Anyone following British news, or even beyond, can’t help but have noticed that former Prime Minister Thatcher passed away and the polarised reactions she still inspires. So closely associated with her free-market and unabashedly right-wing ideology she was that her death has surprisingly reignited old passions there, in a way even a serious lapse in the free-market system such as the banking crisis failed to do. It is easier to feel strongly about a person than an ideological position. But who was she really and what were the defining issues of the ‘Thatcher years’, that she responded to?
Thatcher was a product of her times and someone who led at the very edge of what can be considered democratic norms. In Europe, as (even today) in South America, there was still an ideological conflict between the right, favouring privatisation and market forces and the left, putting it’s faith in a better managed state, increasingly centralised, using the finest minds to solve problems rather than free market forces to ‘naturally’ stablise society. Her style and the degree of power she wielded approached that of a dictator more than the more usual balanced, careful, almost bureaucratic norms of democratic leaders. This makes for a very divisive figure, a hero for the neo-liberal right, but a villain for the left. All of which doesn’t mean we anymore need to define ourselves in such tribal ways, but does explain the extreme reactions to her passing. It may sound dull, but I am personally against such extremes in public life. A lack of unity just makes co-operation and efficient running of society just that much harder to achieve and I think there is a certain consensus about this now. Yet it is also somewhat attractive to be thrown back to the seeming moral certainties and passions of the ‘80’s, when the current victory of neo-liberal policies had not yet been settled and in a sense, anything was possible.
For me, there are two Margaret Thatchers; the international statesman (or woman) who, together with both Ronald Regan and Mikhail Gorbachev, managed to end the cold war, heading off the very real possibility of it becoming a ‘hot war’ and at the same time opening up the former Soviet Block countries to economic liberalisation and political freedoms inconceivable before that time. In this, she was truly a remarkable historic figure, an icon of freedom standing up, unafraid to tyranny and a woman who defied all barriers. That the promised ‘freedom’ there has been accompanied by intense economic insecurity and, as the country broke up, patches of ethnic strife for many; though economic prosperity for others; shows this step forward wasn’t necessarily handled as well as it could have been. Still, this shouldn’t take away from the achievement here, which perhaps could only have been made by right of centre leaders, who would be so clearly opposed to the Soviet system that their accommodation of it’s transition would be seen as all the more sincere. Essentially, a nearly bankrupt Soviet Union couldn’t but change, but at least this made the event peaceful and somewhat manageable. As a side note here, Gorbachev never actually intended to break up or end the USSR, just to radically reform it, perhaps somewhat along the lines of recent leaders of the Chinese Communist Party.
Outside of this, she seemed to play a part in the dismantling of another, arguably even more tyrannical system, this being Apartheid. Apart from her (unacceptable) dismissal of Nelson Mandela and the ANC as just another terrorist movement, perhaps a necessary stance for consistencies stake considering the support she wanted when confronting the IRA, she did see the system there as one with no future. She did help another, reasonable and humane partner in the form of F.W. De Clerk move the country back into the international sphere with a much-needed, peaceful end to that system. Fears of a terrible race war were put to rest by the intelligent process, which along with the truth and reconciliation committee made way for a much fairer country, so that even if it does have terrible problems to this day, at least there is no toxic ideology holding back individuals.
Also of course there is her handling of the Falklands conflict (not an all-out war as it is sometimes erroneously referred to), which through dedication and an enormous amount of luck she succeeded in winning, a source of her popularity, a resurgence of national confidence and the defeat not just of the Argentinian military, but also their morally bankrupt Authoritarian system, which crumbled soon after. A stain on all of this is the controversial sinking of the Cruiser Belgrano by a nuclear submarine, outside of and heading away from the 200km exclusion zone set up by the Royal Navy around the task force Depending on who you ask, this was either a military necessity, as it may well have been used against them, or a war crime that ignited a conflict, which might otherwise have been settled through peaceful negotiations soon after. Sad though the loss of life may be, it did discourage the Argentinian Navy from getting involved any further and their attempt at a ‘pincer movement’ was called off (if it hadn’t already been), the ships being recalled to port, meaning the task force could safely proceed.
Then there is the other side of Thatcher, the side that draws the most controversy; her domestic policies. She came to office faced with some extreme economic malaise and the reoccurring problem of very strong and unco-operative labour unions, especially in the North of the country. Faced with the decline of a former Imperial power, she sought to revive the economy with extreme measures, which would obviously hurt people and not just as individuals, but threaten whole communities with economic tragedy. In doing so, whilst on the positive, she raised the profile of the City of London and brought a lot of benefits to much of the South-East, she devastated inner cities and the north, damaging a working class that admittedly already suffered from high unemployment and in economically unprofitable, nationalised industries. In some cases, they were reduced to the status and economic prospects of an underclass, which meant extreme poverty, crime and psychological damage came about, unprecedented in a developed country. If you see signs vilifying her as an evil dictator, deserving of no sympathy even in death, here is the source of such feeling. I myself grew up in South-East London, experiencing power cuts from coal strikes, teacher strikes, seeing riots on the television, seeing the poverty and anger her policies created, or at least brought to a head. If she made Britain stronger, she also brutalised it. No other advanced Western country has experienced such pain, though I’m sure a lot of developing ones have. The point was, though, that in many ways it felt like things were going backwards, even if it was, as her supporters claim, inevitable.
