Thatcherism’s lethal legacy and the politics of reporting research

Maggie, Maggie, Maggie. Joe Giddens/PA Wire

There has been much written in the media over the last year about the legacy of Thatcherism and the ways in which it reshaped the British political landscape. However, in new empirical research published this week, we demonstrated just how high a cost the country paid in terms of health and well-being for Thatcherism’s economic and social policies.

Our study, which looked at material from existing research and data from the Office for National Statistics, concludes that Thatcherism resulted in the unnecessary and unjust premature deaths of British citizens, together with a substantial and continuing burden of suffering and a widespread degradation of well-being. Alcohol and drug-related mortality, deaths from violence and suicide all increased substantially during the Thatcher years – compared to other countries. Regional inequalities in life expectancy between north and south were also exacerbated, as were health inequalities between the richest and poorest in British society.

We argued that these adverse public health outcomes were a result of unnecessary unemployment, which increased from approximately 1m in 1980 to 3m in 1982; a further peak was seen in Thatcher’s wake in the early 1990s. Unemployment is strongly associated with higher mortality rates (unemployed are twice as likely to die as employed), and Thatcherism can therefore be said to have resulted in additional unemployment-related deaths.

The welfare cuts implemented by Thatcher’s governments led to a rise in poverty rates from 6.7% in 1975 to 12% by 1985; poverty is well known to be one of the major causes of ill health and mortality. Income inequality also increased in the Thatcher period, as the richest 0.01% of society had 28 times the mean national average income in 1978 but 70 times the average in 1990. As has been shown by research in the Spirit Level, income inequality is internationally associated with higher mortality and morbidity.

The housing policies pursued in the 1980s led to a tripling of homeless households from 55,000 in 1980 to 165,000 in 1990. Homeless people on average live to only 47 – more than 30 years on average less than the rest of us.

Our research clearly showed how the decisions of governments and politicians in the Thatcherite years drove health inequalities: the wrong political decisions can kill. Clearly any future advancements in public health will be limited if governments continue to pursue hard-line neoliberal economic and social policies, such as the current welfare state cuts being carried out by the Coalition in the name of austerity.

Indeed, life expectancy in UK has apparently begun to fall, and a growing body of research has shown the dire human cost of austerity.

The study -– which was carried out by the universities of Liverpool, Durham, West of Scotland, Glasgow and Edinburgh and was published in the USA-based International Journal of Health Services – was scientifically peer-reviewed and the data upon which it was based came from mre than 70 other academic papers as well as publicly available data from the ONS.

Shoot the messenger

Naturally, any critical academic research on this topic is bound to provoke some media attention and debate. However, while the Daily Mirror covered the content of the report, The Daily Telegraph chose to focus on my well-publicised membership of the Labour Party (as well as that of the lead author Dr Alex-Scott Samuel), using this to try to undermine and marginalise the findings of the paper.

Clearly, The Daily Telegraph wanted the Labour Party to be the story, as opposed to our paper’s public health science about Thatcher’s health legacy. But their decision to report our study on the basis of my political affiliations is a clear attempt to use an academic’s personal beliefs to poison the conditions for rational debate.

There have been many other instances of academics’ open affiliations being used to undermine their research; this practice has wide implications for academics who wish to engage in politics and political issues on the basis of their work.

It would be wrong to claim that scientific research is necessarily free from bias. The neutrality of science has long been contested, particularly by feminist and critical researchers, in recognition of the fact that everyone has political values of one kind or another. Academics who try to be clear about them are merely being more open. Our findings, and the research process by which they were generated, should be assessed on their own scientific merits.