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One Unfortunate Legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s U-Turn Speech and The Coalition’s Skills Agenda

Last Updated: Friday, February 4th, 2011

Margaret Thatcher’s best known soundbite was her promise, in the middle of the huge economic difficulties of the early 1980s, that “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!” She later appeared at a Tory conference with just one word emblazoned on the stage behind her: RESOLUTION.

At the same time, across the Atlantic, Ronald Reagan was equally determined to restore faith in the determinedness of political leadership. Peggy Noonan, writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, reflecting on what would have been his 100th birthday, writes:

“In the spring of 1981 the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization called an illegal strike. It was early in Reagan’s presidency. He’d been a union president. He didn’t want to come across as an antiunion Republican. And Patco had been one of the few unions to support him in 1980. But the strike was illegal. He would not accept it. He gave them a grace period, two days, to come back. If they didn’t, they’d be fired. They didn’t believe him. Most didn’t come back. So he fired them. It broke the union. Federal workers got the system back up. The Soviet Union, and others, were watching. They thought: This guy means business.”

[Read the full piece:].

David Cameron and George Osborne sign up to this aversion to u-turnery. While they may make tactical u-turns on relatively small issues (funding of schools sports and, very likely, plans to privatise parts of the Forestry Commission) you can be very sure that they won’t be knocked off the course they have set on deficit reduction. There is no Plan B on cutting borrowing and I’m sure that’s the right judgment.

What we do need, however, in Britain is a political discourse where there can be flexibility as to the ‘how’ the Coalition achieves its deficit goals but market-reassuring inflexibility when it comes to the fact that the deficit (not the debt) will be eradicated by 2015.

The Centre for Social Justice recently published an interesting paper questioning some of the choices on cuts []. The paper worried, for example, that in the understandable urgency to bring borrowing under control some very promising preventative programmes were being cut too deeply. The CSJ recommended much greater evaluation of government programmes in line with a model developed in Washington state by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. It’s an important paper and its conclusions would reinforce the hand of those who worry that dislike of u-turns for political reasons risks too many bad decisions going uncorrected.

The lesson from the Thatcher years may actually be less about the danger of u-turns and more about the dangers of taking on too much. Margaret Thatcher was careful to run a very focused premiership, shunning confrontations with teachers, mineworkers and the welfare bureaucracy, for example, in her early years. My biggest nagging worry about the Coalition is that in reforming on so many fronts, ministers might be distracted from the twin priorities of deficit reduction AND increasing economic competitiveness.


One of the Coalition’s key strengths – and most pro-growth policies – is its agenda on vocational skills and apprenticeships. Please take a look at a British Aerospace-sponsored supplement on the skills challenge in the latest edition of The Spectator [].

It includes this from BIS minister David Willetts on ensuring skills are properly assessed:

“Of course, university degrees should be worthwhile in their own right. But many of the qualifications achieved from higher education must be of value to employers. To this end, we could do more to split the teaching of degrees from their examination. The growth of England’s education system between 1850 and 1950 was helped by new colleges that taught, but didn’t award, degrees. Those in the South of England were awarded degrees from the University of London; those in the North of England were awarded degrees from the University of Manchester, and so on. It was, and still could be, an effective quality assurance measure.”

Tim Montgomerie



EVEN TORY MEMBERS SUPPORT LOOSER IMMIGRATION CAP: “Interestingly a plurality of Tory members agreed with a more flexible immigration cap so that businesses can recruit skilled workers from abroad… Richard Ottaway MP suggested a majority of his Conservative parliamentary colleagues would also support modernisation of union laws. I suspect the block on the possibility comes from Liberal Democrat MPs and ministers.” See the full dataset via

THOUGHTS ON ED BALLS: “The crucial question for the Opposition at the last election was: what spending will you cut?  At the next election, it will be: which taxes will you raise?  Balls’s answer to the question will show whether he expects to be Labour’s next Chancellor or its next leader.  If it’s the former, he’ll go in to the election with a plan to spend a little bit more money on something – possibly training – with the requisite money raised from something else – probably the banks.  At any rate, the target in these circumstances will be an unpopular one, like the utilities targeted by Brown with a windfall tax before 1997 (when Balls was his main adviser).” More via

ARE THESE THE COALITION’S TOP THREE PRIORITIES? “(1) Living within our means: Unless we pay off Labour’s debts and start living within our means we will leave impossible debts for our children and job-creating businesses. (2) Welfare reforms: If we get more people into work and reduce the extraordinary cost of housing benefit we’ll be able to reduce taxes and ensure we can afford proper care for the most vulnerable members of our society. (3) Skilling and educating the next generation: If we are to compete with emerging economies our children need to graduate with internationally rigorous academic qualifications. If we are to stop importing immigrants for basic tasks we need to equip the next generation with vocational skills that will give them fulfilling, lasting jobs.” More via



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