An insidious and unhistorical myth pervades British society when it comes to the subject of Thatcher. The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald believes it is the product of right wing “gushing” over her legacy and her premiership following her death last week. However, the mythology goes back further than that and is certainly not the result of Conservative ‘canonization’ as it is being called in the media. For as long as I can remember, whenever the subject of Thatcher comes up there are the inevitable interjections by teenagers and students who vociferously repeat the popular refrains we are all accustomed to: “she ruined the country”, “she privatised public industries”, “the miners! the miners!” Ignoring the fact these clamours mean absolutely nothing on their own, the people saying them were not old enough, or even alive, to have been affected directly by her premiership. Which is also the case today. I would wager a princely sum that if you challenged one of these individuals, at random, to expand upon their hackneyed exclamations they would struggle. This is because hatred of Thatcher, popular myths and distortions of history are so ingrained in British culture, due to the nature of her divisiveness and the antipathy hurled towards her from various corners, that new generations imbibe these fallacies as an automatic symptom of growing up. Pictures on television always showed Poll Tax riots, police brutality during miners’ strikes and a steadfast, emotionless Thatcher projecting the image that she was a callous, uncaring servant to ideology. The reality is a galaxy away from this absurd fiction.
Before I attempt the role of myth-buster I would like to stipulate that I am no Thatcher apologist, and my politics can certainly not be labelled as ‘right wing’. But since I was four years old when she was forced to step down in 1990, and therefore was not directly affected by her premiership, I am less prone to nostalgia and deep-seated emotions, regarding those eleven years, superseding my rationality and attempts at objectivity. It can be said that an objective stance is not possible when considering the career of such a polarising figure. I am inclined to agree, but, as a Social Democrat, any bias I may manifest would surely veer to the left and place me in allegiance with Utopian Socialist’s like Owen Jones; whose pieces on Thatcher recently have been more a collection of scathing soundbites rather than any thing of substance. Which is a shame because normally I enjoy reading his writing. But I prefer to align myself more with the honourable Sir Menzies Campbell in this debate. Ming Campbell, although a staunch opponent of a multitude of Baroness Thatcher’s policies, did not shy away from giving credit where it is due: praising her forthrightness and courage in tackling the problems of a broken Britain which she inherited. She was the only party leader of the time with the resolve and conviction to fix an economy verging on collapse, to curtail the immense power of the Unions that held the country to ransom, and return Britain to the status of a major world player, both economically and politically.
I will start with the most distorted myth of her premiership that really gets my back up: the charge that she destroyed the British manufacturing industry. This longevity of this myth is hardly surprising when the footage we see on the subject of industry, unions and miners in the 1980s is that of violent mass protests, heavy-handed police and the image of Thatcher, firm and unwavering, which tries to depict her as cold and callous. While it can be said that Thatcher could have been more gradual and compassionate when following through on this branch of her economic policy, the fact remains that everything she did was a necessary action for the time. Manufacturing has been in decline in western and central Europe, at varying rates, for decades. Germany was only big European economy that had a manufacturing sector that was over 30% of GDP in the 1980s. Britain, when Margaret Thatcher assumed power, had manufacturing as less than 15% of GDP. By the mid-1980s Thatcher’s government actually INCREASED productivity in the manufacturing industry, so much so that British production was now only 5% behind that of Germany. Rapid decline did not occur until the governments that succeeded her and in any event decline in manufacturing has been a characteristic of all European nations since the 1980s. The most pronounced decline in manufacturing has been under the 13 years of Labour government between 1997 and 2010; GVA (goods value added) and manufacturing as a percentage of GDP plummeted to a degree unprecedented since the advent of industrialisation. This trend in Britain, before Thatcher’s premiership and before she managed to increase productivity, was compounded by the fact that obsolete industries such as coal mining were nationalised. The subsidising of these industries was a drain on the public purse, not only because the industries were in decline and inefficient, but also because, by the very nature of state monopolies, those in charge had no incentive to innovate, progress or even try to put out a product that was good value to the customer, and profitable for the government. They knew that the state would bail them out. Privatising industry cut the burden from the taxpayer, increased competition and, in tandem with the deregulation of the financial sector that I would talk about later, allowed those employed in manufacturing to buy shares and therefore own a portion of the company for which they worked. Harold Wilson and the Labour governments of the late 1990s and early 2000s oversaw more mine closure and shepherded in the decline in manufacturing. The mines that Thatcher closed were those that were were inefficient and not cost-effective. Some were losing up to £40,000 a day. To allow this to persist would have been irresponsible and ruinous to a nation who’s economy was already failing. Britain was able to import gas and oil more cheaply for fuel than sourcing its own coal from the pits in the north of England, and importing fossil fuels was precisely what Thatcher did.
