Judging Thatcher’s legacy

thatcher-rich-get-richer

Let’s be clear that hardly anyone who lived through Margaret Thatcher’s turbulent reign in Whitehall has anything like an objective point of view, and those who don’t remember but feel the effects of its legacy are no less likely to have strong feelings one way or another.

Let’s also be clear that I did not favour Thatcher, or Thatcherism, which was a little more than the woman herself stood for, involving a larger number of ideas and inputs throughout Britain than can be attributed to a single person or even the parliamentary Conservative Party.

With that in mind, I propose that is entirely highly unusual to see a former British Prime Minister excoriated quite so rudely on the occasion of passing away. This would have been unthinkable until the mid-2000s, when the legacy of Thatcherism came home to roost.

It is, however, patently absurd to condemn those who are voicing callous and acidic farewells to dismiss them all as just unionists, students and ratbags.
First of all, that is a misrepresentation of the much larger population that has no reason to remember Thatcher fondly, and secondly, what makes unionists, students and ratbags less human than others?

There are also some ahistorical misconceptions and smartarseries floating about that should not be allowed to stand unchallenged.

The first of these was that Arthur Scargill and the miners, whose broken strike in 1984/95 symbolised Thatcher’s brand of class warfare, were either thugs or innocent martrys. The reality is that they represented a type of labour relations that had brought Britain to the brink of economic ruin in the 1970s, but they did as they had always done, and this time they failed.

Thatcher’s mistake was not that she faced them down, but rather to do so quite so gleefully and with no effort to heal the breach in British society that the strike created.

Nor was the coal miner’s strike the sole benchmark battle in Thatcher’s class war. Few people today seem to remember Rupert Murdoch’s foray into the fray with Fortress Wapping in 1986, which broke the power of around 6000 newspaper workers, including journalists, and essentially dismantled Fourth Estate principles in the Anglosphere, while also establishing the precedent of simply shutting out employees and replacing them with scab labour. A move emulated in the 1990s more indirectly by Patrick Stevedores, with the backing of the Howard Coalition government.

poll-tax-demonstration-1990

While such strikes were used to test new powers for capitalists, rolling back decades of conditions and privileges for blue collar workers, the capitalists themselves prospered in a burst of almost obscene wealth, almost equalling a parallel development of Reaganomics across the Atlantic. Until the catastrophic 1987 stock market crash, which undid all the casino economy robber baron gambles without leaving behind the wealth they looted, instead placing that burden on ordinary taxpayers who lost their pensions, had their small business loans called in, and even their homes foreclosed.

If the lie about trickle-down economics had not been exposed as the brazen confidence trick it was by then, it certainly should have been in 1994, and certainly in 2007 – two more disasters engineered by the unreconstructed buccaneers of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, who were quite happy to repeat frauds, thefts and gambles they knew would not end well for the vast majority of ordinary taxpayers.

The country was starkly divided between the narrow and privileged sliver of land south of the manicured lawns of Oxford and east of the Welsh border, and everywhere else, which appeared to have suddenly been remade into a vast Redfern to pay for the cocaine and champers lifestyles closer to the Channel.

The economic outlook for Britain since Thatcher has never really changed for the better if you were a working class family, and is about to take another turn for the worse as a result of Europe’s troubles. If trickle down economics seemed risible in the 1980s, it became insultingly disingenuous in the 1990s, and an astonishingly brazen lie to be repeating still today.

Why then, would anyone in Britain who did not make out like a bandit in the 1980s and 1990s – which is around 90 per cent of the population – have kind things to say about her today?

The ultimate and unpardonable symbol of pernicious Thatcherism was the monetisation of democracy itself: the Poll Tax. If money was the object, a tax rise could have been imposed in a myriad other ways, but to brazenly call it a tax on voting was such an obvious statement that Britain was now owned by the wealthy, run by the wealthy for the wealthy, and contemptuously without empathy or mercy for the poor. It was the worst of politics and entirely deserving of the response it evoked.

The prism of those days for an entire generation.
The prism of those days for an entire generation.

In that light, what sort of blindness does it take today to call the Poll Tax demonstrations and riots, which involved up to 200,000 people, the work of only fringe groups and malcontents? It beggars belief not to see in this historic event, and the Tories’ own reactions to it, a broken back for the nation. Too much reform too fast, too little empathy for the pain it caused, and a disgusting disparity in the outcomes, which deserve to be called a class war, declared, fought, and won by the rich against the poor. Really dumb rich people too, who now complain about class divisions they wilfully created for their own benefit.

For her tenacity and intransigence in pushing such policy blunders, Thatcher was pressured into resigning, something I think she may have regretted for the rest of her life. Who would have defeated her in a Party Room ballot even then? However, no leader since has been able to heal the wounds of the social and regional divisions she at least exacerbated, if they were not entirely of her government’s making.

It was sad to observe the woman’s decline into dementia. A terrible end to any life, and punishment enough for many crimes. Perhaps her death was a long-delayed mercy when it finally came. I would be inclined to salute the vale Baroness Thatcher for her steely strength and a resolve that compares favourably with many a war hero. I would not, however, pretend that there is much to be admired about her legacy, or about Thatcherism itself.

When faced by the anger expressed in cutting, even hateful farewells for her, I would not join that chorus except in asides to people I know, but I would equally not deny the angry their day.

Instead I would keep in mind that had Thatcher been alive somehow to observe the brouhaha her death caused, and the chart-topping ding dong song, I imagine that at the height of her faculties she might have commented something like this: ‘The witch is dead? What a marvellous song. But I had no idea that Tony Blair had passed away, and anyway, this is no way to speak of a Prime Minister. I must send my condolences to Cherie.

‘It must be said, though, that in this sad hour it is heartening to see the people take solace in the music celebrating their journey down the Yellow Brick Road with the Conservatives.’

Perhaps it is fortunate for Australia that our most divisive politicians, on their most fiercely obstinate days, have not had the strength and determination of a Margaret Thatcher.

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