Quote of the Day

You know there are times, perhaps once in every thirty years, when there is a change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea change — and it is for Mrs. Thatcher.

–PM James Callaghan, confiding his fears to advisor Bernard Donoughue on the eve of the 1979 UK election

The 200-Fold Increase in Old Age Housing Support Under Thatcher

Contrary to stereotype, funding for old age housing exploded under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

In the latest edition of his well-known textbook on UK domestic policy, LSE Professor Howard Glennerster tells the remarkable story of how national government support for housing the elderly exploded under Margaret Thatcher. In the decades after the war, local government authorities provided some social housing for the elderly who had nowhere else to turn. Technically, an elderly person also had the right to move into a privately-managed home with the bill paid by the national government. But this happened very rarely until the Thatcher government spelled the possibility out in explicit regulation, making the public generally aware of it for the first time.

Glennerster describes the stunningly rapid adaptation of the British:

People began to rid their elderly relatives of their assets and claim [the housing benefit]. Local authorities, under pressure to cut spending, began to see that if they closed homes or privatized them the old people could still be looked after in residential care and the central government would have to pay for them through the social security scheme. Private [old age] home owners began to realize that if they increased fees locally in line with other homes the social security scheme would have to pay up.

The result, under the putatively tight-fisted Thatcher government, was that Social Security spending on old age homes increased from £10 million to £2,072 million, a more than 200-fold increase over 12 years!

Glennerster, a Labour Party man down to his bones, concedes the reality that is usually trumpeted by conservatives:

There could be no better example of the way individuals will change their behaviour in fairly ruthless ways to avail themselves of public money.

Margaret Thatcher: harm reduction heroine

Cross-posted with TCF.org….

I’ve been following my left-liberal friends’ reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s death. I take it they’re not huge fans of her historical legacy. I’m not such a big fan myself. But one aspect of her legacy deserves some notice. The Thatcher government responded rather effectively and humanely to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Embracing harm reduction measures such as syringe exchange and methadone maintenance, it saved thousands of lives. Indeed the words “harm reduction,” anathema to American drug control policy until the Obama administration, were official watchwords of British drug policy. As Alex Wodak and Leah McLeod summarize this history:

By 1986 the Scottish Home and Health Department concluded that ‘the gravity of the problem is such that on balance the containment of the spread of the virus is a higher priority in management than the prevention of drug misuse.’ and recommended accordingly that ‘on balance, the prevention of spread should take priority over any perceived risk of increased drug use.’ This approach was strengthened by the influential UK Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs asserting in 1988 that ‘the spread of HIV is a greater danger to individual and public health than drug misuse…accordingly, services that aim to minimize HIV risk behaviour by all available means should take precedence in development plans.’

Thatcher-era British policies provided a damning contrast to the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, which so disfigured their legacies by allowing HIV policy to become yet another front in the culture wars. More than 600,000 Americans have died after being diagnosed with AIDS. An unknowable number of these deaths would not have occurred had our government moved with greater speed, resources, and humanity to contain a deadly epidemic.

The HIV epidemic struck at the weakest points of American society and our political life. The centrality of homosexuality and drug use guaranteed that HIV prevention would spark bitter ideological and moral fights. Within the British system, these fights occurred in a context in which experts at the National Health Service and related public health bodies commanded real legitimacy and respect within the political process.

Things played out rather differently here. In September 1985, President Reagan prepared to make his first, very-late public comments on AIDS. Responding to unfounded fears, health authorities proposed to include the following words in his speech: “As far as our best scientists have been able to determine, AIDS virus is not spread through casual or routine contact.”

These words were never spoken. A young White House aide redacted them. This story is telling, not because that young aide—now Chief Justice of the United States—got the science wrong. It’s telling because the medical and public health consensus was casually over-ruled by a young lawyer who knew little about AIDS. Public policy is not only about making the right decision. It is also about creating the right organizational capacities and the right norms of decision-making so that judicious analysis is performed and is then given a proper hearing. That didn’t happen.

The Reagan presidency ended twenty-five years ago. That was a different time. Public attitudes have changed—not least because of what we all witnessed in the HIV epidemic itself. Maybe it’s unfair to judge American public policy of the 1980s by our values three decades later.

Still, it’s still worth remembering that one of the English-speaking world’s greatest conservative politicians faced the same crisis, at the same moment, just across the Pond. And the Iron Lady did much better.

How to Get Busted Down to the Back Benches

The Londoner’s Diary of last night’s Evening Standard included this gem:

The current Tory Chief Whip, Sir George Young, has so far made a good fist of his post, but his political future did not always look so bright. When he was a junior minister under Thatcher over 30 years ago, he met The Iron Lady and tried to make small talk. She was at the time having a bust of herself carved by the well-known sculptor Oscar Nemon, which Young knew about because Nemon is his father-in-law, so he asked the PM:

“How is your bust getting on?”

He was sacked at the next cabinet re-shuffle.