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The resistible results of Margaret Thatcher 
By D.R.O'Connor Lysaght

15 April 2013

When Benito Mussolini's career had come to its logical conclusion and his carcase was hanging out to dry, an old lady fired six shots from a revolver into it declaring: "This is for each of my six sons." Hearing of this George Orwell remarked sympathetically but realistically that her act would have been so much more satisfying had she been able to perform it when the bum was alive. There is a similar feeling about writing on Margaret Thatcher after her death. Yet the natural instinct of treating her with the silence due to other long retired prime ministers is negated by the attempts by the enemy to canonise her. It is also clear from what has been written that for too many the lessons of her career have yet to be learnt. No doubt this is partly because most commentators have bought into her politics, but there is also the fact that the lessons to be drawn from the career are greater than the facts and certainly greater than Thatcher herself.

Although she insisted that luck had not helped her achievements, Margaret Thatcher was remarkably lucky. Two events with which she had little or nothing to do enabled her to execute her work and ensured subsequently that it would influence politics for nearly twenty-five years after she left 10 Downing Street. In both cases she benefited from problems afflicting those to her left, ones which they have still to resolve or even recognise. 

Her message of individual liberty was preached at a time when the bourgeoisie's mounting counter attack was dividing the social democratic consensus that followed the second World War, splitting it between those who wanted simply to maintain and improve the existing welfare state and various groups who wanted to replace it with a genuine workers' state, but could not agree how this was to be done. The division ran through the Labour Party. It resulted in the lack of clear direction shown by Thatcher's immediate Labour predecessors guided by policies in which a large proportion of their members did not believe and allowing a similarly confused trade union leadership to take the blame for Britain's economic problems.

In this situation, Thatcher seemed to offer a promising alternative. Instead of an over mighty state interfering in small matters whilst impotent on major issues, she offered the perspective of the free responsible individual whose work for her or himself would harmonise with that of others to constitute a dynamic whole and enable each person to fulfil his or her full potential. In practice, matters proved to be rather different. Firstly, to remove controls on individuals in what was still an inegalitarian society left some individuals with more power than others. Secondly, such individuals would take a larger share than others of the powers once executed by the comparatively democratic state. Moreover, the withdrawal of this state and the reduction of the strength of the unions in the equation left such overmighty individuals untrammelled any democratic sanction. Thirdly, they would use these powers to safeguard their privileged positions against the less privileged. Fourthly, and partly for these reasons, working to advance one's own interests and those of one's family did not strengthen the interests of the community as an whole.. While the latter half of Thatcher's years in government did see a steady increase in economic growth, this expansion was essentially in the financial sector; Britain was de-industrialised to further weaken the organised workers and their unions, completing its progress from world workshop to entrepot, unable to grow sufficiently to sustain its citizens' living standards. Accordingly, as a fifth snag, those on the lower rungs of the social ladder were not only blocked from climbing by those on top but had to spend their time foraging to keep their position rather than advancing it. Thatcher portrayed herself as the spokesperson for the upwardly mobile. In practice, her role was more like that, well known in Irish history and folklore, of the ruthless agent of the already privileged, against the interests of the underdogs. It was not a coincidence that after her chosen successor, the tenancy of Number 10 Downing Street should be once more the prerogative of old public school brats, nor that her party should be headed today by those quintessential Old Etonians, David Cameron and George Osborne, with a third, Boris Johnson, waiting his opportunity to wield the dagger.

That Thatcherism should have been so effective was not due to its popularity,. Its massive parliamentary majorities were produced  on votes of nearer forty than fifty percent of those casting them. Labour remained the main opposition party and Labour drew back from proposing the measures that could mobilise its constituency to do what was necessary. The party made a new attempt at a leftist programme, though all too rightist on Ireland. Compensation for this failure in other fields led to the party splitting and a badly divided opposition allowing the Tories three more successive general election victories. Labour's leadership hid its relief inadequately and chose to accept Thatcherism, mutating into "New Labour", with results that can be seen today.

That Thatcher was, in fact, vulnerable could be seen internationally, She reconquered the Malvinas and got refunds from the EEC (now the EU), but had little concrete success otherwise. Despite her wishes, she had to accept majority rule in Zimbabwe and back, eventually, sanctions against apartheid South Africa. She could not prevent German reunification. On Ireland, she came to terms with the surviving hunger strikers, though it was kept quiet. Later, of course, she was persuaded to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement which, for all its many limitations, was a recognition that the six county province was not as British as her Finchley constituency. Above all, she had to acknowledge the superiority of America, however frustrating, as it was over Grenada. Again it was lucky for her that, the alliance's senior partner was headed by her soul mate in foreign affairs, Ronald Reagan, for most of her period. In the end, it was Reagan's strategy (taken unacknowledged from John F.Kennedy) that destabilised the Soviet Union by using his country's superior economic resources. Although, there are positive possibilities in this, it was immediately a major victory for imperialism, the more so in that the soviet leadership agreed with its opponents that it was a victory over socialism itself. Thatcher could only applaud; Britain was confirmed as being to America what Austria-Hungary had been to the German Empire. Nonetheless, the noise she had made allowed those who knew little of such things (or who had a vested interest) to praise her for "making Britain great again".

Thatcher's personal qualities will be seen by history to be those of a bully (well-known) but also of a talented amateur actress. As long as her enemies were divided, she played the role of a woman of destiny and she chose her closer circle with an eye to this myth. An acquaintance doubted whether she could appreciate an artistic work, but she related to professional performers, most of all to Reagan, and she schmoozed the media like no one else; she secured more gongs for journalists, even relative to her long period in office, than any other PM.

She initiated nothing. She was a player in a process, but the process is continuing. Attempts by social democracy to appease imperialism do no more than feed its hunger. Its proven failures are made excuses to intensify its demands. Even if its leaders wanted to do otherwise, they could not. It is the nature of capitalism as are further devastations and world war at the end of this road.

Yet this is merely one schema. For those who reject capitalism, there is an alternative. It was shown in the events that led to the fall of Margaret Thatcher. With pride, she launched what she called her "flagship", a flat rate poll tax, a gesture of contempt not just to equality but to equity itself. For once the left united without reference to parliamentarians and bureaucrats and forced its withdrawal. It was neither the end of the beginning nor the beginning of the end, but it was the major decisive battle in a process that had begun when the "big bang" of financial deregulation had blown up into a mini-slump and would end when she failed to be re-elected Tory leader on the first 1990 ballot.

Sadly, sectarianism overcame this unity. Dogmatism substituted for honest and open dialogue and the components of the Anti-Poll tax movement went their separate ways and failed to take advantage of the possibility of ending Thatcherism as well as Thatcher. For all that, the example remains. Poll tax is not offered as a weapon of current austerity. Though diversity is inevitable, it is possible for the diverse to unite in action. And then events will show the true Bolsheviks.


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