Further to the burden that inefficient industry was proving to be on Britain’s expenditure, the powerful, undemocratic and reactionary Unions were stifling any governmental push for reform and any attempts and economic stimulation. Trade Unions were tearing apart the country and trying to dictate government policy. Strikes were ubiquitous and hundreds of millions of work days were lost during the late 1970s and 1980s. To give an illustration of how damaging the power of unions had become and how bad things in Britain were, during the ‘Winter of Discontent’ (1978-79) strikes called by local councils, gravediggers, energy, public transport, steel et al, led to refuse piling up like mountains in the streets, the dead remaining unburied in graveyards and morgues, millions of pounds lost in work days and the country at a near standstill. A situation that was reminiscent of the months of 1974, when energy strikes necessitated the introduction of the three day week in order to conserve energy. In the run up to the 1979 general election all of the major parties recognised the incendiary influence of the unions and were considering ways in which to curtail their power. Unions were able to strike over anything and at any time and hold the country to ransom. The union leaders were little concerned with the people they were supposed to represent, than they were with power and influence. the leader of the NUM, Arthur Scargill had failed, after union ballots, to democratically call a strike, but he did so anyway. Men like Scargill were happy to throw the average worker under the bus if it meant they could maintain a tight grip on the government and power over the direction of public policy. Margaret Thatcher inflicted a devastating and justified defeat of the NUM with consummate skill and steely determination. Margaret Thatcher was spoke of the sacrosanct essence of liberty and democracy and endeavoured to achieve a higher level of both during her premiership. The unions practiced neither freedom nor democracy – as Scargill’s actions attest to. Thatcher abolished closed shop union practice so that employees were now free to choose whether they wished to belong to a union or not (membership had been compulsory in all manufacturing industries, and was a prerequisite to keeping your job). She had also severely damaged the unions ability to enforce their will on government through strike tactics etc. Free of the constraints of this reactionary juggernaut, Thatcher could now go full force with her economic and social reforms which would deliver Britain from the fiscal and political doldrums and, by the time she left office, hoist the British economy to the fifth richest in the world.
The hackneyed cry against Thatcher that annoys me most is the exclamation that “she privatised public industries”. First of all, this statements has absolutely no meaning on its own, and is the clearest manifestation of what I have mentioned above. The fact that these popular refrains and criticisms have permeated British culture so deeply that the ignorant and conformists parrot them without any independent investigation for themselves, and this is a dangerous scenario that threatens to distort history forever in this country. It amounts to brainwashing. The fact is that privatisation is not inherently bad (unless it’s the NHS). The Britain that Thatcher was bequeathed was one that beared the hallmarks of socialism, and it was failing. As mentioned above state monopolies were largely a drain on the collapsing economy and suppressed entrepreneurship, innovation and maximum profitability It is nonsensical for a government to prop up an industry that does not generating a healthy revenue. Privatisation promoted competition, innovation, created jobs and freed up the billions in government expenditure which helped facilitate the cuts in taxation. The immense growth of the economy and the fact that so many western governments followed suit in this programme of privatisation is testament its faultlessness.
