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Tuesday, April 09, 2013 

Thatcher's victories.

The only appropriate response yesterday seemed to be to mock.  Thatcher had become and will remain a myth, for both right and left.  For her most devoted followers on the right, and for an example of the loopiness she has on even those usually most staid of academics, historians, one only need read the Graun's interviews with Michael Burleigh and Andrew Roberts, she was a giant who will never be equalled.  It doesn't matter to them how many communities her policies ripped the heart out of, how many lost their jobs as an effect of her repudiation of the attempts to maintain full employment of the post-war years and were thereafter bought off with incapacity benefit, or how the ultimate effect of the castration of the unions was the soaring inequality we have today (or if it does, they rationalise it as unavoidable collateral damage).  They really, genuinely, believe that she saved the country as David Cameron said yesterday.

Equally, for some on the left, Thatcher became the ultimate depiction of the nasty, heartless, even evil Tory.  There is no such thing as society, she said, and that quote came to symbolise how they felt she cared nothing for the working man who wanted little more than a secure job and a roof over his head.  If he wanted to buy that house, then that was different, he became "one of us".  All the rest could be disregarded, or if they were actively hostile, they could be characterised as the "enemy within".  The previous solidarity of local communities and workplaces was broken down through such rhetoric, while the police were used, whether against the miners or the strikers at Wapping as her effective line of enforcement.

As you might expect, my own view on Thatcher is closer to that of the latter rather than the former.  It's difficult to draw such a broad conclusion though when she resigned as prime minister 5 days shy of my 6th birthday.  Indeed, one of the many absurdities of yesterday was that so many of my generation and younger were either celebrating or certainly not feeling the slightest bit sad about the death of someone they could either barely remember as being in power or had resigned years before they were even born.  I don't have very solid memories of much before I was about 7, although I can extremely vaguely recall the news of the poll tax riots.  As for her political passing, there's just a blank.  I might be a child of Thatcher, but actually remember her time? I certainly don't.

Britain in 2013 is nonetheless still her country.  It's undoubtedly a more socially liberal and multiracial place than it was in the dying days of 1990, but economically it resembles it more closely than it has in years previous.  Enterprise zones, straight out of the Thatcherite handbook are back, as is the language of there being no alternative. George Osborne even lifted directly from her for his budget slogan, that it was one for those who want to "work hard and get on", as tactless a message as we've come to expect from the sledgehammer chancellor.

It's here where a certain section of the left's demonisation of Thatcher begins to fall apart.  To understand what she achieved, you don't just have to be aware that not a single one of her privatisations, financial reforms or trade union laws was unpicked by Labour between 97 and 2010, but also that support for her was so total from the vast majority of the media that it forced everyone that has come since into trying to ride the press tiger.  All have tried, and all have failed, although John Major refused to play the game to anywhere near the extent that Blair, Brown and Cameron did.  It's been said repeatedly that New Labour was Thatcher's greatest achievement (including by herself), and it's one of those rare cases when such a widely shared view is probably right.  In fact, New Labour didn't just keep to her settlement, it expanded on it: one of Gordon Brown's very first acts as chancellor was to give away the only remaining power that the Treasury had kept, that of raising and lowering interest rates.  The free market was triumphant.  That Labour would have almost certainly won in 97 regardless of Tony Blair's transformation of the party is now just another of those what if scenarios.

Although I disagree with plenty of the Heresiarch's analysis, he's right to note that the most fundamental difference between the New Labour machine and that of Thatcher was language.  New Labour (initially at least) spoke compassionately and continued to denounce the evils of Conservatism while going far further than she had dared in many areas.  Whereas she may not have cared two hoots for the NHS, she didn't introduce privatisation, as New Labour did; nor were the unemployed or others on benefits denounced in anywhere near the terms that became familiar in the final years under Labour (Tebbit's "on yer bike" anecdote about his father aside, although the denunciation of single mothers wasn't many moons away).  The use of the private finance initiative boomed, while the City was allowed to do whatever it liked, and duly did.  Thatcher undoubtedly wanted as many as possible to get rich, but she never said anything amounting to the immortal line uttered by Peter Mandelson.  She also might have loathed anything that wasn't bourgeois while having no interest in wider culture whatsoever, but she didn't expand the prison estate in the way her successor and then Labour did, or impose the restrictions on civil liberties Labour did in the aftermath of 9/11, despite almost being murdered by the IRA.

