‘Margaret Thatcher is Dead: This lady is not returning!’ is one way of the calmer statements celebrating Thatcher’s demise on my Facebook page. I can’t join the clamour singing ‘Ding dong the witch is dead’, trailing as it does its horrific historical sexism. More sadly, I can’t see anything to celebrate. Whilst this once formidable Tory trailblazer is dead, her ideas are more resurgent than ever. Neither Cameron nor Osborne will ever be damned as a warlocks or necromancers – this rarely happens to men – yet it is thanks to them that Margaret Thatcher dies triumphant. Thatcher’s success, like that of her pal, Reagan, was that through a combination of shrewdness and luck she could ride the high tide of corporate capital’s determination to increase profits by rolling back all the popular gains of the postwar settlement. She was neoliberalism’s willing tool, rather than something unique, evil or otherwise.
’Thatcherism’ is a much more vigorous form of class struggle from above than had been waged by Conservatism since World War II, with a much stronger anti-trade union bias, a much greater determination to reaffirm managerial authority, to cut wages, to reduce the cushioning effect of welfare benefits, to ‘recommodify’ health, education, transport, and other collective and welfare services, to strengthen the authority and power of the state (despite all ‘libertarian’ protestations), and to legitimate its policies and politics by a frenzied appeal to nationalism (notwithstanding continued British subservience to the United States), not to forget anti-communism. This is a quite formidable programme, and Mrs Thatcher herself is a sufficiently ambitious, determined and blinkered politician to push it, if allowed, a long way further than she has already done. Indeed, one thing which is really new about ‘Thatcherism’ is the fact that Mrs Thatcher is the first British Prime Minister to convey the very strong impression that she could, in suitably fraught circumstances, very comfortably play the role of a Pinochet, or at least of an Indira Gandhi in the infamous days of the Emergency, of course in the name of democracy, freedom, law and order, the struggle against subversion and the defence of the Constitution.
- taken from a piece by Ralph Miliband in the New Left Review (full article available here)
The demonization of the working class cannot be understood without looking back at the Thatcherite experiment of the 1980s that forged the society we live in today […]
To understand Thatcherism’s attitude to working-class Britain, it is important to start by looking at Thatcher herself. Some of her warmest admirers have often been at pains to portray her—wrongly—as a person of humble origins. As the staunchly Thatcherite Tory MP David Davis told me: ‘Margaret was always a bit more middle class than she made out.’ It is almost a cliché to describe her as a grocer’s daughter, but it was this that coloured her entire political outlook.
Growing up in the Lincolnshire market town of Grantham, her father had instilled in her a deep commitment to what could be called lowermiddle- class values: individual self-enrichment and enterprise, and an instinctive hostility to collective action. Her biographer, Hugo Young, noted that she had little if any contact with working-class people, let alone the trade union movement.
Her attitudes were undoubtedly cemented when in 1951 she married a wealthy businessman, Denis Thatcher, who believed that trade unions should be banned altogether. She surrounded herself with men from privileged backgrounds. In her first Cabinet, 88 per cent of ministers were former public school students, 71 per cent were company directors and 14 per cent were large landowners. No wonder, then, that one of her Cabinet ministers told a journalist just before the 1979 election: ‘She is still basically a Finchley lady…She regards the working class as idle, deceitful, inferior and bloody-minded.’
If Thatcher had one aim, it was to stop us thinking in terms of class. ‘Class is a Communist concept,’ she would later write. ‘It groups people as bundles and sets them against one another.’ She wanted to erase the idea that people could better their lives by collective action, rather than by individual self-improvement: that is, ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’. Just months after her election victory in 1979, she had intended to spell this out to the country in stark terms.
So they win again. If anything is to be taken from the miserable time we endured last week, it must be to learn some lessons about how the enemy operates. It couldn’t have worked much better from their point of view. A series of punitive attacks on the poorest and most vulnerable in society ended up being simultaneously cloaked and justified by the brazen hijacking of an appalling, aberrant act of violence. This is one part of the “legacy of Thatcher” that we will be invited to reflect upon in the coming days. The bitter edge to all those leftist celebrations of Thatcher’s death is all too evident. She retired from the field of class war twenty years ago, her work a spectacular success. Looking at Britain now - a country much more Thatcherite than when she left office – she could have died a happy woman.
The Tories have long been struggling with the problem of how to escape Thatcher’s shadow while continuing her project. Last week, we saw their quest to square a circle – how to lose their ‘nasty party’ image while actually intensifying the attack on the remnants of social democracy – bearing some fruit. Helmed by the reinvented IDS, now cast as a caring but tough-minded friend of the poor, the simple strategy has involved the displacement of the concept of unemployment by that of welfare dependency. The idea of welfare dependency is inherently obfuscatory, part of the inverted world magical thinking the Tories have been all too successful at pushing in opposition. In Thatcher’s day, unemployment was the price to pay for reconstruction; now, insofar as the Tories now mention unemployment at all, it is posited only as an effect of welfare dependency. Just as the state “crowds out” private sector entrepreneurialism, so – we are solemnly informed – the benefit system obstructs the capacity of people to act in their own interests. The Tories now can sound like inverted Marxists who aren’t attacking individuals, but the system which produces their behaviour. In the immortal words of Grant Shapps: “It is not that these people were trying to play the system, so much as these people were forced into a system that played them.” By shifting the focus onto the benefits system, the Tories can pose as the good patrician parent, offering the tough love solution to the bureaucratic indulgences of left paternalism.