I wouldn't be where I am today
if it weren't for Maggie Thatcher!
8th April 2013:
The news is dominated by the fact that the "Iron Lady" died this morning. And it has finally inspired me to start my blog. You may wonder why...
Margaret Thatcher is the reason I live in France instead of the UK. Although she'd been out of office for six years when I first came here in 1996, I wouldn't be living here now if it were not for her.
This is not a revelation brought on by her death. I've always known this, and always said as much to the French people who ask me why I chose to live here. The fact is, when I came to France I found a society with values I recognised - values that no longer had currency in the country of my birth.
What we're hearing from the political right today is that Thatcher dragged the UK out of the mess it had got into in the 1970s. "The woman who saved Britain" was the Daily Mail's headline this morning, and that piece of Tory myth-making will be the leitmotif of the coming week until her funeral.
And God knows, Britain certainly was a mess in 1979. But the "saviour" myth is based on a false dichotomy: either we could carry on with the economic fiasco of the 1970s, or we could have Maggie's transformation of the country; either we could continue with an ossified manufacturing economy in thrall to the unions, or we could shift to a liberalised service economy bursting with entrepreneurial opportunity. And which would you prefer?
Seventeen years of living in France have shown me that that "choice" never had to be made. While Britain was privatising everything from the Water Board to the Post Office, and selling off its social housing, France stuck with the nationalised model of public services and manufacturing industry. Not just utilities like electricity, gas, and water, but also the postal service, the railways, the national airline, the phone company - all remain in state hands even today.
And the state retains a controlling stake in industrial manufacturing companies like Renault, too. While France and Germany are busy making the best cars in Europe (and the car industries in those countries account for 10% of their entire workforces), Britain has no car industry at all any more. Renault are launching a range of electric vehicles this year – because they were ordered to develop them by the French government. And the government will ensure they're a success by ordering the electricity and gas companies, the phone company, the post office et al to buy them for their fleets.
That kind of economic interventionism hasn't been seen in the UK in nearly 40 years. And it's not supposed to work. Only a liberalised ultra-free market can be competitive and therefore successful, right?
Wrong. It does work. If the UK goes ahead with plans for its new nuclear power plant, it won't be built by a British firm – it will be built and operated by EDF, the French state-owned electricity company. France's state-owned high-speed rail network is the envy of the world, and the French win contracts for similar networks in other countries like Spain. Meanwhile, Britain's high-speed rail network is... oh, wait... Britain doesn't have a high-speed rail network at all.
While Germany and France – with their 'old-fashioned' manufacturing industries – are the most successful economies in the EU, the UK is once again in a total mess. Even with the so-called "Eurozone crisis", meaning that they're having to pour billions of Euros into the weak economies of southern Europe, the German and French economies still put Britain to shame.
And I haven't even started to talk about the French welfare state yet. The British still like to say that the NHS is the best healthcare system in the world. That received wisdom goes straight out of the window when you've experienced the French health service. And France still has a level of state benefits for families, the unemployed, or those on low incomes that would make the average Briton's jaw drop. They pay for it, of course, with high national insurance contributions, and the system still runs up a huge budget deficit every year. But it was announced today that even in these economic times they've reduced the welfare state deficit by €3 billion in the past 12 months - without, of course, any of the vicious benefit cuts that have just come into force in Britain.
France is not a utopia. I could write another post as long as this one about what's wrong with France – the bureaucracy, the waste of public money, above all the extreme corruption of the political class. And of course, France is not immune to the Thatcher-Reagan ultra-liberalism that has become economic orthodoxy the world over now.
But nevertheless, France continues to go its own way. It remains a country where people hold values I can relate to, but that don't exist in Britain anymore. Values that say individuals thrive only when there is a cohesive society in which to thrive, and the state should be doing everything it can to create and support that cohesion. Those values were eradicated from Britain too long ago for them ever to come back now, and the British are the poorer for it.