I lived in Glasgow, Scotland for two years in the late 70’s, right before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. Andrew Sullivan got the atmosphere exactly right in his article at The Dish; the attitude of Britain was that its best days were behind her.
My dad had two sisters and a brother living in Glasgow at that time; I lived with one of his sisters and worked in a small shop downtown. I loved working there and my boss was wise enough to realize having a Yank standing behind the counter selling souvenirs to vacationing Yanks would be a novelty.
My aunts and uncles all lived in what is called “Council Housing”. The local government owns your home and you rent it from them. But don’t think you can live in just any home – you are assigned one that the government decides is the right size for your family. If you have a parent living with you, you will score an extra bedroom. Two children of different sexes? Well, that might qualify for another bedroom as well. I was never in a Council House that had more than 1-1/2 bathrooms. And if the government decided it was time for you to move? Then you, along with all your neighbors, could be “decanted” to a different neighborhood either permanently or temporarily.
It was the exact type of housing all my grandparents had lived in. The concept of owning your own home was alien to them – in all the time I lived in Glasgow I only knew two people who lived in a “bought house”: one cousin and the man I worked for.
Since you never owned your home, there was little or no opportunity for wealth creation. My grandparents died with no wealth and no assets to hand down to their children.
Margaret Thatcher changed all that.
When she became Prime Minister you had the opportunity to buy the Council house you lived in – and the price was scaled down depending on how long you had rented from the Council. Many people took advantage of the opportunity and consequently accumulated wealth. One aunt and one uncle purchased their homes and when they passed away their children inherited that wealth.
To my knowledge, these are the first relatives of mine in Scotland who inherited anything from anyone. It was a direct transfer of wealth from the government into the hands of private citizens and it was a very good thing.
The benefits to the government were obvious. Homes that are occupied by owners are better taken care of than by renters; consequently neighborhoods that were borderline slum-like began to turn around. Local governments could turn their attention to responsibilities that did not include being a landlord. And guess what? When you have a population with a little wealth of their own, their first reaction isn’t to put their hand out every time they need something.
This week I watched with dismay the “death parties” in Scotland celebrating Margaret Thatcher’s demise – the chant was “Maggie Maggie Maggie, dead, dead, dead”. (If you want to pronounce that correctly, say “dead” with a long “e”: “deed”.) There were people celebrating who couldn’t have been any more than toddlers when Thatcher was Prime Minister. Many were asked why they were so happy and I heard very few coherent replies about why Thatcher’s death brought such joy.
There were comments about unions and animus towards Thatcher for breaking them. I can only assume all is forgiven for the stronghold the unions had on everything from the media to energy to education and the crippling strikes and brownouts.
The opinion of my relatives is that Thatcher did very little good for Scotland – my impression is that it’s the age-old problem experienced anywhere: tax money sent to a central location far, far away seldom makes its way back.
But … the Scotland I have visited many times since living there in the 70’s is vastly different. The changes I witnessed between 1985 and 2003 (the longest I went between visits) were overwhelming. By 2003 everyone I knew owned cars and most owned homes. Almost everyone I spoke with, relatives, friends and past co-workers, had vacationed at least once in Florida (and couldn’t believe I had never been there).
So as I listened to the celebrations I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the participants were driving home in cars that they owned to homes that they owned–two things that hardly anyone I knew in Glasgow owned before Margaret Thatcher.
I was in Scotland in 2009 and through luck ended up in the graveyard where Adam Smith is buried at Canongate Kirkyard in Edinburgh. The people of Scotland would do well to remember the Adam Smith quotation from On The Wealth Of Nations, which is carved on his headstone: The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable.