Updated: May 10
The death of a leading political figure provides an opportunity for supporters to remould history in the image of the departed great leader. Under cover of respect for the departed, supporters seek to expand and drive forward the set of ideas they were associated with, simultaneously marginalising any dissent by means of expressing outrage that anyone should speak ill of the dead. There has been plenty of evidence of this since the death of Margaret Thatcher last week, and today provides the platform for her supporters to step up the pace.
I was 14 years old when Thatcher was elected, so it’s fair to say she’s had a profound influence on my life, the world I live in and the decisions I’ve taken. Even as a 14-year-old schoolboy, as many of my classmates embraced working-class Toryism, I could see she would be bad news. I didn’t know quite how bad she would prove to be.
I celebrated when she was removed from power – not unfortunately by the people she’d inflicted so much on, but by her own party – and viewed her self-pitying tears with contempt. But I didn’t, and will not, join in the celebration of her death. It is distasteful and does her opponents no good. One of the many reasons I detested her was her own willingness to celebrate the death of her opponents – let’s not forget the infamous “rejoice rejoice” quote at the climax of the Falklands War – and I see no gain in stooping to her level. Much of the ‘death party’ stuff is little more anyway than futile posturing, perhaps filling the gap where any counter-argument of substance should be, but certainly serving to allow opposition to a most reactionary prime minister to be marginalised. That said, respect cannot be demanded, it has to be earned – something which seems lost on many of those fulminating against the many things they deem lacking of sufficient respect.
But as the irony of a state funeral in all but name goes ahead for the most anti-state of political leaders, it is worth challenging the version of history her supporters are seeking to cement into place.
To understand the true nature of Thatcher and Thatcherism you only have to look at the first act of her government when it took power in 1979. Exchange controls were lifted, prompting an unprecedented flood of capital out of the country. British industry was starved of funds – the Centre for Economic and Policy Research estimated in 1989 that £30bn flooded out of the UK after the move – worsening a deliberately engineered recession. By 1981 two million manufacturing jobs had been lost.
The woman who came to power preaching that one million unemployed was not acceptable would eventually push unemployment up to 4 million. Britain’s status as a creditor nation was entrenched. The lifting of exchange controls was a clear signal that the interests of capital would be put before those of people. The line of march was established, leading to 1986’s ‘Big Bang’ deregulation of the City of London. Britain’s status as a financial clearing house was further entrenched. Once, we were a nation that made things; now we simply host a vast international casino in which speculation is the main event.
The interests of the people took second place to the interests of international capital. We are still living with the results today, as the conflict between the interests of multinational corporations and the interests of the people in the nation states that help make their profits grows.
Whether or not you think globalisation was inevitable or is a good thing, what is undeniable is that Thatcher laid the groundwork for a situation in which the national interest is secondary to the interests of international capital. And yet, we are told, Thatcher was the great patriot, “The woman who saved Britain”.
Of course, as with all political slogans, “The woman who saved Britain” has to be examined more closely. What a life spent under under Thatcherism, in all its guises, has taught me is that the vital question that must be asked of all policies is “In whose interest is this?” Thatcher served the interest of the elite of finance capital, allowing them to retain more of their profit, freeing them from responsibility, promoting their interests above all other. So that Daily Mail headline would more accurately have read “The woman who saved Britain for us”.
Thatcher is so feted by her supporters because she broke with what they contemptuously describe as consensus politics and declared outright war on anything that opposed the interests of international finance capital. She was qualitatively different from anything that had gone before. Another of the many ironies is that large numbers of her supporters were as badly hit by this as everyone else. Just as the facile nonsense of Maggie and her shopping basket bringing a housewife’s understanding of finance to a government that had forgotten the basics was swallowed by many of the families of the kids I was at school with, so the glaring contradiction between asserting the right to buy a council house while simultaneously denying the right to work in a job that would enable it to be paid for was rarely recognised.
The media played its part. Look back on Thatcher’s rule and you see so many little phrases that bring back so much, marketing pitches that became headlines that became shorthand for a new approach. The shopping basket, the right to buy, the Lady’s not for turning, the enemy within, the customer is king, there is no alternative, there is no such thing as society. The wholehearted embrace of the slogans and the thinking behind them and the regurgitation of all this as news was a feature of those years, and we’ve been reminded of this again in the past week. If you believe some of the stuff that’s been pumped out as fact, without Thatcher we would never have had mobile phones, the internet, DIY or an alternative to the Radio Times; and before Thatcher there was never any enterprise, entrepreneurialism or personal freedom. All complete nonsense.
