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(Updated April 14) Thatcher and Thatcherism: Don’t let them re-write history!

By Dave Kellaway

April 9, 2013 -- Socialist Resistance -- If we need yet another argument about why we must put our political energies into building a fighting alternative to [the Labour Party] then compare and contrast these statements on the death of Margaret Thatcher:

Ed Miliband MP, Labour leader of the opposition, said:

I send my deep condolences to Lady Thatcher’s family, in particular Mark and Carol Thatcher. She will be remembered as a unique figure. She reshaped the politics of a whole generation. She was Britain’s first woman prime minister. She moved the centre ground of British politics and was a huge figure on the world stage.

The Labour Party disagreed with much of what she did and she will always remain a controversial figure. But we can disagree and also greatly respect her political achievements and her personal strength.

She also defined the politics of the 1980s. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and I all grew up in a politics shaped by Lady Thatcher. We took different paths but with her as the crucial figure of that era.

She coped with her final, difficult years with dignity and courage. Critics and supporters will remember her in her prime.

Ken Loach, promoter of new Left Unity movement stated:

Margaret Thatcher was the most divisive and destructive Prime Minister of modern times. Mass unemployment, factory closures, communities destroyed – this is her legacy.

She was a fighter and her enemy was the British working class. Her victories were aided by the politically corrupt leaders of the Labour Party and of many trades unions. It is because of policies begun by her that we are in this mess today.

Other prime ministers have followed her path, notably [Labour's] Tony Blair. She was the organ grinder, he was the monkey.

Remember she called Mandela a terrorist and took tea with the torturer and murderer Pinochet. How should we honour her? Let’s privatise her funeral. Put it out to competitive tender and accept the cheapest bid. It’s what she would have wanted.

'Common sense'

Here we have one leader who is participating with minor, unvoiced criticisms, in the mystification of history that contributes to preventing working people knowing the truth about the past and how it has created the present. Then there is another who in a few straightforward sentences explains the role Thatcher played as a leader of her class and how the Labour leadership, particularly Tony Blair, collaborated in embedding Thatcherite neoliberalism as the "common sense" of British political life.

It is strangely appropriate that the successful impact of Ken’s film, the Spirit of ’45, has taken place at the very time of Thatcher’s demise. The importance of the social gains of the workers’ movement is re-asserted while everyone is talking about the person most responsible for leading the ruling-class offensive to reverse those gains now deemed too costly for the profit making of the capitalist system. Furthermore the current welfare debate, with the obscene manipulation of the Philpott domestic violence case to justify further cuts, fits entirely within the continuity of that offensive. It is no surprise that British Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron, abetted by most of the press and TV, will milk the whole event to repeatedly present a version of history that identifies even social-democratic gains, embodied in state social welfare or collective provision, as a barrier to economic growth, individual opportunity and freedom.

Unsurprisingly the Daily Mail is collating all the "hateful" comments against Thatcher including news of people publicly partying. Tory MPs are denouncing anyone "celebrating" as drunken louts and even Tom Watson, the Labour MP and hammer of Murdoch, has warned off the left from criticising.

If Cameron and the political class had for one moment dealt with the passing of Thatcher as a private matter and gave simple condolences there might be some sort of justification for a temporary political truce. However from the start Cameron referred to Thatcher dealing with the trade union barons and being a great defender of freedom.

Every so-called documentary history of her life, endlessly repeated on TV, assumes a narrative that is intensely ideological. For example we are always told about the chaos of the "winter of discontent" (1978-1979) caused by the trade unions who supposedly ruled the land and the lack of competitiveness of British industry. No trade unionists from the time are ever interviewed to explain why they were in struggle you just get images of undug graves and blokes huddled around braziers.

No links are ever systematically made between the current recession where the weight of the financial sector in the British economy, as Will Hutton in the Observer is always pointing out, actually further exacerbates it. Thatcher was the first to deregulate the financial sector and let any temporary lossmaking industry go to the wall.

Class warrior

What the media does not explain is that Thatcher was extremely useful for the ruling class because she understood better than some of its more patrician representatives, such as Ted Heath, what the class struggle was all about. Imbibing the theories of Friedrich Hayek and others, she knew that while union barons were clearly not running the country the basic level of working-class resistance on a day to day basis had become an obstacle to re-establishing a higher rate of profit. She knew that capital had to re-organise itself by destroying some of its industries which had too low a rate of profit.

Above all she knew that all this was not a technical operation but required political will and an iron fist. Hence she organised the police in a new way to effectively fight the miners. She knew something about the relationship of class forces that was missing from the mindset of the whole reformist labour and trade union leadership (apart from the honourable exception of miners' union leader Arthur Scargill who perhaps had other failings). The latter certainly was correct when he said that the working class needed the sort of vigorous leadership that Thatcher gave to her class.

