Time to Bury ‘Thatcherism’

April 17, 2013 9:14 pm

Thatcher is dead. But ‘Thatcherism’ is very much alive. It’s embodied, not only in our present CONDEM coalition government as they hand out devastating cuts while further enriching the wealthy, but in the very heart of our body politic.

In death, as in her lifetime, Margaret Thatcher has managed to divide the country she professed to love. Meanwhile, our political elite and media sneered as thousands of people chose to celebrate the demise of a woman who represented so much pain and poverty in their lives and those of their families, friends and communities. Thatcher

For, according to one of Thatcher’s utterances, there was ‘no such thing as society’. She and her governments, throughout the 1980s, did their utmost to prove her right. And it was the hate felt for those policies, those attacks, that we saw dancing in the streets in Brixton, Glasgow, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and elsewhere.

As one Welsh worker, Kevin Jones, said: “I celebrated Thatcher’s death and make no apology for it. I raised a glass for the miners from Treharris I stood alongside in 1984, to David Jones and Joe Green who died on the picket lines. Thatcher didn’t cry. She called you the ‘enemy within’. I raised a glass to Darren Homes (15), Paul Homes and Paul Wormesley (both 14) who died picking coal during the dispute. Thatcher regarded you as a price worth paying. For Nelson Mandela, she hated us for opposing apartheid. For the Liverpool and Lambeth councillors. For the victims of Hillsborough who she blamed. So I give her death the same respect she gave all of those.”

Withdrawal of labour

Her (near) state funeral is to be paid by our taxes, despite the repeated claims that ‘we have no money’, that we face years of more austerity and pain while millionaires receive a £40,000 – £100,000 tax cut. Yet David Cameron is prepared to let us foot the bill for the ceremony to the tune of £10m. While she was the champion of privatisation and the free market, her followers insist that it will be the public purse that stumps up the cash to send her on her way.

TV news bulletins were extended, and regular programmes suspended, to make room so they can tell us over again how ‘divisive’ she was, how ‘determined’ and how she ‘changed the face of Britain’. Tory MP after Tory MP lined up to preach the Thatcher Gospel – how she ‘rolled back the frontiers of socialism’ – as if anybody who really knows about politics could possibly equate the Labour Party,  at any stage of its history as being ‘socialist’. We learned (again) about the unburied dead and rubbish-filled streets under Labour – as if this happened on a regular basis! It was a public sector strike in 1979. If cemetery staff and dustbin men are on strike, of course these things aren’t going to be done. It’s called ‘withdrawal of labour’. They went on strike because the Labour Party they voted into power broke their promise to change the balance of power to favour ordinary working families. Instead, they offered a programme of cuts and put us in hock to the IMF. Who wouldn’t fight against such a betrayal?

If the unions were so all powerful, how come they let a Tory government into power?

The answer is, mass abstentions from Labour supporters in the 1979 general election let Thatcher in. Workers had nobody else to vote for. The Tories couldn’t believe their luck.

By this time, Thatcher had long since turned towards the altar of monetarism, a creed of capitalism touted by the likes of US economist Milton Friedman. He believed the money supply should be choked off. Public spending should be clawed back. High interest rates would starve lending for investments in industry. A large cheap pool of labour should be created by increased unemployment to lower wages. Tax cuts should be introduced that would benefit the wealthy who would, theoretically, make business thrive and everyone would gain from the ‘trickle down effect’. But, above all, the trade unions should be weakened, emasculated. Workers’ ability to defend their wages, jobs, services and working conditions should be curbed.

Foreign adventure

While Labour sunk into civil war and division, Thatcher’s first move was to cut taxes for the rich by 33%. Subsidies to industry were blocked and cuts to local government swiftly followed. By 1981, there were 3.2 million unemployed. The Tories were vastly unpopular. Even Thatcher’s own cabinet were contemplating getting rid of her for fear of only a one term in office. Then the Falklands War landed in her lap.

There’s nothing quite like a little ‘foreign adventure’ to distract trouble at home. And distract it did. Thatcher was able to wrap herself in the Union Jack while Labour was still a mess. From her second electoral victory in 1983, a landslide, she assured her survival and was able to unleash the full programme of ‘Thatcherism’.