While then it was at least nice to hear one alternative voice yesterday, and it's difficult to disagree with Ken Livingstone that Thatcher's reforms set the political failures on housing and the City we're living with today into motion, his opponents were also right when they stated back that his party did nothing to change them and in some cases have ended up exacerbating the problems.  Just then as Thatcher lay the foundations for New Labour, so too did New Labour set the foundations for David Cameron's Tories and the coalition.  David Cameron's attempt to rebrand the Tories has undoubtedly been more spin and less substance than the remaking of Labour was, yet it just about worked.  That in power almost all of the fluffiness has fallen away and been replaced by some incredibly harsh rhetoric isn't just a mirror on the 80s, it's also how Blair and Brown operated when they thought they had to.

You can't imagine though that when either Blair or Brown go there will be impromptu street parties to mark the occasion.  Thatcher wasn't just divisive, as has been admitted even by Cameron, she polarised the country.  Apparently capable of great charm and kindness in private as well as rudeness, her public demeanour inspired hatred.  You were either with her or against her, a position only Tony Blair has since invoked.  For all the claims of how she was an inspiration for people in the Soviet bloc and had a passion for freedom, this only went so far.  If you were unlucky enough to be under the yoke of a dictatorship of a British ally, whether in Chile, Indonesia or Saudi Arabia to name but three, then hard luck.  The same went for the ANC in South Africa; she may well have opposed apartheid, but she continued to refer to Nelson Mandela as a terrorist and refused to impose sanctions on the regime.

All the more reason why yesterday we should have heard more widely from those who opposed her at the time.  The closest the mainstream came to acknowledging the depth of feeling of some, not to mention what was happening online were the one or two interviews with miners, with Red Ken and Shirley Williams turning up on Newsnight, alongside the odd reference to George Galloway's tweeting.  The 80s were hardly a sanitised era, and Thatcher herself was ruthless in her attacks on the media when they refused to follow the Conservative line, particularly the BBC, although perhaps most notoriously when Thames broadcast Death on the Rock.  Nor was there much, if any comment on the continuing censorship during her decade in power: the video nasty panic and the influence of Mary Whitehouse on Thatcher went unremarked upon.

Nor should it have been decided so swiftly that she would receive a ceremonial, if not state funeral, although the difference is frankly semantic.  Regardless of what you think of Churchill as a politician both before and after the war, his leadership during the conflict demanded that he receive full state honours when he died.  He worked to unite the nation and give it the belief to fight on.  Thatcher did the opposite of the former, while indirectly promoting a class conflict that continues to this day.  If the family wanted a public event, then by all means they could have either paid for it themselves (as they are doing in part) or had it privately funded.  Those pushing for a full state funeral should note that if Thatcher deserves one, then when Blair goes he will also surely merit such recognition.  It will also inevitably attract much protest, which raises the question of how it's going to be policed.

The ultimate conclusion to draw is that as always, it's the victors that end up writing the history.  Where the left has arguably succeeded socially (although there is much still to do) the right has most definitely triumphed economically.  What Thatcher and Reagan instituted in the 80s ought to have been exposed by the crash of 07/08 and the depression that has followed.  Instead, after a initial bout of Keynesianism, neoliberalism has re-emerged if anything stronger than ever.  There is, we are told, no alternative.  They're right, as the left has completely failed to set out that alternative.  Thatcher won then, and her successors are doing so now.

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