Even the much-vaunted push for a return to Victorian values was phoney. The Victorians invested, innovated, built and created. Thatcher had no time for these values, preferring instead to wish for a return of the nasty social prejudices and hypocrisies of Victorian times.
It was big media’s role in pushing this political agenda as fact that boosted the media reform campaigns in the 1980s. We argued for diversity, for the establishment of media that pushed an alternative view. The point was not as much that the alternative view was one we agreed with, although of course we did, but that we thought the media should reflect the fact that there were different sides to a story. John Pilger has always argued, and I’ve always agreed, that there is no such thing as an unbiased view – every take on every situation is informed by the way the reporter sees the world. That’s why progressives argued for diversity. Without it, one set of ideas is presented as fact. The danger of that is all too apparent in a time when the only economics are neo-liberal, when sell-off is ‘reform’, when restricting real choice and centralising power is ‘empowerment’.
Perhaps exhausted by the fight, the media reform initiatives have dwindled. Instead of challenging the propaganda of the right presented as fact by engaging with it, deconstructing it and proving it wrong, much of what passes for left politics seems to be arguing for the closing down of views it does not agree with. The right to be better informed has taken second place to the right not to be offended, and the great debate about how the media portrays and reflects society seems to have taken second place to discussions about whether or not celebrities should be reported on and how.
We’re also told Thatcher saved “us” – time to ask who the “us” is again here – from the unions, because they were “too powerful”. It’s another convenient myth. The unions never “ran the country” – as another of those handy phrases had it. They asserted influence, no doubt, but the fault was not in doing it, but in not doing it in the right way. Unions have always been faced with a choice when they get to a particular stage – do they remain sectional interests representing their fee-paying members, or do they take the step to becoming wider political bodies with all that entails? It’s a tough call, especially for a labour movement that chose a social democratic route over the guild socialist approach that has informed my politics for many years, but the failure to do so allowed Thatcher to portray the unions as ‘them’ and the rest as ‘us’.
The war on the unions was, of course, nothing to do with personal freedom. It was to do with smashing the power of organised labour and therefore driving down pay and conditions. The outrage that the unions should seek to influence political policy was never matched by an outrage that the owners, the financiers, the interests of international finance capital were allowed as much influence as they wanted. In fact, as I’ve argued, they were allowed not only influence but control.
The smashing of the National Union of Mineworkers was totemic. The NUM was the most powerful of the labour battalions, and it represented a manufacturing Britain that had to be sidelined for finance capital. Read what Arthur Scargill said before the strike, read the NUM’s political and economic analysis, and you’ll find a pretty accurate picture of what came to pass. It’ll take you some time to wade through the pseudo-psychology examining Scargill’s personality or the endless twisting and turning over whether or not the miners should have had a ballot to vote to do with their hands what they’d already voted to do with their feet, but if you search you can find it, and you’ll see that Scargill and the NUM were right.
But they lost, partly due to that resolutely anti-state PM Thatcher mobilising the full force of the state’s apparatus – including a police force that, in allowing itself to be so politicised, damaged the trust built up over generations. The great British patriot used violence and starvation against her own citizens, and then labelled them the enemy within for resisting. It’s outside the metropolitan centres that you see the real damage, in vast swathes of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, for example, where the lack of any real work for so long utterly smashed the social fabric. Nick Davies’s shocking study, Dark Heart, published in 1998, tells you all you need to know about the country Thatcher made. And it’s worth, if you haven’t, reading David Peace’s vivid and frightening novel GB84 for a reminder of how truly malevolent Britain was in those days. It’s a work of fiction, but it draws heavily on the facts.
So today I will not be mourning Thatcher’s passing. And I will not take any lectures in taste from the apologists for someone who, in “standing against Communism” backed the fascist death squads in Central America; who backed the apartheid government in South Africa; who backed Pol Pot and who sang the praises of Chile’s fascist coup. I will be carrying on as normal, but avoiding the panjandrum just up the road from my office.
I do find it offensive that so much money and so much honour is being bestowed on someone who did so much damage. But the fight against what she did is not a matter of making a gesture today. It is about continuing to challenge the legacy that is being constructed, and by doing showing that the greatest victory against her is by showing, through practical, everyday activity, that her most frightening slogan is her biggest failure. Because there is still such a thing as society.