18 April 2013

The choices Thatcher gave us

At the tender age of 34 I'm really a bit too young to remember much of the Margaret Thatcher years. I can certainly recall where I was when she resigned – walking down my primary school corridor, and passing the much feared French teacher's office. It seemed like the world had ended, given that she'd been Prime Minister for all but one of the years I'd lived.

British Telecom
'Ambassador' telephone advertisement
Yet I do remember some of the perversities of the country back then, which Thatcher's governments were slowly chipping away at as I grew up. We had state-owned British Telecom's standard issue 'Ambassador' telephone. It was cream in colour, with chocolate buttons and what the advertising described as a 'handy personal directory pad, which allows you to note important numbers'. One day my parents came home from a shopping trip to Tottenham Court Road, where they'd picked up an incredibly futuristic grey and black contraption complete with built in digital answerphone (no tape to wear out) and preset autodial buttons. Ominously, it had a sticker on the bottom with a red triangle telling us we'd get in to trouble for using it.

So this in a sense was my grounding in the basics of politics. A clumsy state enterprise that wasn't responsive to demand. My Mum and Dad ran a business from home, and told me that not only did you have to wait weeks for the BT engineer to turn up, you then had to bribe him if you wanted anything done that wasn't on the work specification – or indeed if you wanted to choose the colour of your phone.

Twenty years later and I’ve just gone before the Parliamentary Assessment Board in Manchester. Before I travelled up for my PAB one of my friends suggested that I figured out what three words summed up Conservatism for me – a good exercise, although the most interesting part comes when you compare your words with someone else as it neatly reveals differences in perspective. Mine were responsibility, honesty and choice – although today's endlessly voguish talk about 'aspiration' made choice seem a little passé.

Yet the genius of Thatcher and her reforming governments was in understanding how choice underpins everything, and her passing this week is a timely reminder that aspiration is built on having options. Thatcher's insistence that Cellnet had a private sector competitor (provided by electronics firm Racal) gave consumers choice, and drove both businesses forward – Racal's offspring Vodafone is now a global leader and turns over £46bn annually. Incidentally Frances Spufford's excellent book Backroom Boys describes the transformation of British industry under Thatcher's watch (including the early days of Vodafone) and is well worth hunting out.

Today the battles of the Thatcher years might not mean much to the under-30s. But when you point to the price plans, handsets and networks they can choose from when buying a mobile, and tell them about the old days when your Government approved phone came in three shades of brown, then you can begin to explain how transformational choice has been to modernising Britain in the past three decades. Some of this would undoubtedly have happened with or without the government's help, but Thatcher knew that people are empowered by having options and making decisions, and her promotion of choice – more than any of the more 'headline' events of her leadership – is the foundation for her legacy.

First published by Platform 10 on April 17th, 2013