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Margaret Thatcher taught Britain to love business, poll finds

Category : Business

Majority of Britons endorse free-market values, but most also say government is responsible for tackling social problems

Margaret Thatcher taught Britain to love business, but not to hate government, according to a YouGov poll on the day of the former prime minister’s funeral.

A clear majority of Britons endorse the free-market virtues that Thatcher championed, the poll – presented at a conference at the Guardian’s headquarters – shows.

For example, 52% agree that “companies and industries that are not competitive … should be allowed to close”, even if this means job losses. That compares with 27% who believe subsidies should be deployed to protect jobs, a practice that Thatcherites dismiss as propping up lame ducks.

Five years into the financial crisis, the country retains a strikingly Thatcherite distaste for regulation – 45% say “businesses work best when they have the freedom to grow their business without government interference”, compared with 40% who say businesses work better when regulated to protect the consumer and the worker.

The woman who insisted that the good Samaritan would have been forgotten if he did not have money would be delighted to learn that profits are still popular today: 52% say that when “a British company reports growing profits, it usually a sign that it is doing well by its customers and employees as well as its shareholders”, 20 points more than the 32% who believe high profits are usually a sign of a company “exploiting its workers and/or its customers”.

And just as business is revealed as popular, its old adversary – the trade union – receive a public thumbs-down. By 45% to 34%, the public tends to say a stronger union movement would be bad as opposed to good for Britain.

But while Thatcher may have succeeded in changing Britons’ long-term attitudes to capitalism, her views on the scope of government’s role in national life have not been so eagerly embraced. Nearly three decades after Thatcher famously said there was “no such thing” as society, 59% of respondents said national and local governments should be most responsible for tackling social problems in Britain today – overwhelmingly more than the 29% who said this should be left to individuals, families and voluntary organisations.

The Thatcherite policy of privatisation also fails to chime with the British public today – 61% agreed that more public utilities, including energy and water, are “best run by the public sector”, versus just 26% who said private companies answerable to shareholders were the best suited.

The YouGov research – contrary to other polls – also suggested Brits have cooled off on the idea of Thatcher’s flagship “right to buy” policy, with 42% supporting it, versus 49% who agreed with a statement saying social housing should be kept in public hands “for future generations in need”.

There was a narrow rejection of the monetarist idea that it is more important to target inflation, and keep it low, than to try to achieve full employment.

Asked what the government should do to secure prosperity in the long term, 49% said “protect jobs, ensure full employment and maintain spending power in the economy” versus 41% who preferred “keep[ing] down prices, inflation and government borrowing”.

YouGov interviewed 1,952 UK adults for its poll on 15-16 of April

Margaret Thatcher wanted to crush the miners. That’s all she wanted

Category : Business

Ken Radford, a former miner who was at the Battle of Orgreave, talks to Ann Czernik about how Margaret Thatcher’s funeral will not heal the wounds his family still feels from her policies

In 1984, Ken Radford was a young man who did not want much – just “a decent wage, food on the table, and a better standard of living” for his family and community in Oughton, South Yorkshire. Like his mates, and thousands of other miners across the country, he worried what would happen if the pits closed, and was drawn into a class war.

“Thatcher wanted to crush the miners. That was her goal, that’s all she wanted,” says Ken.

Thirty years on, this is the first time he’s spoken in depth about the strike. Ken and others like him never talk about it. It’s too hard, too painful, too raw still. “A lot of people talk in beer and they go home and sleep it off next morning,” Ken says.

For Ken, Orgreave brings back mixed emotions. He made good friends, good memories; he shook Arthur Scargill’s hand. But he says: “What them bastards did to us, it goes deep, lass. It really goes deep.”

During the strike, police put Ken’s village under surveillance. Men and women were regularly stopped from travelling and police boarded public transport, buses, stopping cars and vehicles going to power plants, coking and steel works. On 18 June 1984 police were directing the miners into Orgreave with smiles on their faces.

“That day at Orgreave was planned,” says Ken. “They guided the lads in, telling us ‘that’s where you go lads, go into that field there’. We didn’t realise at the time what was going to happen but we found out. They gave us shit. You’ve seen the pictures: lads in T-shirts. It was frightening.

“They cordoned us off, there were more police than normal and they were just going to town. They blocked off the gates down at the bottom. All of a sudden they were banging their shields and we knew what was coming. They were animals. I had a lot of respect for the police before but that day I could have killed them. They murdered us.”

