Margaret Thatcher – Not Dead Yet?

Margaret Thatcher was an avowed imperialist and Cold Warrior, notorious among other things for her close friendship with Chile’s right wing-dictator and mass murderer Augusto Pinochet and with the South African apartheid regime – she denounced the ANC and Nelson Mandela as ‘terrorists’ - her jingoistic war with Argentina over the tiny Falklands/Malvinas, and her refusal to prevent the deaths of Bobby Sands and nine other Irish republican prisoners on hunger strike in 1981. Alongside her political soul-mate Ronald Reagan in the US, Thatcher presided over a devastating intervention to shore up and expand corporate profits and the entire system of global capital accumulation. The 1980s saw the full consolidation of destructive neoliberal globalization with the imposition of structural adjustment policies on Third World countries and the forcible opening up of their economies to the untrammeled and footloose incursions of highly mobile corporate capital, with the impact on basic human indicators like child mortality rates leading to the period being described as a ‘lost decade’ for Africa and Latin America in particular. The financialisation of capital in which Thatcher played a key role in this decade saw a huge aggrandizement of the wealth of the City of London, even as deindustrialization laid waste to many parts of Britain and unemployment soared.

Thatcher’s impact in Britain itself can be understood less in terms of a legacy and more as an ongoing class war which is all too alive. She began the process of selling off huge swathes of the public sector and systematically dismantling the welfare state which was continued by with equal enthusiasm by a neoliberal New Labour and is now being completed under the guise of austerity by a new generation of Conservatives. If Thatcher was primarily an instrument for the coming to fruition of neoliberalism, she doubtless put a personal stamp on the process, as evidenced in the virulence of her attacks on the trade union movement, including the ban on secondary picketing which effectively outlawed solidarity action, and in particular, her brutal vendetta against the most powerfully organised and militant section of it, the coal miners (whom she called the ‘enemy within’) and their union the National Union of Mineworkers led by Arthur Scargill. Thatcher also came to embody a particularly insidious form of racism, epitomized by her notorious 1978 speech warning against British people being ‘swamped’ by immigration from the Commonwealth, which simultaneously appropriated the ground of the fascist far-right and legitimized its violence, as well as reinforcing the ongoing racist policing of black communities. This racism, which focuses on a perceived threat to ‘British culture’, has continued to animate successive policies on race in Britain, including those shaped by the ‘war on terror’. At the same time, in the wake of the wave of urban riots in 1981 in response to unemployment, poverty and most centrally daily police brutality and fascist violence, not only were black youth further targeted and criminalized, but the state embarked on ‘multicultural’ policies which used local government funding to undermine unity between people of African and Asian origin, and to deradicalise the anti-racist movement, promoting the most reactionary elements as ‘community leaders’.

Thatcher’s skill as a politician was in selling the dream of entrepreneurship and property ownership to sections of the working class and lower middle class, in doing which she played on her own petty bourgeois origins as a ‘grocer’s daughter’ (downplaying the fact that her subsequent marriage to a millionaire businessman had made it possible for her to launch her political career). This was fused with racism and social conservatism in a potent blend reminiscent of the strategies of the Hindu right. While ‘she sought to create mass support for big business by championing markets as an empowering, democratising force…. she also sought to portray markets as a moral force. .. As a leader of the New Right, she fused neoliberalism with the moralistic, reactionary politics of ‘Middle England’; tying the cold interests of capital to the bigoted preoccupations of the Tory base’ (Tom Mills, ‘Death of a class warrior’, New Left Project). These ideas set the political agenda, leading to today’s cross-Party neoliberal consensus - politics which Tariq Ali calls the ‘extreme centre’ - in the British Parliament, although any mass popular embrace of such ideas is spectacularly falling apart under the impact of the crisis.

While Thatcher was the first and to date only woman Prime Minister in a country where women are (and continued to be under her government) still severely underrepresented in politics, she initiated a series of attacks on women - particularly on the rights of single mothers, who were demonized as ‘scroungers’, and working women, who were berated as ‘bad mothers’ even as state child benefit payments were cut - and was avowedly anti-feminist, referring with contempt in speeches to the ‘strident tones’ of ‘Women’s Libbers’. But the misogyny which is currently circulating celebrating the death of the ‘witch’/’bitch’ also raises questions of why women – and older women in particular - are targeted in particular ways, while underlining the fact that such celebrations are politically bankrupt when Thatcherism as an ideology is very far from dead.

Meanwhile, we witness the spectacle of the beleaguered government desperately trying to recreate Thatcher as a beloved figure of national consensus, and silence any criticism of her politics in the name of ‘respect for the dead’ - a process in which the Labour Party leadership has shamefully colluded. While the film director Ken Loach suggested wryly, “Let’s privatise her funeral. Put it out to competitive tender and accept the cheapest bid. It’s what she would have wanted” , Thatcher was given a royal tourist-spectacle of a funeral at taxpayers expense – estimated at 10 million pounds. This state-choreographed adulation rapidly descended into farce as the BBC tried to ban the playing of a song from the 1930s children’s musical The Wizard of Oz – ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ which topped the music bestsellers charts in the wake of Thatcher’s demise, underlining another of Thatcher’s legacies, the government’s stranglehold over the BBC, which accompanied the rise to dominance of the Murdoch press under her government.

However, the struggles of the Thatcher era should also be re-examined as important legacies, particularly in the ways they implied the central importance of resisting racism and patriarchy for the left, as well as of new forms of organizing and the building of new alliances. These are unresolved issues for the British left which have once again come to the fore in the current era of crisis and austerity. For the British left then, faced with the final destruction of the post-1945 welfare state, it is particularly important not to fall into the trap of romanticizing the pre-Thatcher era if it is to build a genuine alternative. Acquiescence with the so-called ‘social contract’ between labour and capital and the corporatism of the post-war years, and the fact that it was structured and divided by racism against Britain’s black working class communities and its entitlements were rooted in the patriarchal division of labour, had made the working class by the 1980s unable to fight back strongly against the assault of Thatcherism (with the exception of certain sections with specific histories like the miners). The welfare state was brought into being as a result of sustained working class struggles, but it was made possible by the long-term accumulation of surpluses from colonialism and the differential valuing of labour in the centre and periphery which characterizes imperialism - the Labour government fought hard to hold on to Britain’s remaining colonies during the same post-1945 era when it put in place the welfare state. There can be no going back to the pre-Thatcherite past – the notion of the universal right to social provision can now only be reaffirmed on an entirely new basis of revolutionary transformation and anti-imperialist internationalism.

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