Thankfully the degree of her attacks, the changed economic context and the continuity of a radical left tradition does mean that the TV/Tory/Labourist picture is not going unchallenged. Interviews with miners like Pete Mansell from the Rotheram mining area cut through the Miliband niceties with crystal-clear analysis:

It was class war, the people above us didn’t want us to win. The people with money didn’t want us to win. If we had won, they wouldn’t be able to get away with what they are doing now, cutting benefits for disabled people and things like that. The unions would have stopped them. But we lost.

If working people’s reaction includes a bit of tasteless "celebration", which can be a bit unpolitical, then so be it. Don’t ever think she was a tasteful, caring human being who gave a toss about what political enemies thought of her. If only some of our so-called leaders had had some of the same steel during key events like the miners’ strike. Remember Labour leader Neil Kinnock used Scargill’s tactics as an excuse and cover to refuse any real official support from the Labour Party for the miners. Not a small matter since the whole Thatcher legacy hangs much more on the defeat of the miners than anything else, such as the Falklands [Malvinas] war or privatisations. Blairism was solidly based on those defeats and his selling of a plausible "modernising" ideology – ditching the Labour Party's constitution clause IV, which on paper still committed Labour to nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy.

Despite her condemnation of feminism as "poison" and her refusal to support any demands furthering women’s liberation or equality, the objective fact that she was the first woman prime minister undeniably objectively shifted ideology about the role women could play in politics or public life. Just as Obama, despite his murderous drone policies internationally, his failure to really reform health provision and the relatively unchanged position of African Americans, has changed the way black people see themselves and white people see black people in politics. History and politics develop in a messy, paradoxical way sometimes.

Thatcherism

During the time running up to the £8 million quasi-state funeral the left should continue to participate in all the discussions on the Thatcher legacy and most important focus on Thatcherism rather than the person alone. There are breaches in the hagiography – there is a rumour that the Telegraph or Mail had to close down the comments on one of their articles because of the abuse it was received. The Twittersphere and the web has thousands of people refusing to share the official view.

The legacy is still active and is seen in the continued rule of the banks and the further dismantling of the post-war settlement. Opposition to Thatcher can be linked to campaigning against the bedroom tax or building support for re-appropriating the best of the Spirit of '45 in initiatives like the June 22 Peoples Assembly. Building Left Unity, alongside Ken Loach and 7000 others as a new non-sectarian focus for the radical class struggle left, is another useful way forward.

Those of us who lived through Thatcher’s premiership have a responsibility to counter the travesty of the historical record being presented by the pundits and politicians on the TV, pess and radio.

Personally I will never forget how long the miners struggled and the strength of the support groups up and down the country. It is the human connection and its memory that can resist the vicissitudes of history and keep the flame burning for new generations.

Miner David Douglas' speech at Trafalgar Square on why miners are celebrating Thatcher's demise

Dispelling the Thatcher myths

April 9, 2013 -- Red Pepper -- Alex Nunns offers an antidote to the media fawning over Thatcher – and argues her biggest victory was getting her opponents to buy into her mythology.

When a political leader dies it becomes compulsory to lie about their record. While much of Britain openly rejoiced at the death of Margaret Thatcher, the media snapped into reverential mode, giving over hours of airtime and several thousand miles of column inches to representatives of the ruling class to solemnly recite myths about her achievements.

This wouldn’t matter so much if, like Thatcher, these myths were dead, and weren’t still shaping our politics. But they are. So here are some of them, debunked.

No ‘economic miracle’

It’s said that Thatcher ‘didn't just lead our country, she saved our country’. She didn’t. David Cameron’s melodramatic claim was a reference to Thatcher’s supposed reversal of Britain’s economic decline, when her policies are said to have brought about an economic miracle. But the performance of Britain’s economy in the 1980s was not miraculous – in fact it was below par, even if the deep recession of 1980-1 is ignored. Economic growth was higher and lasted longer in the 1950s and 1960s. And when the economy did pick up speed in the late 1980s, it was because of a credit bubble that promptly burst and threw Britain back into recession.

It’s said that Thatcher was a tax-cutter. She wasn’t. The overall tax burden (all taxes as a percentage of GDP) rose from 39 per cent in 1979 to 43 per cent in 1989. It’s true that Thatcher cut taxes massively for the rich – the top rate of tax was 83 per cent when Thatcher came to power, and it was 40 per cent when she left. But VAT, which hits the poor harder than the rich, was just 8 per cent before Thatcher, and was put up to 15 percent as soon as she gained power.

