What if Margaret Thatcher had lost the 1979 election?

On Thursday 15 May, the PHM will explore alternative histories for Museums at Night. Join our hypothetical tour guides as they weave tall tales and ask you to imagine infinite possibilities of what might have been. In a series of blog posts before the event we’ll be featuring questions so you can swot up on your hypothetical history and add your own alternatives. On the night we’ll subvert our timeline with your suggestions. In this blog, our Unlocking Ideas Project Assistant Catherine Robbins asks What if… Margaret Thatcher had lost the 1979 election?

In 1975 Margaret Thatcher defeated Edward Heath to become leader of the opposition Conservative Party. Four years later the Conservative Party, under her leadership, won the general election with 13,697,690 votes and 339 seats to Labour’s 11,532,148 votes and 268 seats. Her victory ended over a decade of yo-yo governments and marked the beginning of eleven years of Margaret Thatcher’s governance.

Margaret ThatcherThatcherism divided the country; some saw the no-nonsense, free market approach as one which offered opportunity, pulled the country from the clutches of the unions and enabled Britain to trade competitively; others believed it was unnecessarily heavy handed and attacked and abandoned working classes in pursuit of big business and big profit.

Whatever the opinion, it is undeniable that Britain and the lives of many Britons changed hugely between 1979 and 1990. Manufacturing declined rapidly, falling from 17.62% to 15.18%; linked to this, coal mines across the country were ear marked for closure resulting in the ‘84-‘85 miners’ strike; public spending also fell, from 45.1% in 1979 to 38.8% in 1989; home ownership went up from 9.7 to 12.8 million, in part due to the Right to Buy scheme legislated in the 1980 Housing Act; the 1986 Big Bang deregulated the City; and in 1990 London experienced Poll Tax Riots in which 100 were injured and over 400 arrested.

But what if Margaret Thatcher had lost the election in 1979?

What if industry had been supported, modernised and maintained? What would this have meant for the power and influence of Trade Unions? When Margaret Thatcher came to power 1 in 4 people were members of a union, now it is 1 in 8; might this figure be different?

What if right to buy had never been introduced? Would we look at housing differently? Would house prices have risen so dramatically? Would the ‘bedroom tax’ have been introduced?

What if the Big Bang had never happened? Would Britain be so embedded in the global financial market? Would the 2008 economic crash have hit so hard?

What about the political system? Labour was split after the 1979 election; some believed they should continue on with the same approach; others advocated a shift to the Third Way. Tony Blair fell into the latter category and in 1997 he successfully led ‘New Labour’ to election victory. But what if a Labour government had been elected in 1979 instead? Would they still have moved to the centre? Would Tony Blair have become youngest serving Prime Minister since 1812? And what of the Conservative party? Would Margaret Thatcher have stayed on as Conservative Party leader and run the next election? Or might 1979 have been her one shot, leaving Thatcherism an unknown phrase?

What do you think? Add your answers below or come and discuss at our Museums at Night: What if…? event on Thursday 15 May, 5.00pm – 8.00pm


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