Ken carried his haemophiliac father-in-law across the field to prevent him bleeding to death. “There was a war, the ranks just opened up, horses came and they just charged. I don’t know how many were injured, there were a lot of lads just covered in blood. It looked like a battlefield.”

But Ken remembers a better time. His wife stood by him, battling on the street. There was a sense of community, of cohesion. “There were more people together, people speaking.” They called him Red Ken and the name stuck for a few years. He wanted something done to save his community from poverty.

Today, he says the area wants flattening. His wife works at Meadowhall, the cavernous shopping centre between Sheffield and Rotherham built, ironically, on a former steel plant. Ken laughs: “That makes sense doesn’t it: knock down a rolling mill and build a shopping centre.”

He says of the traumatised landscape: “We need jobs and industry. There is always spare land round here. Every time I go to me mam’s, I go past pit head. It hurts. My kids have never seen a pit head. I keep saying I’m going to take them to Wakefield to the mining museum but I can’t do it.”

Ken has two daughters, one son and four grandchildren. He’s seen his lad, now 25, defeated by lack of work and opportunity since being laid off by a local engineering firm five years ago. Ken shakes his head . The social stopped his money because “they said he wasn’t proving he was looking for work – he’s been looking for years.”

His eldest daughter works for her sister-in law’s debt recovery business. His other daughter – on her own with two children since her husband left – works behind a bar.

During the strike, Ken was the poorest he’d ever been, but still remembers it being one of the best Christmases ever: “My wife got a fur coat out of it. I had a pair of real Italian leather shoes.” Help came from all over – often from unlikely sources. And half the time, miners couldn’t understand the descriptions on food on packets or the games that well-wishers sent.

Every child of striking families went to school in a parka because a factory sent a job lot. The fur coat came in handy when Ken was cutting up cloth and anything else he could find to keep his family warm. Now, he asks himself if it was worth it. “There’s times I start doubting, and I think ‘no, I took a stand’”. He clenches his fist. “It’s killing me that there are still people round here who say ‘Our lad hasn’t got a job. I don’t know what he’s going to do when I go’ – I say fight.”

Thirty years on, Ken says the hope, heart – and jobs – in this once-thriving community have gone, and the pubs are empty. “People would pop in after work. Late shift finished at 10pm – straight in for the last couple of pints. Days, you’d pop in for a couple of pints. It was a lad thing, we were just all lads. It were brilliant … That’s gone. Thatcher and her kind, they took it all away.”

The ‘advanced manufacturing plant’ on the site of the former coking plant will only provide a fraction of the number of old jobs and are predominantly highly skilled, postgraduate positions. Around the site, dozens of private, executive-style homes are being built in readiness – a million miles away from the high density, social housing and type of employment skills available in traditional mining villages.

As for Thatcher’s legacy, Ken says: “My lad’s out of work. He’s 25, he’s had three, maybe four years’ work in the past nine years. He’s a good lad. Thatcher destroyed him through no fault of his own … Thatcher took everything away – hope, everything – just for her own pride.”

Privatisation: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Category : Business

Privatisation has been an area of contention since Thatcher, and its impact on many UK communities is still being felt today

The good

Although many of the now-privatised companies are part or fully owned by foreign companies, they have proved to be lucrative investments and were once the means by which Margaret Thatcher aimed to create a nation of shareholders.

In 1986, when British Gas was floated on the stock exchange, shares cost 135p each, or 334p in today’s terms. Since then, British Gas has undergone several organisational changes and the resulting organisation, BG Group plc, is worth £11.09 a share. A £100 investment in 1986 would have gone up by £821.

Some privatisations have brought improvements for consumers. According to the water and sewerage regulator Ofwat, since the privatisation of the 10 state-owned regional water authorities in 1989, the number of customers at risk of low water pressure has fallen by 99%.

Those critical of state-run services often cite the six-month wait for the installation of a new BT line that customers allegedly suffered before telecommunications were privatised. New BT lines are today installed within 15 days, according to BT’s website.

The bad

Many would say the standout failure of privatisation was that of British Rail. While the actual process did not take place until after Thatcher had left office, she was known to be discussing it with the then Department of Transport months before her resignation. At the 1990 Tory party conference, a month before she left office, her then transport secretary, Cecil Parkinson, said: “The question now is not about whether we should privatise it [British Rail], but how and when.”

Since the privatisation the amount of government subsidies to the rail industry has risen higher than it was in its state-run days. A yearly average of just over £1bn in the late 1980s rose to a high of more than £6bn in 2006-2007, according to a public spending report from the House of Commons.