It’s said that Thatcher made the British people richer. She didn’t. In 1979 the poorest fifth of the population accounted for around 10 percent of after-tax income. By 1989 their share had fallen to 7 percent. Over the same period, the amount of income taken by the richest fifth rose from 37 percent to 43 percent. The rich got richer; the poor got poorer.

It’s said that Thatcher restructured the economy and made British capitalism competitive. She didn’t restructure anything. Restructuring would have required a plan, which was anathema to her. Instead, she simply destroyed. Between 1980 and 1983, capacity in British industry fell by 24 per cent. Unemployment shot up, eventually topping 3 million. Thatcher effectively shut down British manufacturing, much of it forever. In its place, she turned to the banks and the City, making their wildest dreams come true with the financial Big Bang. We know how that ended.

What conviction?

It’s said that Thatcher was a conviction politician, a "monetarist" who stuck to her economic beliefs through tough times and was vindicated. She didn’t, and she wasn’t. Monetarism, the theory Thatcher adopted from US economist Milton Friedman, says the government should keep inflation low by restricting the money supply, and shouldn’t care about anything else, especially unemployment. Thatcher used monetarism as an intellectual cloak, but she never actually implemented pure Friedmanite monetarism. She quickly abandoned her looser British version when it crashed the economy in the early 1980s. She was, however, radically successful at not caring about unemployment.

It’s said that Thatcher’s greatest free market legacy is privatisation. It isn’t. Thatcher’s privatisations did not create competitive free markets. Instead, the government went for as much money as it could get by selling off public assets in big, monopolistic lumps. The cash came in handy for the chancellor, Nigel Lawson, who used it to claim he had balanced the budget in 1988. But the legacy is one of parasitic cartels, like in the energy sector, where a few big companies are free to bleed customers dry.

It’s said Thatcher won the Cold War. She didn’t. The idea that the Soviet system collapsed because Thatcher and Reagan said mean things about communism deserves no more than one sentence.

It’s said Thatcher stood up for freedom and democracy in the world. She didn’t in South Africa, where she opposed sanctions against apartheid and called Nelson Mandela a "terrorist". She didn’t in Chile, where she supported the murderer and torturer Augusto Pinochet. She didn’t in Cambodia, where she gave support to the Khmer Rouge, of all people. As for democracy, she espoused an ideology that valued market choices more highly than votes.

Rolling back the state?

It’s said that Thatcher "rolled back the state". But, with the exception of the economy, where the state did retreat, Thatcher’s government intervened in areas of British society like none before it. It imposed draconian laws on one particular type of voluntary organisation – trade unions. It attacked local government, cut its funding and restricted its powers. It intervened directly in schools, setting a national curriculum for the first time.

It’s said that Thatcher restored law and order. She didn’t. Crime increased by a staggering 79 per cent under Thatcher. There were riots in Brixton and Toxteth at the start of her reign, and riots and civil disobedience against the poll tax at the end of it.

It’s said that Thatcher created a "property-owning democracy" through the sale of council houses. But this led to a chronic shortage of social housing which has pushed up house prices. Today, home ownership is falling and the private rental market is booming. The taxpayer is still subsidising housing to the tune of billions through housing benefit, but now the money goes to rich private landlords.

It’s said that Thatcher changed the class and gender profile of the Tory party. She didn’t. She made a big deal of being an outsider: a middle-class woman in a party of aristocrats. But she was an individual, an exception to the rule. She made no attempt to change party structures to help others like her.

Today, the Tory leadership is dominated by Etonians and there are only four women in the cabinet. Thatcher always forgot to mention that her political career was financed by her millionaire husband. She expressed disdain for feminism and embraced patriarchal, male values.

It’s said that Thatcher was an electoral phenomenon. She wasn’t. She won three elections, each with a lower percentage of the vote than all previous post-war Tory victories. She never gained the support of more than a third of eligible voters. She won her second and third elections because a section of the Labour Party split off to form the SDP and the two squabbled over second place.

One claim that’s true

It’s claimed that Thatcher defeated the left. She did. This is the cliché that holds true. The big set-piece battle with the miners’ union was economically irrational – it cost the country £2.5 billion. But she was fighting more than the miners; she was fighting a class.

She told the truth later in life when she said that her legacy was New Labour. In so many of her other goals, she failed. Thatcherism has no institutional legacy because she put none in place. She left no cut and paste economic model because she didn’t apply the monetarism she espoused. All she left was her example, which had its most powerful effect on her erstwhile opponents.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did more to institutionalise Thatcherism than the woman herself. Before New Labour, in the early 1990s, in the midst of a recession, it was a truism that Thatcherism had been an economic failure. The fact that many of the myths discussed here have been revived is in large part due to New Labour. When even Thatcher’s opponents accept Thatcherism’s success, why should the media challenge the record?