Another example of those parroted refrains that have no meaning is the charge of deregulating the financial sector. Again, not an inherently bad policy, but something that anti-Thatcherites spout off without expanding upon why they are adverse to it. The important thing to do when analysising Thatcher and her policies, the important thing to do when we consider any historical and political figure, is to judge them within the context of their time (or time in office). We slavery reprehensible now, but during antiquity it was the relations of production which defined the civilisations of the time and was not imbued with the moral and ethical dimensions that we give it today. In the case of Thatcher we cannot judge her through what we know of the present-day effects of neoliberalist economic. The free market and deregulation made sense in the 1980s and it was an expedient to economic growth and accumulation of wealth by the middle classes who were formerly marginalised in the financial world thanks to the ‘old boy, cronyism’ that dominated the tertiary sector. But Thatcher steamrolled the financial cliques and opened up the City of London to the ordinary people of Britain. A phenomenon which has been called ‘Big Bang’. Deregulation of the Stock Exchange (1986) and the lifting of exchange controls attracted huge foreign investment and interaction which would eventually put the City of London back on top as the world’s most important financial centre. This new services-first economy was enjoying the rapid inflow of world capital that was instrumental in the growth stimulation that was easing Britain’s fiscal worries and stabilising the country. However, what we see now – and The Guardian is one such perpetrator – is unfair criticism heaped on Thatcher for her liberalisation of the economy, because they are looking at it through the prism of the recent global financial crisis. Forgetting for a second that Thatcher had resigned from government 28 years before the crisis, and that successive LABOUR governments took over the cause of neoliberalism with gusto (and certainly not with the prudence and foresight that Thatcher would have surely shown). We should remember that this present recession is the result of a BANKING crisis. Banking was deregulated under Labour not Thatcher. Labour encouraged the present attitude prevalent in the banking sector, of greed, risk and irresponsibility. They did so indirectly through deregulation and their turning a blind eye to the risky ventures and irresponsibility of banking execs, because of their glee at the money that was flowing into the government coffers at the time. To blame Thatcher for the economic hardship we are subject to today is like blaming Nietzsche for Hitler’s conception of a superior Aryan race.
Finally, I must surely touch upon an aspect of Thatcher’s politics when it came to the social realm. The most obvious policy to confront is the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme concerning social housing. And once again the “she sold off social housing” mantra is as meaningless as all the others. Allowing citizens of your country to own their own home, a measure that is conducive to social mobility, if anything is inherently good. Home ownership almost doubled under Thatcher’s tenure, rising to over 55%, giving more people security and capital. From the schemes commencement to the present day, around 2m homes have been sold in this way. The problem came about when Thatcher, and especially successive governments, did not replenish the stock of social housing, which has contributed to high rents and a high housing benefit bill. The remaining stock during Thatcher’s remaining years were concentrated in areas that were thought of as undesirable and with limited employment opportunities, further stigmatising and disconnecting some families. Labour especially hammer home this criticism but neglect to mention that they dropped their opposition to this policy in 1987 ostensibly because of its popularity; any mention of abolition in Labour’s manifesto would have been a blow to its election prospects. However, as we have seen Labour carried on this scheme following its election in 1997, making only small adjustments to areas such as eligibility. Again, critics look at this policy through today’s climate, making the erroneous link that Right to Buy, as a scheme, was the sole cause for the current shortage in social housing and the impact it will have on thousands of families following the implementation of housing benefit cuts. But as mentioned above the scheme itself was not detrimental, it gave people the dignity, security and pride of owning their own property. The cracks emerged since no government, from Thatcher onward, has built sufficient social housing to offset the 2million sales.
Margaret Thatcher and what she stood for has been transformed into a mythological apparition, distorted by those who wish for their own personal anger and bitterness toward Thatcher to be recorded for posterity. Now of course it works both ways, the right and her supporters wax lyrical over her strength of character and perpetuate the colossal notion that she was the saviour of the nation. The true story lies somewhere in middles, within a synthesis of the two polar extremes and the more moderate opinions on her legacy. Neither side can claim to possess the secrets to the true motives, character and sensibilities of Thatcher. And a fistful of salt is needed, with such a divisive figure, when we read or listen to the testimony of those on the left and the right. All narratives contain a political agenda that betrays their author. Nothing said, especially on the subject of such a polarising politician, can be purely objective and devoid of bias. For Thatcher’s contemporaries, opponents and supporters, it is difficult to distance themselves far enough from the radical change and turmoil of the 1980s in order to come to a more reasoned and objective conclusion on her legacy, they instead yield to still raw and debilitating emotions in their analysis. In the days following the announcement of her death following a stroke, the right and her former Conservative colleagues had the platform to restore balance to the argument, but were of course immediately vilified by the anti-Thatcher factions in Britain as opportunists, hijacking the news of her death in order to create a false history and buttress their position in today’s political atmosphere. But Thatcher’s opponents declared open season on her over thirty years ago, and they haven’t ceased. The manifestations of acrimony and emotional babble when the subject of Thatcher is broached to her opponents have been leaking into British culture and society since the 1980s and have continued to diffuse into the changing zeitgeist ever since. The left appear to have granted themselves the right to enforce their own interpretation of Thatcherism and paint their own distorted picture of Thatcher to impart on future generations.