Making Sense of Thatcherism and Crime

by Stephen Farrall

February 2015 will see the 40th anniversary of the election of Margaret Thatcher (1925 - 2013) as leader of the Conservative Party. Her election as the first female leader of a mainstream political party in the UK and subsequent election as the UK’s first female Prime Minister marks a watershed in UK political history. Leaving aside the fact that she was a woman, Thatcher’s period in office was notable for a number of other reasons as well. Following some of the economic medicine which she meted out, her popularity plummeted during her first period in office (she remains, to this day, the leader with the lowest personal ratings), and yet she went on to win two further general elections. Unemployment rose dramatically, council houses were sold to their tenants (which proved extremely popular with the electorate), industrial relations changed forever and the first of a series of challenges to the concept of the welfare state were initiated. Her period in office as prime minister – stretching from 1979 until late-1990 – now feels like a very long time ago.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that some of the most recent publications about her governments and their time in office have been penned by historians. For example, Ben Jackson and Robert Saunders’ excellent collection Making Thatcher’s Britain (2012) contains 13 essays, the majority written by historians, whilst Thatcher’s Britain (2009) is authored by another historian. But is Thatcherism best seen as a phenomenon which is now ‘concluded’? Can we not trace some of both our current preoccupations and problems to that crucible of change which the 1980s represents?

This is one of the sets of questions which I and my colleagues are asking as part of a research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, and which delves into one of the social policy arena which Thatcher was certainly very keen on talking about, but into which she had little direct impact – namely crime. Crime was a topic which Thatcher often referred to, especially during the 1979 general election campaign when she frequently talked about people wanting to feel safe walking the streets. She also favoured the use of corporal punishment and voted to bring back hanging whenever there was a vote on the topic in the Houses of Parliament. But in practice, her governments were not known for being especially ‘tough’ on crime. Early criminal justice acts reduced the numbers of young people imprisoned, and whilst the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) was hotly debated, it is now seen as representing an extension of rights to suspects. The memoirs of successive Home Secretaries in the 1980s reveal that Thatcher was content to leave them to run the Home Office and to bring forth whichever sorts of acts they wished to – despite the fact that crime rose during the 1980s in a dramatic fashion.

Figure One: Property Crime Per Capita (Home Office Recorded Statistics and BCS)

Figure One shows the main trend line for crime in England and Wales from 1970 until just into the 21st century. The British Crime Survey (now the Crime Survey for England and Wales) started in the early 1980s, and gives a similar picture to that provided by officially recorded crime – of a rise during the 1980s through to a peak in the 1990s and a decline since (which we are still enjoying today).

So what then links the social and economic policies of the Thatcher governments with rising levels of crime? So far we have been able to point to a number of factors of Thatcherite social and economic policies which account for both rises in crime and the concentration of crime in specific locations in many of our towns and cities. First of all, of course, we have economic factors. Although processes of deindustrialisation can be traced back to the 1950s, these increased sharply under Thatcher’s term of office, and resulted in many more people being made unemployed. Our statistical modelling finds that the unemployment rate strongly predicts property crime rates (that is crime like theft, burglary and shop-lifting). In addition to this we found that reduced spending on welfare recipients (following the 1984 Fowler Review of Social Security) was also associated with increases in property crime. Whilst the social security budget went up during the 1980s (to pay for all the people who were unemployed at the time, spending per head actually went down as the system became more stringent). These were the big two factors in explaining the rise of crime during the 1980s. The third factor which increased what is now referred to as ‘low level’ crime or ‘anti-social behaviour’ was the combined effect of the 1988 Education Act and John Major’s Citizen’s Charter.

In 1992 the first school league tables were published. This had the unforeseen effect of encouraging head-teachers to exclude unruly pupils who were, as Home Office research found, without full-time educational provision, left to roam the streets unsupervised started to cause problems for residents living in inner city estates. Finally, the housing policies of the 1980s, which aimed to sell off council housing, whilst requiring that council continue to house the weaker and more vulnerable members of society meant that the desirable properties (houses with gardens) were transferred to the private sector, whilst the less desirable council properties (flats in inner cities) became the only place where councils could house those with real social and economic needs. Thus the quality of some of our council-run estates changed quite dramatically; from respectable estates they quickly became ‘no-go’ areas where few worked and many had serious challenges to contend with.

These changes did not go unnoticed by the public. The British Crime Survey showed quite large increases in people worrying about crime. What official statistics showed the population was also experiencing. Of course, policy makers take note of social and economic problems which are able to force their way onto the agenda – and crime certainly had forced its way onto the policy agenda during the early 1990s. From the early 1990s onwards we can observe an increase in the proportion of the government’s policy agenda in the Queen’s Speech which was devoted to crime. Prior to 1960 there was little mention of crime; between 1961 and 1978 it fluctuated between 2% and 8%; in 1996 it jumped to 15% and between 2000 and 2006 it averaged about 20%. During the early 1990s there was, indeed, a rash of criminal justice acts almost like never before and Tony Blair (as shadow Home Secretary) and Michael Howard (as Home Secretary) battled it out to be ‘toughest’ on crime.

But why did crime go down again? Certainly recorded crime rates did fall, and our modelling suggests that this was due to two factors. First of all, the economy recovered, and slowly jobs did present themselves. Second, the much tougher stance on crime from the early to mid-1990s (starting with the 1993 Criminal Justice Act) started to pay off. If you send enough people to prison for long enough crime will go down – at least in the short term.

So how do we, for the moment, make sense of Thatcher’s contribution to the criminal justice and penal landscape of Britain? Although she did little directly about crime or criminal justice (and little which was truly ‘Thatcherite’) the social and economic policies her governments pursued contributed to rising crime rates. These high crime rates eventually became un-ignorable for both government policy-makers and politicians, who started to attend to this pressing social problem. Within the dominant logic of 1980s New Right thinking, ‘toughness’, not liberalism was the order of the day, and levels of imprisonment rose with many facing longer sentences. That these developments in the criminal justice system took place after Margaret Thatcher had been dumped by the party in favour of the more emollient John Major does not make them any the less the consequences of her governments’ policies – it just goes to show that policy processes make take many years to unfold and that searching for the causes of something as simple as changes in levels of crime may take one in unexpected directions.