In 2011, the then Conservative transport secretary, Philip Hammond, alluded to the sharp rise in ticket prices since privatisation when he described train travel in the UK as “a rich man’s toy”. Five years earlier, economists at UBS bank said train travel in the UK was the most expensive in the world.

… and the ugly

For opponents of privatisation, the most damaging legacy has been job losses. In the decade after the miners’ strike of 1985, more than 200,000 jobs were lost as a result of coal privatisation, as well as creating the largest British industrial conflict of modern times.

Since privatisation, more than 100,000 jobs have been lost at BT, while the restructuring of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) – the result of an industry being left increasingly to its own devices by the government – led to the loss of 15,000 jobs in Teesside.

The government’s laissez-faire approach to the changes, and the resultant sudden, mass unemployment led to the transformation of what was once a region booming from steel industry to one of the most impoverished in the country. By the time it was privatised in 1988, British Steel had shed 20,000 jobs.

Supporters of privatisation would reflect upon it as a move that was necessary in order to adapt to increasing international competition, yet its impact on many communities within the UK is still felt today.

Thatcher’s Children/Beats – review

Category : Business

Arches, Glasgow

For those of us who fought in the Thatcher wars, there’s a worry the younger generation won’t appreciate what was at stake. But if this inspirational double bill by the latest winners of the Arches’ Platform 18 directors’ award is any measure of the times, our political future is in safe hands.

In Thatcher’s Children, Gary Gardiner demonstrates a clean grasp of the bullying, brutish nature of Thatcherite politics, and traces a

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Murdoch did meet Thatcher before Times takeover, memo reveals

Category : Business

The media mogul requested a meeting at Chequers to personally lobby the PM, and explicitly briefed her on his bid – something long denied by both sides

Read the original documents here

A secret meeting between Rupert Murdoch and Margaret Thatcher cleared the way for News International to buy the Times and Sunday Times in 1981, Thatcher’s private files reveal.

A long note – marked by her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, as “commercial in confidence” – of the Sunday lunch at Chequers on 4 January, three weeks before the first cabinet committee discussion of the Murdoch takeover, shows the meeting was held at his request.

Thatcher gave the meeting no publicity and instructed that the note should not leave No 10 Downing Street; the media tycoon later gave the impression in the newspaper’s own history that he had no contact with the prime minister ahead of Conservative approval of the purchase.

The Ingham note makes clear that Murdoch first tried to establish some political empathy with Thatcher by praising Ronald Reagan’s new administration before explicitly briefing her on his bid and future plans for Times Newspapers, including taking on the unions, introducing new technology and reducing the workforce by 25%.

Murdoch followed up the lunch with a handwritten “thank you” note two weeks later – “My dear Prime Minister” – telling her that “the field has contracted down to only two or three of us” and that the Times owners, the Thomson family, would “make up their minds in the next day or so”.

This direct personal lobbying was critical, as the government had the power to block his acquisition by referring the bid to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission because Murdoch already owned the Sun and the News of the World. The government’s subsequent refusal to do so paved the way for the creation of what is easily the largest newspaper group in Britain. Its market share was about 28% at the time, but its financial strength has helped it grow to the point where it accounts for about 37% of all newspaper copies sold.

The decision was one to be taken personally by the trade secretary, then John Biffen. However, when the matter was first discussed at the crucial cabinet economic strategy committee on 26 January, the recently released minutes show that Thatcher opened the discussion by highlighting the exemption under the Fair Trading Act 1973 that would allow Murdoch’s bid to avoid a referral.

Thirty years later, the circumstances surrounding Murdoch’s purchase of the Times titles came back into focus as his News Corporation bid for full control of BSkyB. Negotiations between News Corp and the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, led to a similar outcome – with the minister proposing to approve the merger in lieu of a full referral to the Competition Commission, in return for an agreement to spin out Sky News.

But the deal collapsed in furore that followed the revelation that Milly Dowler’s phone had been targeted by the News of the World.

David Cameron’s first meeting with a media owner after he became prime minister in May 2010 was with Rupert Murdoch, who entered No 10 by the back door. Two months later Murdoch’s News Corp launched its bid for Sky, and the proprietor met Cameron in July 2010. This meeting was not initially disclosed when Cameron first published a list of meetings with media owners and newspaper editors in July last year.

The disclosure of the secret Chequers lunch in the 1981 Thatcher papers held at the Churchill archives centre, Cambridge and now released after 30 years, flatly contradicts the account in the official history of the Times that says the two scarcely knew each other and “had no communication whatsoever during the period in which the Times bid and referral was up for discussion”.

