The Long Shadow of Margaret Thatcher

Richard Abernethy

The death of Margaret Thatcher recalled her 11 years as British prime minister. She ushered in a harsher form of capitalism, presided over increases in unemployment, inequality, poverty and homelessness, and heightened the danger of nuclear war – Editors.

thatI was surprised at how much antipathy I felt for Margaret Thatcher after her death. At first, I registered the news with no particular emotion. It was twenty-two years since she left Downing Street, and due to advancPDFed age and failing health, her political speeches and writings ceased some years ago. Her political heirs and successors, David Cameron and George Osborne, are in power today. Her death did not seem to change anything. Then fulsome tributes from establishment figures began to spread like an oil slick. Cameron reached the heights of absurdity with his claim that “she saved our country”. The funeral really made me see red. It was an extravagant, vainglorious, militaristic parade, mainly at public expense, while austerity is the order of the day for living people with real needs.

Various forms of protest took place, but in my view there were two that really caught the moment. One was the mass download of the song “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” from the film “The Wizard of Oz”, which nearly reached the top of the charts. Appropriately this song, which has taken on new meaning as an anti-Thatcher anthem, was written by Yip Harburg (1896-1981), a socialist who was also author of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” the classic protest song against unemployment in the Great Depression. The other memorable protest was the simple act of people turning their backs as the funeral procession passed by.

I have noted my own visceral aversion to Margaret Thatcher because such subjective feelings, shared by many, are an objective part of Britain’s political landscape. However, this article is not intended as an anti-Thatcher rant, but as a brief assessment of her historic significance.

Thatcher was elected prime minister in 1979 and in many ways her ideas and policies were a reaction against the events and developments of the preceding decade. The Seventies in Britain probably were the time when union power was greater than before or since, although this was certainly exaggerated through the distorting lens of capitalist ideology. To everybody’s surprise, a miners’ strike led to the electoral defeat of Edward Heath’s Conservative government in 1974. Union strength in major industries tended to obscure the fact that elsewhere in hotels and restaurants and smaller companies such as a film processing lab called Grunwick, workers who tried to organise could lose their jobs. Long strikes, pickets and boycotts demanding reinstatement and recognition were sometimes successful, more often not. In the Seventies, ideas of liberation that had germinated in the Sixties, such as women’s liberation and gay liberation, spread wider and began to shift social attitudes. This was the decade when my own political formation occurred. I came to Marxist-Humanism just before Thatcher took power. On balance, for us on the Left in Britain, these were years of hope.

Thatcher’s mission was to reverse all of this. The capitalist grip on power, which had been contested, was to be tightened again. Where the previous Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, had sought to incorporate the unions into the running of British capitalism with his “Social Contract”, Thatcher set out to marginalise them.

Margaret Thatcher stood for a new type of Conservatism. She and some of her more right-wing ministers came from backgrounds well outside the traditional elite. Thatcher herself was a grocer’s daughter, Norman Tebbit a former airline pilot, Michael Portillo the son of a Spanish Republican refugee. Thatcher was also the most doctrinal of Conservative politicians, devoted to the writings of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. This was a departure for a party that traditionally saw itself as practical, pragmatic and non-ideological. Although the term was not widely used at the time, Thatcher was a pioneer of neoliberalism. Private enterprise and competitive markets were acclaimed not only as a way to prosperity but as the very essence of human freedom. In the Thatcherite vision, freedom chiefly meant scope for competitive individuals to seek to enrich themselves. The process of acquiring wealth mattered more than enjoying it once acquired. Individual lives were expected to copy the logic of capital itself – accumulation for its own sake. When Thatcher praised “wealth creators” she meant not workers but entrepreneurs and financiers. Wealth was supposed to be the reward for hard work, disguising the reality that in capitalism the main way to get rich is not to work hard yourself but to get others to work hard for you. In general and with some exceptions, the aim was not to conserve traditional institutions but to shake everything up. Nationalised industries were privatised, public services put out to contract with private firms.

Barack Obama saluted Thatcher as a champion of freedom and democracy. In reality, she was complicit with many despots and dictators, a friend and admirer of Augusto Pinochet.

In the election of 1979, the Tories had a highly effective poster, designed by the advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi, showing a long line of unemployed people, beneath the caption “Labour isn’t working”. Anyone who voted Conservative hoping for a remedy for unemployment would certainly be disappointed. Unemployment that stood at 5.3 percent when Thatcher was elected rose thereafter to a record high of 11.9 percent in early 1984. It did fall in the later years of her tenure, but no lower than 6.9 percent. It had begun rising again when she left office. What had been regarded (reasonably enough) as symptoms of failure under social-democracy became the new normality. Unemployment, inequality, poverty and homelessness all increased sharply. While the root cause lay in the periodic spasms of the capitalist system, Thatcher’s anti-Keynesian policy of restricting money supply in a recession aggravated the situation. Her government accelerated, but did not begin, the erosion of the welfare state. This was not purely a matter of ideology but a response to the objective crisis of capitalism. Indeed, Labour had already made extensive cuts.

Thatcher’s government transformed the economic geography of Britain by shutting down the country’s coal and steel industries. The stated reason was that these were loss-making industries, artificially kept alive by state subsidies. An unstated reason, especially in the case of coal, was the threat to British capitalism of a strongly organised, sometimes militant, politically class-conscious body of workers, who had already shown that they could disrupt energy supplies by taking strike action. Henceforward, the nation would import most of its steel and coal.

The long miners’ strike of 1984-5 was a defensive struggle, an attempt to save the industry and the communities that depended on it. On the day I visited Westoe Colliery, where the mine extended below the North Sea, the place was shrouded in a freezing white mist. A few miners on picket duty huddled around braziers for warmth. Gary, my host that day, remarked on the strange irony of fighting to save a job he hated. Many in the mining communities would have welcomed a gradual scaling down of the industry, if only other jobs were brought into the area. After the miners had to admit defeat and marched back to work, banners held high and brass bands playing, the mines closed and the jobs disappeared. To this day, the former mining districts are affected by high unemployment.

With unemployment rife and workers afraid of losing their jobs the balance of power in the workplace shifted in favour of the bosses. Macho managers such as Michael Edwardes at British Leyland instilled a climate of fear. In Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and the shipping line P&O, workers who went on strike were fired en masse. Rupert Murdoch was a key Thatcher ally. His papers gushed out a torrent of Tory propaganda, some of it quite venomous.

Part of Thatcher’s grand strategy was to promote “popular capitalism”. Mass advertising campaigns sought to persuade the general public to buy shares in the privatised industries, which were sold off cheaply. A policy that did prove popular with many working class people was the “right to buy”. Tenants in council houses (affordable rented homes provided by local government) were offered the chance to buy their homes at a discount. The downside was that building of new council homes virtually ceased in most of the country, except for some “rebel” areas like Liverpool, where the Labour left was in charge at local level.

Overshadowing everything in the early Eighties was the danger of nuclear war. With Ronald Reagan now in power in the U.S, the Cold War entered its most dangerous phase since the Cuban Missile Crisis twenty years earlier. As relations between the great power blocs of West and East deteriorated, both sides entered into a new arms race. Thatcher commissioned a new fleet of missile-bearing Trident submarines, and agreed with Reagan for U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles to be based at Greenham Common and Molesworth. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which had been ticking over for years as an inconspicuous pressure group since its last round of mass activity in the Sixties, emerged once again as a mass movement, staging demonstrations of historic magnitude. Although we were well aware at the time of a general risk of nuclear war, only in recent years have we learned how narrowly we missed that fate in the autumn of 1983, when Russia’s state-capitalist rulers feared that the West was planning a surprise attack and raised their own forces to maximum alert.

Thatcher never exactly fell from power. When her leadership was challenged within her own party, she chose to resign rather than continue in a weakened state. It was extraordinary for a significant section of the Tories to turn against a leader who had given them three consecutive election victories, and there were two main factors involved. Her foreign policy was judged to have isolated Britain in Europe. At home, the Poll Tax (a charge for local services where everyone, rich or poor, had to pay the same amount) was a retrogressive measure too far, and unworkable in the face of boycotts and protests.

It was something new for the death of a long-retired politician to be openly celebrated, and it broke a certain taboo about speaking ill of the recently deceased. This raised the question of whether there was an element of sexism – was Thatcher detested more because she was a woman? “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” could not have been sung about a man. (Some placards replaced the W with another letter, which was definitely sexist). For most, however, the point was the “wicked” nature of her reactionary policies, many of which are being reprised by Cameron today. Thatcher declared that she owed nothing to “women’s lib”. Probably not, but then the liberation of women owed nothing to her.

 

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