Saturday, 13 April 2013

Thatcherism After Thatcher - Challenging the Legacy

Nelson Mandela is invited to Mrs Thatcher's funeral - but some of her supporters wanted him dead years ago.
The last week has seen a surge of controversy as Britain stands totally divided on how to mark the passing of former Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

The Coalition Government recalled Parliament specially to eulogize her and in spite of our austere financial times has also found over £8 million to pay for her funeral (most of it on security arrangements, in itself a telling statistic of her ability to divide even after life). By contrast, the Left has been left somewhat bamboozled on how to respond. A few have taken to the streets in apparent celebration, with a handful of instances of violence; while others have preferred the option of downloading a song from the Wizard of Oz, Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead, in such numbers it is expected to reach the top of the charts.

Most of the Left have been somewhat more restrained - Miliband, if he counts as left at all, unsurprisingly giving her qualified praise in the Commons debate, whist others have been rather subdued, cravenly overawed perhaps by the bullishness of the press in granting Thatcher a sort of Diana-esque beatification in death.

One in memoriam stands out, however, for being apposite in marking her passing not by gloating over the death of another human being, however flawed and unpleasant she was, but rather looking to the impact of her continuing legacy.

This was the statement issued by the National Union of Miners, the legitimate union which she once smeared as "The Enemy Within", ironically at the same time as criticising the Polish Government's suppression of the Solidarity trade union movement.

"To her family our condolences.

The legacy of what the Conservative Government did to British Industry under Thatcher is not one to be proud of if you really did want the best for the people. Of course Thatcher was the symbol of “free enterprise” and set out to serve those whose interests were profit for the few. The coal mining industry is not on its own in suffering the decimation of a world class industry in the name of the “free market”.

Thatcher lived long enough to see her beliefs demolished when the “free market” collapsed and came running to the State for support.  Unlike the Banks who gambled, cheated and were bailed out – Coal mines were closed and communities were left to suffer.

Margaret Hilda Thatcher is gone but the damage caused by her fatally flawed politics sadly lingers on."

And of course, with us now reeling under the oppressive boot of the most rightwing Government in history, this analysis is as pertinent as ever. The Coalition parties are rolling back the State further than Margaret Thatcher ever tried, but working fully in the spirit of her neoliberal ideology with its concept that Government should do as little as possible while profit-making should be introduced into every conceivable social transaction. It must have been with some satisfaction that in her final days she witnessed both the near destruction of the social welfare system and the effective privatization of the NHS with nearly all frontline services being put out to compulsory competitive tender from 1 April.

But of course, as with so many leaders, there are many myths about her which do not quite bear up to scrutiny.

- Contrary to myth, her Government borrowed vast amounts of money whilst preaching parsimony, needing it first to pay for  the record unemployment caused by her initial monetarist economic policies; and then to pay for tax cuts when she finally gave up on the doctrine so she could court re-election in 1987. She did reduce borrowing for a short time artificially by one-off sales of privatized state assets like the telecomms, energy and transport sectors, a policy castigated by her One Nation Tory predecessor Harold MacMillan as "selling off the family silver." Only in her last two years out of ten in office did she balance the books paying off £8 billion of the national debt, barely a quarter of what Gordon Brown managed (but for some bizarre reason never seemed to speak about in the 2010 election - we forget that just as she was the Iron Lady, Brown was for some years titled the Iron Chancellor).

Borrowing by Governments - since the war, Labour's financial record has bettered the Tories on running surpluses until having to bailout the banks. (Source - Guardian Newspaper)
- Contrary to myth, the Tory regime did not conquer inflation: it was suppressed to low levels for some years by her inducing a recession which put millions out of work, but overall it was just above 10% when she came to office, and just under 10% (and on an upwards spiral) when she left. 

- Contrary to myth, in spite of "hand bagging" the European Community, it was Thatcher's government that passed the Single European Act ushering in free movement of labour and capital across the Union, the single biggest step towards the Europe we have now. She also took us, albeit with reservations, into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, the precusor of the single European currency. She was no Euro-federalist, but in spite of the rhetoric and image, her support of the EU defies her adoption now as the masthead of the Eurosceptics: the EU we have now is in no small part down to her actions in office.

It was her Government that began the process, continued by the Major Conservative Government, of moving the long-term unemployed off the unemployment register and onto long term disability benefits. Disability/sickness benefits nearly trebled in pounds cost under Thatcher, rising from 15% to nearly 22% of the total social security bill (and to 26% under her successor John Major) as the Tories massaged the unemployment figures for political ends. This supreme example of statistical manipulation, as well as the manipulation of the lives and wellbeing of millions of vulnerable people, has now reached a viciously twisted denouement with her successors' assault on people they now decry as the LTB - lying thieving bastards. 

We could also remind the public that, as the ailing political giant Nelson Mandela, who led his nation to remarkable reconciliation, is invited to Mrs Thatcher's funeral, they might reflect that some of her supporters were keen to hold his funeral many years ago. After she derided Mandela as the leader of a "terrorist organisation" and refused to boycott the apartheid state, Mrs Thatcher was content to permit the Federation of Conservative Students to campaign for his execution by hanging.

By their works shall ye know them - and so we did and should continue to. This then is her legacy.

And yet, rather than partying at her death, the real challenge for the Left is to disseminate that legacy. The privatization of the NHS, for example, has been decades in the making - it was Thatcher who first brought in the internal market in health and ever since then hospitals and doctors have been pushed into ever-decreasing circles of both chasing the lowest price and proving their worth in terms of money rather than quality of care. Administration costs have nearly tripled while billions of pounds of public money have been robbed from the public coffers in the form of the Private Finance Initiative, yet another child of Thatcherism.

The risk now is that by courting controversy with tasteless "death parties" and the like, the Left allows her politics to be converted into some sickening hagiography that belies the truth of it : how many times have you heard ordinary members of the public saying things like Maggie would have sorted out the bankers or how she would have stopped the mess the Coalition have got us into? 

These of course could not be further from the truth - Thatcher led the way in deregulating banks and breaking the mutual building society sector; and more widely the Coalition are simply fulfilling the process which she began (and Blair continued), taking it to its next, ideological stage. Like Thatcher, they laud inequality and seek to destroy the social bonds between people, just as she once declared that there is no such thing as society. Britain under her Government became a place which was less kind, less united, where sterling replaced community. Memorably, her bleak take on the parable of the Good Samaritan had more to do with cash than care: “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions - he had money too”

It is what she leaves behind that we should be debating. Instead, by focusing on (and, even worse, publicly celebrating) the death of an elderly woman, someone whose place would simply have been taken by someone else had she never existed, we cede the real debate about now and the future of our society. The anger may be real, understandable and shared, but it is tragically misdirected. And, in spite of all the fluster in the right wing press, the Iron Lady herself would doubtless have thoroughly approved.

Her Legacy Remains

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