New study into Margaret Thatcher’s legacy

40 years on from Margaret Thatcher’s first General Election victory, her legacy in Great Britain is still just as big a talking point in politics. Her Government’s impact on society is still debated, with opinions often heavily divided. In order to understand how the British public perceive Thatcher’s legacy, BMG Research were commissioned by the University of Derby to explore the public’s views of her policies, her government, and her legacy.

Between 17th January to 12th February 2019, BMG interviewed 5,781 people aged 16+ living in Great Britain. The majority of the sample consisted of 5,581 people who were interviewed online, in addition to 200 face-to-face interviews with low internet users.

Margaret’s Thatcher’s approval in decline

Back in November 1990, as Margaret Thatcher was leaving office, Ipsos MORI polled the nation to ask whether the country thought “on balance, her period as Prime Minister had been good or bad for the country”. At the time, just over half (52%) thought it was good, whilst 2 in 5 (40%) thought it had been bad. A further 8% had no opinion. The question was repeated in this survey to see how perceptions have changed around 28 years on.

In 2019, less than a third (32%) of respondents think it was good and close to 2 in 5 (38%) think it was bad. There has been a shift from a 12-percentage point difference in favour of good to a 6-percentage point in favour of bad. As may be expected, the proportion of people who have no opinion has increased. Whilst just 8% of people in 1990 had no opinion, this has increased to 30% in 2019.


Thatcherite economic values (neo-Liberalism)

One method of studying Thatcher’s legacy is to see whether people are supportive of the values that have defined her. Respondents were provided with a series of statements and were asked if they agreed or disagreed with them. These consisted of statements about Neo-Liberalism (representing her economic values), such as “Private enterprise is the best way to solve Britain’s economic problems”, and Neo-Conservativism (representing her social values), such as “Schools should teach children to obey authority”. The respondents’ answers to each question were added up to give them a score of support, after which they were put into two groups – those above the average and those below.

Interestingly, the Thatcherite economic values were most supported by the oldest respondents (65+) and the youngest (25-44), whilst respondents aged 45-64 were least supportive. In total, 49% of respondents aged 16-24 were above average, rising to 54% for respondents aged 25-34. The oldest respondents’ support was even higher, with 56% of respondents aged 65-74 having above average support and 67% of respondents aged 75+ feeling the same way.

Notably, the percentage in the high group fell for those aged 45-54 and 55-64 (both about 44%), before increasing again for older groups (55.9% for the 65-74 age group, and 66.6% for those over 75). This suggests that those groups who grew up during the Thatcher era tended to hold different economic values to Thatcher than those who either voted for her (the older groups) or those who have grown up in the post-Thatcher era (the younger groups). In other words, young people (aged under 44) tend to embrace Thatcherite economic values more than those aged 45-64, perhaps without considering them ‘Thatcherite’.

Interactions with voting for left-leaning Parties

Left-leaning parties here were taken to be the Labour Party, the LibDems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens. What is interesting is that relatively high proportions of young people (those below 45yrs) who hold highly economically liberal (i.e. Thatcherite values) are voting for left-leaning parties (around 40%), compared to nearer 25% of the older groups.

However, whilst more onboard Thatcherite economic values, younger respondents are much less likely to hold her more Neo-Conservative social values. Just 31.3% of respondents aged 16-24 were in the higher group, compared to 66.9% of respondents aged 75 or higher.

Commenting on the findings, Professor Steve Farrall said: “What is interesting in the relationship between liberal economic values and voting. Will the young people who hold economically liberal views remain voting for these parties – with whom on the surface it would appear they are at odds with – or will they either defect to other parties more in line with their beliefs, or might they alter the policies and position of left-leaning parties on economic matters?”

For more information, please contact s.farrall@derby.ac.uk