Her second term’s first major task was to take on the unions. This meant defeating the most powerful formation, the miners. The Tories already had a plan to hand – build up coal stocks, introduce anti-trade union laws against ‘secondary action’, for secret ballots, organisation of the police as a national force and alternative transport for coal so rail unions could not come to the miners’ aid. By early 1984, her government, via the National Coal Board, deliberately announced the closure of 20 pits. The year long strike ensued.

An arrogance too far

It was a close run thing. At one point, coal stocks were within two weeks of running out. But, more importantly, Labour and trade union leaders, anxious not to be seen as supporting actions that helped bring down their own government five years before and wanting to appear more ‘electable’ and ‘respectable’, refused to help the miners’. It was all too easy for other union leaders to hide behind the threat of defeat once the miners were beaten. Their reluctance to take up the struggle gave Thatcher the signal to seek her next target. After all, weakness invites aggression.

Bury ThatcherismLocal authorities were next to feel the monetary squeeze from central government funding and were told to increase their rates to compensate. When a group of Labour councils refused, another titanic struggle was opened.

This couldn’t have happened at a worse moment for Labour leader Neil Kinnock. He was trying to ‘reform’ the party, and make it more ‘acceptable’. He, and the leadership around him, wanted to shed any semblance of ‘left politics’ or ‘militancy’. He tried to move the party to the political centre and here were several Labour councils talking about defying the government, calling city-wide strikes. One by one, as parliamentary careers beckoned for some Labour council leaders such as Ken Livingstone and David Blunkett, council after council capitulated under pressure from the Kinnockites. Only the genuine socialists remained – Lambeth and Liverpool – who were prepared to go to the end. The only way they were removed was by disqualification by the unelected House of Lords.

Thatcher seemed supreme. By 1987, she took her third election riding on the crest of a wave of privatisation and council house sales. More importantly, the banks and financial houses of the City of London were de-regulated and were free to trade across the globe backed by depositors’ money. She offered a ‘property-owning, share-buying democracy’. So secure in her eminence and reeking of victory against all comers, she decided to plough on by introducing her flagship policy to fund local authorities – the poll tax. It was an arrogance too far.

Filthy rich

The accumulated anger of a decade of monetarist onslaught was ignited by the unfair tax where a millionaire would pay the same as a dustbin man. A fast-growing campaign of mass non-payment spilled over the border from Scotland (where it was vindictively introduced first) until, across the country 18.5 million people were not paying. The organisational backbone of this campaign was Militant, the very socialists Kinnock had spent most of his time expelling rather than taking on the Tories.

It was clear, with Thatcher 24% behind Labour in the polls, she was at real risk of losing the next election. Her dominance in cabinet, where she regularly berated colleagues, ignored advice or even – horror of horrors – brought in her own outside advisers, focused other Tories on the safety of their own seats and livelihoods. She had to go. It was a sudden and final departure. She left in tears with hardly a thought of all the tears spilt by thousands of people down the years due to her policies.

Behind her, she left a fractured Tory Party that would nevertheless continue to deliver much of her programme of closures, privatisations and high interest rates that gave way to a re-sprayed model opposition – ‘New Labour’. Kinnock acted as the gateway to Tony Blair and his re-positioning of Labour towards the centre-right. They maintained Tory spending plans and the anti-trade union laws – and were just as keen on foreign adventures. As one of New Labour’s architects, Peter (now Lord) Mandelson said: “We’re completely relaxed about people being filthy rich.”Maggie

He was joined by one of his former party rivals, John (now Lord) Prescott: “We’re all middle class now.”

Same policies. Same voices. Turn your head away from the TV set and try and guess who belongs to which party. They are all the same party which conveniently divides at election times to compete to see who will be the dominant wing.

They cling to the capitalist system like a life raft, a raft that is holed beneath the waterline but bailed out by us, you, me.

It’s time for a new political vehicle, a new party that will represent the 99% against the 1%. It’s time to bury ‘Thatcherism’ once and for all.

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