Blair responded to her death by admitting (although understating) what everyone already knew, that "some of the changes she made in Britain were, in certain respects at least, retained by the 1997 Labour government". It is often said that Blair’s only legacy will be Iraq, but he will also feature in the epilogue of every biography of Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher tore at the social fabric of Britain, destroyed swathes of its economy and inflicted vindictive harm on large sections of its population. But she built nothing. Her main success was in the minds of her opponents.

[Alex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent.]

Thatcher and feminism: a socialist feminist view

By Felicity Dowling

April 13, 2013 -- Facts for Working People -- Some women will indeed consider a woman, any woman, gaining the position of prime minister is a victory for all women. The experience of Margaret Thatcher in office was, though, profoundly negative for all but the richest of women. I suggest that the experience of Angela Merkel in Germany is little different. Merkel presides over the most savage attack on the living standards of women in Europe for 70 years.

One sliver of benefit to a young woman of Thatcher’s premiership might have been that they realised that a woman (and therefore, by inference, herself) as capable of achieving the highest office. The young woman’s personal aspirations and confidence may well have been enhanced by this. The fact that Thatcher was overtly strong and powerful also may have helped might help break gender stereo types.

There is a model of feminism which has regard to a "race" or competition between men and women where men have historic, material and cultural advantages. While this model has some validity, it has been developed and distorted by the hegemonic ideas of neoliberal economics and by the media. Debates about how women can progress individually or as a group can continue, can sometimes be discussed with vigour and academic effort but without regard to the suffering and damage being done to women in their own countries and in different parts of the world.

Some women are exploring real issues, though not, to my mind, the crucial ones. This model is of limited effect in a struggle for a better world for all women; it overlooks the role of community, class and of social and economic history.

Some, though not all, women who follow this line of debate and consequent action are pro-capitalist and part of the neoliberal project.

Thatcher proclaimed there was no community and was an enemy of those who sought to defend it. As well as proclaiming there is no community, she attempted publically to deny class antagonisms but she fought the class war ruthlessly.

Socialist feminists in contrast recognise and proclaim community and class interest. We want to protect, develop and improve our communities (and by extension the planet) and the interest of our class. This struggle must consciously oppose violence against women and stand against patriarchy. Thatcher had real significance. She was a pioneer of neoliberal capitalism. Across the globe (except possibly China) the period since the 1970s has been one where gains of the post-war period were either robbed outright or eroded away. Even the boom of the early 21st century saw re-structuring in many parts of the globe and globalisation which saw worsening of conditions of employment and life in the US and Europe.

The primitive accumulation of capital is intensified by the crisis in capitalist economy. The process of primitive accumulation includes robbing the commons. The commons are, at its simplest, the assets and customs of the inhabitants of this planet that are owned/held in common by everyone and no one. The robbing of the commons particularly affects women as individuals and in their role as carers in families and the wider community. Women traditionally hold community history and knowledge but are also vulnerable in many ways.

Crucially the crisis of capitalism has meant that this process is sharpened and hastened and in this women suffer terrible violence. Women in their role as the reproducers of labour, in their role of nurturing the community, the role guardians of historic knowledge are especially at risk. Others have written about this much more than I can here; but typified by the use of the witch hunt in Africa, in Papua New Guinea as Wendy circulated in http://www.theglobalmail.org/feature/its-2013-and-theyre-burning-witches/558/ and as Federici has so ably recorded (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Caliban-Witch-Women-Primitive-Accumulation/dp/157027059).

Austerity in Europe is critically damaging the lives of women; we are in the very early stages of struggle to defend ourselves. We call on all women who value the lives and struggles of other women to stand with us in the fight. We have no antagonism to those women whose focus is on the roles and successes of the individual woman in a capitalist world. We believe though, that any future for all women and our communities depends on us organising for the end of capitalism.

Since the early 19th and early 20th century in the UK women’s rights have been seen and fought for through a class prism. Emmaline Pankhurst wanted votes for women but not for servants; her daughter Sylvia in contrast chose the side of working women, standing against xenophobia of World War I and with the newly organised working class of the era immediately after.The experience of women under Thatcher was no better than under a male prime minister; the list of conflicts between Thatcher and different groups of women is long.

We would invite all women wishing for a better future for themselves and their sisters to join us in the fight against austerity and against capitalism.

[Felicity Dowling is a socialist, feminist and former Liverpool (UK) municipal councillor who fought against Thatcher's war on workers and Liverpool in the 1980s.]

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