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Durham University News

News

Thatcher’s policies condemned for causing “unjust premature death”

(12 February 2014)

Professor Clare Bambra

Professor Clare Bambra

Public health experts from Durham University have denounced the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s policies on the wellbeing of the British public in new research which examines social inequality in the 1980s.

The study, which looked at over 70 existing research papers, concludes that as a result of unnecessary unemployment, welfare cuts and damaging housing policies, the former prime minister’s legacy includes the unnecessary and unjust premature death of many British citizens, together with a substantial and continuing burden of suffering and loss of well-being.

The research shows that there was a massive increase in income inequality under Baroness Thatcher - the richest 0.01 per cent of society had 28 times the mean national average income in 1978 but 70 times the average in 1990, and UK poverty rates went up from 6.7 per cent in 1975 to 12 per cent in 1985.

Baroness Thatcher’s governments wilfully engineered an economic catastrophe across large parts of Britain by dismantling traditional industries such as coal and steel in order to undermine the power of working class organisations, say the researchers. They suggest this ultimately fed through into growing regional disparities in health standards and life expectancy, as well as greatly increased inequalities between the richest and poorest in society.

Co-author Professor Clare Bambra from the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing at Durham University, commented: "Our paper shows the importance of politics and of the decisions of governments and politicians in driving health inequalities and population health. Advancements in public health will be limited if governments continue to pursue neoliberal economic policies - such as the current welfare state cuts being carried out under the guise of austerity.”

Housing and welfare changes are also highlighted in the paper, with policies to sell off council housing such as Right to Buy and to reduce welfare payments resulting in further inequalities and causing “a mushrooming of homelessness due to a chronic shortage of affordable social housing.” Homeless households in England tripled during the 1980s from around 55,000 in 1980 to 165,000 in 1990.

And while the NHS was relatively untouched, the authors point to policy changes in healthcare such as outsourcing hospital cleaners, which removed "a friendly, reassuring presence" from hospital wards, led to increases in hospital acquired infections, and laid the ground for further privatisation under the future Labour and Coalition governments.

The figures analysed as part of the research also show high levels of alcohol and drug-related mortality and a rise in deaths from violence and suicide as evidence of health problems caused by rising inequality during the Thatcher years.

Co-author Professor David Hunter, from Durham University’s Centre for Public Policy and Health, said: "Taking its inspiration from Thatcher's legacy, the coalition government has managed to achieve what Thatcher felt unable to, which is to open up the NHS to markets and competition. Its task was made considerably easier by the preceding Labour government which laid the foundations for the changes introduced in April 2013.”

The study, carried out by the Universities of Liverpool, Durham, West of Scotland, Glasgow and Edinburgh, is published in the International Journal of Health Services.

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