A price worth paying? The toxic health legacy of Thatcherism

Equality Poverty in the UK

There has been much written in the media over the last year about the legacy of Thatcherism particularly in terms of reshaping the British political landscape. However, in scientific research published this week, we demonstrate the high cost paid in terms of health and wellbeing of Thatcherism’s economic and social policy.

Our study, which looked at material from existing research papers as well as data from the UK Office for National Statistics, concludes that Thatcherism resulted in the unnecessary and unjust premature death of British citizens, together with a substantial and continuing burden of suffering and loss of wellbeing. Alcohol and drug-related mortality, deaths from violence and suicide increased substantially during the Thatcher years. There was also an increase in regional inequalities in life expectancy between North and South, as well as greatly increased health inequalities between the richest and poorest in British society.

These adverse public health outcomes were a result of unnecessary unemployment which increased  from approximately 1 million in 1980 to 3 million in 1983; a further peak was seen in the early 1990s. Unemployment is strongly associated with higher mortality rates (unemployed are twice as likely to die as employed) and Thatcherism therefore resulted in additional unemployment-related deaths. The welfare cuts implemented by Thatcher’s governments led to a rise in poverty rates from 6.7 per cent in 1975 to 12 per cent 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 per cent 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 age 47 – thirty years less than the rest of us.

Our research clearly shows the importance of politics and of the decisions of governments and politicians in driving health inequalities and public health: the wrong political decisions can kill. Clearly any future advancements in public health will be limited if governments continue to pursue neoliberal economic and social policies – such as the current welfare state cuts being carried out by the Coalition under the guise of austerity. Indeed, life expectancy in UK has just fallen and research in the Body Economic  has shown the human cost of austerity.

The study was carried out by the Universities of Liverpool, Durham, West of Scotland, Glasgow and Edinburgh and is published in the International Journal of Health Services.

Clare Bambra  & Alex Scott-Samuel