The author, Graham Stewart, sources this to an interview with Murdoch. The official history suggests that the newspaper tycoon relied instead on the columnist Woodrow Wyatt to plead his case.

The Ingham note says that Murdoch spent much of the Chequers lunch voicing his “favourable impressions” of the embryonic Reagan administration and offering to arrange a meeting for her with a group of “New Right” politicians during her impending visit to New York.

Ingham says that before the meeting he had tried to check with the trade department on the reported 10 bids but was told there was no further information beyond what had been in the papers because Times Newspapers were being very secretive.

Murdoch said he had made a “nominal bid” for all the Times titles, all of which would be retained, in return for which he would meet all staff redundancy costs on the condition there was a 25% cut in “overall manning levels”. He added that he couldn’t move to “optimum manning and use of new technology in one fell swoop” but foreshadowing the later move to Wapping stressed the “inevitability of progressing gradually”.

He then listed his rival bidders. He dismissed Lonrho and Robert Maxwell as unlikely to impress either Thomson, unions or journalists. He said Sir James Goldsmith was only likely to bid for the Sunday Times, which had been profitable, but that he was in a stronger position as he was willing to buy the Times as well. The Times journalists’ own bid was also dismissed as “unlikely to carry much conviction”. He left out, however, the most significant rival, Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail.

Murdoch said that he was risking £50m of News Group’s resources in the deal and that such an amount “could finish us”.

Ingham claims that Thatcher did nothing more than “wish him well in his bid” and noted the need to improve Fleet Street staffing levels and to introduce new technology.

The later cabinet committee minutes confirm Thatcher’s role in the discussion but also that the trade department’s accountants had advised that only in the case of the Times was it “clear-cut” that it was not economic as a going concern.

Many people who wanted the MMC to block Murdoch’s takeover believed that the Sunday Times would return to financial health, and the papers appear to confirm that view. Until recently the Sunday title was highly profitable.

Vince Cable tells why he has gone into coalition – with Michael Heseltine

Category : Business

‘Twickenham’s Karl Marx’ still relishes the political fray at 68 and is determined to push state’s role in reshaping Britain’s economy

Thatcherites will be appalled. Michael Heseltine, the man who brought down their heroine, has returned to Whitehall where he is working happily alongside Vince Cable. “Michael Heseltine has an office down here,” the Liberal Democrat business secretary says as he waves in the direction of a long corridor on the top floor of his department.

With a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Cable explains why he is working so well with the One Nation Tory who promised to intervene before breakfast, lunch and tea when he held the same post in the 1990s. “Michael’s very much up for this pro-active [approach] and he’s been very supportive,” he says.

Cable is invoking Heseltine to illustrate the mission he will be launching at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in Gateshead this weekend – to explain that the state matters and it must be allowed to play a central role in helping reshape the economy as Britain recovers from the downturn. “Government has a role to play, a positive role,” he says.

It is no great surprise that Cable, the most senior Lib Dem to have harboured initial doubts about entering a coalition with the Conservatives, has Tories to the right of Heseltine in his sights.

But Cable also makes clear that he is making a stand for his wing of the party – the Social Democrats, many of whom started their careers in the Labour party. Cable, 68, who first worked in his department as an adviser to the late John Smith in the 1970s, says: “Our party has a Social Democratic tradition and we believe government can do useful things.”. Cable is too polite to breathe a word of criticism of the other wing of his party – the Liberal tradition, often represented by the younger generation around Nick Clegg, which is seen as keener on free market economics. But the business secretary makes no secret of where his sympathies lie.

“There are two traditions,” he says. “There’s the Liberal tradition which is good and I identify with it. But there’s a Social Democratic tradition as well which is about fairness and recognising a role of government and I’m perfectly proud to promote it.”

By turning on the Tory right and giving a gentle hint that he and Clegg are no soulmates – all within the space of a few minutes – Cable shows he still relishes a political fight. At an age when most men would be reaching for their slippers, the business secretary has experienced a busy week in the headlines, some of his own making, others not. In his first intervention of the week, Cable announced on the Today programme on Tuesday that the Lib Dems were prepared to agree to the scrapping of the 50p tax rate. But this would have to be in exchange for moves towards taxing wealth, preferably in the form of his party’s “Mansion Tax” on properties worth more than £2m.

Then, later that day, the BBC published a leaked copy of a letter by Cable to David Cameron and Clegg in which he said that the government had no “compelling vision” beyond tackling the fiscal deficit.

