Tony Blair, to finish the work, with the passage of the Legal Services Act 2007 and the birth of its handmaiden, the Legal Services Board.
Curiously, I am in the lucky position of being able to answer the question, much asked in recent days, about what would have happened if she had not come to power. It is usually asked by acolytes, to whom it is obvious that she saved the country. Their favourite narrative is one of redemption. In fact, it used to be fashionable to say that every country – people normally meant France – needed a Mrs Thatcher. But I live in a country, Belgium, untouched by Thatcherism.
Here, the job of a waiter in a restaurant or a counter assistant in a shop is not undertaken by a teenager or a student on a low wage or temporary contract, but by the same people for years, because they are paid a proper wage in a respected career (and consequently restaurant tips are not expected, either). Here, employers have to pay over 30% social charges on every job, so that benefits can be provided to employees as a result: for instance, a female worker with a sick child can have someone come to her home via the social security scheme to look after her child while she works. Here, wages are automatically indexed in line with the annual cost of living. Shocking!
In other words, I live in social Europe, which is at the opposite end of the scale to Mrs Thatcher’s values. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with Belgian social legislation or not. And we know that Belgium has cohesion problems (think Scotland). But the question is: has Belgium collapsed because Thatcherism didn’t save it? A look at the relative prosperity and economic stability of Belgium will give you the answer.
The Thatcherite ghost governments which introduced and implemented the Legal Services Act 2007 were similarly inspired by the rhetoric of redemption: they were saving the legal profession from its own inherent conflicts, saving the public from the bad faith of the legal profession. But the Belgian legal system, and those from other EU member states, have not been similarly saved, and appear to be healthy, independent and offering services appreciated by governments and citizens.
She was famous for this saying about her policies – TINA, there is no alternative. Tina was always a figure of redemption fantasy. Replace Tina with a real person, J-Lo – Just Look Overseas.
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents about one million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs