Where strides the behemoth – society writes back

Posted: April 10, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

You wait so long for the day, then don’t feel up for the party. Perhaps it was because I have no direct family or friends who were left destitute by her policies, but I didn’t join in the gleeful celebrations at Baroness Thatcher’s death, though I felt solidarity with those who revelled in the demise of she who destroyed their communities, perhaps exorcising the worst ghosts of their injustices.

But that’s what struck me about the jubilation: people were only celebrating an individual’s expiration: the poisonous policies remain, still corroding the fibre of the working class communities that remain. There have been many articulate people of standing giving equally passionate defences and denunciations of the chief architect of the Neo-Liberal scourge blighting the West, and as an avowed left-winger I have been forthright in my opinion. In fact, I’d rather eyeball a jar of brine than lend her any plaudits.

But, having given it a couple of days to sink in, I realise that resorting only to vitriol would, in a way, be surrendering some of that which Margaret claimed was not important: empathy. People who benefited directly from her policies, as well as those on the Right, will dismiss any criticism as bitterness from the Left at losing the argument, while also attempting to discredit them with claims they are ‘too young to have been affected’ (a ludicrous argument unless you don’t realise how politics work), or roll out the regulation remark: “This country was on its knees in 1979”, which suggests that no other course of action but Neo-Liberalism could possibly have been applied.

Even as someone too young to even be born when Thatcher rose to power, I’m well aware of the problems facing the country in the 1970s: rampant inflation, racial discord, a stagnant economy and Trade Union conflicts and James Callaghan’s hubris culminating in the Winter of Discontent. There was clearly a public consensus that big changes were needed. The public booted out the discredited Callaghan, clearly galvanised by the thought of a fresh face, and gender, in office: a change in direction for the nation.

We all know what happened next. Although she became a hugely unpopular leader when mass unemployment and recession struck, a combination of the Falklands War, and the Labour Party’s ill-advised hard-left 1983 manifesto returned her to power with a landslide victory. From there, despite her mass privatisations ripping the heart out of the Industrial North, and the year-long battle with the Miners, she utilised the North Sea oil profits to fund tax cuts for the richest in society, while doubling VAT, privatising essential utilities, and de-regulating the City of London in the ‘Big Bang’ of 1986.

It’s easy to attack Thatcherism from the opposing perspective, but rather than take this route, I thought I’d mull over her ‘successes’, in an attempt to understand what a hypocrite she was, and dispel the myth that she was a great leader, and was in fact a blind ideologue with Rupert Murdoch providing her jingoistic propaganda.

Of course, it is partisan nonsense of a Thatcherite ilk to suggest everything she did was wrong. Privatising many State-owned industries was essential in order to allow outside investment for instance, and the mass of State-owned businesses was a relic of the postwar consensus that should have perhaps been reduced earlier. British Leyland for instance, made more sense as a private haulier, to compete against others, when efficiency is everything. But, of course, Thatcher was not interested in the good of a mixed economy, which was why everything in sight was privatised, giving the impression she was actually on a vendetta against the Labour Party rather than working for the good of the country.

Thatcher was often said to be a magnificent leader; representing the country proudly and improving our world standing. Her statesmanship was unquestionably good. In fact, it was by far her best quality. She was a unique character, and the argument I’m going to present is essentially that Thatcherism, or Neo-Liberalism, was only possible through the conduit of Margaret Thatcher. No other Conservative leader could have carried it as far as she, because the British public saw through the ideology as divisive and damaging, but were bewitched (no pun intended) by the strength of Thatcher’s resolve and conviction. She was renowned and respected on the world stage, and yet supported known tyrants in Pinochet and Hussein, while denouncing Nelson Mandela as a terrorist. I’m not sure she actually believed this, but it illustrates just how blinded she was by ideology. To her, the end justified the means. Left-wing politics, in the form of Mandela, were anathema to her, whilst despotic Right-wing dictatorships were allies, as they were opponents of Communism. While traditional Labour saw Government as a tool to redistribute the nation’s wealth and affect its own citizens in a positive way, Thatcher’s Tories saw the State as a piece in a global piece of chess, using brinkmanship and jingoism to appeal to voters more concerned with the world thinking of us as big global players, than the poverty of their neighbours. It is a mindset that still exists today, in both Tories and ‘New Labour’.

The frequency of Trade Union strikes were having a massive impact on the country in the 1970s, but Thatcher’s rhetoric was classic demagoguery: finding simple scapegoats and pouring scorn on them to the media. Thatcher found herself in a unique political space, where her room for manoeuvre was vast. The ‘Blitz Spirit’ was a distant memory, and people were beginning to distrust the altruism of Trade Unions. It is in this environment that Thatcher launched herself with all guns blazing, declaring them ‘the enemy within’. Trade Unions, who had fought for fire escapes, holiday and sick pay amongst myriad other concessions, and were representing the relatively poor working man and woman (not so much woman in the 1970s granted), were painted as a monster to be fought. With Murdoch’s help, she won the intellectual battle, converting hitherto dignified and respected institutions into adversaries of the public: tax, which had rebuilt a better nation after the Second World War, was smeared as money frittered away on the undeserving and failing industries; Government was denounced as a leech on private enterprise and initiative; Unions were, incredibly, decried as greedy vested interests.

Thatcher was heralded for her convictions and declared as ‘not for turning’ by herself. And yet she quickly jettisoned her failed monetarist policies which defined the early years of her tenure, to little criticism.

She preached less taxation on all, yet the total tax burden was only decreased considerably on the super-rich, from an income tax rate of 86% to 40% on her leaving office, while VAT, which affects the poor far more, doubled.

She proclaimed the markets to be superior to State-owned industries, as competition would drive up standards and reduce prices…before selling off natural monopolies like energy and water, with franchising agreements used as a hamfisted illusion of ‘competition’.

She painted the State as too intrusive, and pledged to roll it back, and yet used the State apparatus as a weapon for suppressing dissent: witness the stories now coming out of the undercover police deployed to snoop on anti-Capitalism protestors, even getting some members pregnant before breaking cover. During the Miners’ strike of 1984, Thatcher raised police salaries to use them as a personal militia against working men fighting only for their futures. The starving and beating of these men is a stain on our nation that would shame a tinpot dictatorship, not to mention her complicity in the Hillsborough cover-up.

She shut off subsidies for manufacturing and heavy industry, claiming it was unacceptable, yet her successors, of similar ideology, now subsidise the railways and banks to the tune of billions with no questions asked. Her and Reagan justified Neo-Liberalism by talking of the dangers of ‘concentrated power’ and the integral aspect of choice, yet she de-mutualised building societies, which reduced choice and eventually made banks too big to fail.

It has to be remembered that the biggest achievement of the Thatcher era was winning the intellectual argument in the media. Her worst policies could have been reversed if the larger public had not swallowed this polemic, but there are still those that sneer at the mention of Unions or nationalisation, mock welfare recipients, and, much to the new coalition’s glee, decry Government as leeches. Hence the political centre-ground was moved significantly to the right, where it remains.

Finally, look what she did to the ‘establishment’. The first female Prime Minister, who paved the way for the new wave of female MPs…who have never really arrived. She was painted as a courageous leader who tackled ‘vested interests’ of elitist white men, and yet her successors are all elite white men. She encouraged personal responsibility…yet investment bankers and speculators crashed the world economy and got away scot-free, with the seeds sown by Thatcher in the Big Bang of ’86. The ‘aspiration’ for working people has led to both parents now needing to work to support a household, and no social housing left. The swathes of benefit-dependent communities which were once full of skilled miners, steelworkers and shipbuilders. Ken Livingstone claimed the banking crisis, housing crisis and welfare crisis we all suffer from today were created by Thatcherism. It’s hard for me to disagree.

When all is said and done, Margaret Thatcher’s divisive legacy simply accomplished what it was always meant to: it all but returned the old order of wealth. Where the postwar consensus dispersed among many to rebuild the country, Thatcherism snatched it all back for the elite like a small child’s glass of milk.

So long Maggie: champion of self-interest, architect of energy cartels and creator of New Labour.

RIP Thatcherism (it’s an ‘aspiration’).

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Comments
  1. craig says:

    Nationalisation may not have been perfect, but it was certainly better than what we have now. Tony Blair continued on with the Neo-liberal program with ease, as is David Cameron now. Neo-liberalism was never a conservative belief, traditional conservatives despised the notion of the free market because oiks should be kept in their place and not allowed to get too much power or wealth. Neo-liberalism is now the active ideology of all three main parties and the reason Thatcher could carry if off with conviction was because she had the support of Regan in the USA who was doing the same with the US economy.

    She was an economic tyrant, not a strong leader and her policies did more damage to Britain than the Germans could during the war, she decimated the country and industry.

    Big industry does not need to be for profit and the idea that we had to privatise to encourage investment is wrong. Consider what has happened since we adopted the neo-liberal blueprint and followed it through to its logical conclusion – Wealth and power has been concentrated in the hands of the few, wages have been driven down and worker’s rights are zero significance.

    The idea that all business must be run for profit is misguided. Business that is for the common good, should be ran at no profit for the benefit of society. Why should private individuals be allowed to profit from things that are essential to life? Why should private business be allowed to impoverish people just so they can heat their house?

    Thatcher’s only legacy of note is the poverty, the drug addiction, the depression and the despair that is evident in housing estates and villages all across the UK. She laid waste to this country and that is how she should be remembered.

    • Point well made. The investment comment was simply a left-winger trying to talk like a righty. The big problem is of course globalisation making out that we have to ‘compete’ in some sort of global race for capital, hence the race to the bottom in wages and rights apparently being ‘for our own good’. Jingoism again – the ignorant fall for it time and again. The twin threats of globalisation and tax evasion mean that, although we could run fantastically with many national industries, corporations and individuals are funneling wealth out of the country at an alarming rate, making us all collectively poorer. Multinationals dip their hand into the sweet bowl, but flee when asked to chip in anything themselves.

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