Cable, who insists that the letter was not leaked from his office, is not in the slightest bit fazed. The letter, he says, goes to the heart of his argument.

“We’re no longer arguing about fiscal policy – monetary policy’s now taking on most of the heavy lifting anyway,” he says as he notes that Labour has now accepted the need for fiscal discipline. “So the argument has shifted into a debate around how active government should be in promoting the recovery. Is it getting out of the way or is government being proactive and positive? That was the purpose of that letter to the prime minister which set out the case.”

It may have been an accident but the letter was sent to the prime minister on 8 February, five days after Chris Huhne resigned from the cabinet. Cable now believes that he has to work hard to fill the gap left by Huhne. He was the only other ex-SDP big beast in the cabinet and is, as even his enemies will acknowledge, a supreme political strategist. Cable will now press hard in government to differentiate the Lib Dems from the Tories, though he will do this more diplomatically than the bruising Huhne. One area where Cable will be speaking out is over the proposals in the report by the venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft – commissioned by the prime minister’s departing policy guru Steve Hilton – which said that micro-companies employing fewer than 10 people should be able to sack employees without compensation.

This shows he is prepared for a confrontation with the chancellor. George Osborne invited British manufacturers at their conference this week to send evidence making the case for Beecroft’s proposal for “compensated no-fault dismissal” for micro companies.

Cable says he will examine the evidence in a “very practical, very businesslike way”, though he has no time for Tories who believe Britain is over-burdened with business regulation. “It is ridiculous,” he says of the call by Liam Fox for greater labour market deregulation on the grounds that it is “too difficult to hire and fire” employees.

The business secretary says that he and his ministerial team – two Lib Dems and five Tories – are pressing ahead with deregulation as they ensure that new measures can only be introduced if an old one is ejected. But he cannot resist pointing out that one little-noticed proposal in the Beecroft report – easing immigration checks for new employees – was rejected by the Tories. “We thought that was great,” Cable says of the Beecroft proposal on immigration.

But a Tory whispering campaign against Cable shows no signs of abating. Senior No 10 figures say the Beecroft report was commissioned to counter the business secretary after his warning in 2010 that “capitalism takes no prisoners and kills competition where it can”. Far from finding himself cast out, however, Cable ended up shaping the centre ground as his warnings about unregulated markets were embraced a year later by Ed Miliband and then by the prime minister.

As his opponents mocked Cable as Twickenham’s answer to Karl Marx, the business secretary set to tame, though not bring down, capitalism. He pressed for legislation on the findings of the Vickers review on ring-fencing retail and investment banking and fought hard to give shareholders a greater say on executive pay.

As the debate on responsible capitalism moved in Cable’s direction, he set up the Kay review to address the perceived failure of equity markets to think about long-term investment. Cable is enthusiastic about the initial findings by the FT columnist Professor John Kay, as he endorses one of Kay’s early recommendations – an end to company quarterly reporting. “It’s not clear that it gives us any value and it takes a lot of time and it really does focus managers on short term thinking. There is also a lot of hostility to it in business.”

Cable has summoned Tim Breedon, the chief executive of Legal & General, to find ways of channelling longer term financial investment for infrastructure projects and for small and medium-sized enterprises. Cable is impressed by Germany’s state-owned KfW bank which provides, as he said this week, a “Heineken effect” that reaches “parts of business that other markets don’t reach”. But Cable is distancing himself from the proposal in his own leaked letter that Royal Bank of Scotland should act as a state investment bank. “It’s not quite as revolutionary as it may have sounded,” he says. “But [it is] quite difficult to use RBS as a vehicle.”

Cable also wants to focus on a multi-billion social house building programme funded by the non-banking private sector. “Housing associations have fingered the fact that they cannot use their assets as liquidity due to Bank of England rules unlike their continental equivalents. This has emerged to be one of the main bottlenecks to getting investment going in the UK. It is a Bank of England issue. Their rules are actually stopping them raising capital and actually getting on and doing things.”

The housing shortage prompts Cable to draw an unfavourable comparison with the 1930s. “I’m very struck with the comparison between this crisis and the 1930s. A lot of the recovery was powered [then] by housing including a lot of council housing. And this is proving much more difficult this time. “

The Lib Dems meet in Gateshead at an anxious time as they see their support trail at least 10 points behind their general election performance. “There’s been some churn in support,” Cable says as he admits that the party has been punished by voters on the left. But he insists that all is not lost. “The situation has stabilised and improved.”

Cable is also sure that he is not on his own as the only ex-SDP member in the cabinet. “I certainly don’t feel isolated,” he says.