I personally feel that even if drastic reforms were necessary, this part of her legacy really can’t be whitewashed. Coming from South-East London, there were a mixture of benefits and deficits from her policies, though it is fair to say that even if the country as a whole became more prosperous in terms of individual wealth, the poor did get relatively poorer and the rich richer, in such a drastic way that great resentment and imbalance came about, a source of great resentment. Ultimately, it could be said, people are responsible for themselves and those who lose a job in one industry should find one in another, even if it means relocating. Yet the harshness and lack of humanity in which this transition from industrial to post-industrial society was taken place and arguably the unnecessary and even vindictive aspects to it simply can’t be forgotten or in many cases forgiven (though I personally think forgiveness and moving on is preferable to holding a grudge, where possible). We also today live with the legacy of the ‘fat cats’ failing and then not even apologising, let alone paying back their state-sponsored loans.
So while Thatcher is dead, her legacy isn’t. We can’t carry on dealing with problems with such uncompromising, viscous harshness. A more nuanced, gentle approach is needed and retraining for other jobs and economic support is needed if unprofitable industries are to be scaled down, as surely was necessary for the coal mines. Even if their virtual disintegration was a foolish step, a subsidised existence as so often happens in France, Japan or America would be the more nuanced response, saving communities from destruction and keeping parts of the country habitable. Of course, where to draw the line here is debatable, but if banks can be so freely bailed out, why not industries? There has to be a middle ground and fair, responsible way to do things.
So, while I am not the one to judge, there is growing evidence that the extreme measures taking place in the UK during Margret Thatcher’s rule were in part necessary, yet at times reached the extent that they can almost be considered economic crimes against humanity. If destroying the Amazon rainforest for dams is wrong if it destroys tribes there, why silently accept the economic bankruptcy of England’s North? If it is wrong for Saddam Hussein to discriminate against and reduce to poverty Sunnis, even going further and using chemical weapons against them, why accept economic betrayal and destruction of inner cities? The point is, even if the human tragedies and desolations that happen in developing countries are worse and due to much more obvious discrimination, economic destruction being wrecked in a developed country is just as bad and just as closely linked to a philosophy of economic development ‘at any cost’, ‘taking no prisoners, showing no mercy’. The psychology of domination isn’t limited to leaders in Authoritarian states. It can just as well surface in liberal democracies, where like any psychosis it wreaks havoc on it’s victims.
Of course the way this happened in the UK could also be blamed on uncompromising, militant local council leaders in cities and the pretty much Communist leader of the mining union based in the north (NUM), Arthur Scargill. The illegal and undemocratic picketing, holding the entire country to ransom simply couldn’t be tolerated any more and the needs of the country as a whole had to be respected, even if it did result in some confrontation. Unions are essential to a functioning democracy, being the voice of great masses of workers who help to bring it about. Yet, to an extent, this way of thinking blames the victim for the crime, or the oppressed for resisting.
The way forward is better communication, more reasonable and mutual understanding. The third way politics espoused by Tony Blair and now Barack Obama, however much cynicism they attract in more radical quarters, are the best way forward, involving decency and consultation, not either domination or submission to one tyranny or another. Looking back, we need to be fair and thorough. We need to be honest, we need to be rational and we need to be able to see past our personal sphere. Only then can we have a hope to avoid making some of the same mistakes again, as ‘the path to hell is paved with good intentions’, now and forever more. In actual fact, though it needs to be accompanied by a lot of state assistance, there really is no alternative for wealth-creation today than an economically liberal society.
In all of this, I’ve tried to present a balanced view. Though I’ll admit, in Manichean terms this is no view at all. I actually think she’d be pleased to see how polarising her views remain. Hopefully Britain will never again have to suffer under such an divisive leader, or experience such radical, disruptive measures, though it seems a watered down version of the same is being experienced right now under David Cameron’s ‘austerity measures’. Whether this is necessary economic medicine or just class-based prejudice is hard to conclusively gauge. Yet the enormous expense of her funeral and of exotic weapons systems like the Trident submarines make me wonder if things really need to be as strict and suffocating for the socially needy as they are. For myself, I think it misguided. There has to be a better way.
I’ll leave you with what has become the most popular protest song of this ‘revolution’. I don’t believe it is really about hating her, personally or even as a politician, despite the way the media reports it. It’s more a colourful way of dismissing what she stood for and all the suffering it entailed, in opposition to the current ruling party’s elevation of her as a holy icon, whose passing should be mourned. In this, they are perhaps a bit hypocritical, as it was the Tory party themselves that ended her career in tears. It’s also a bit strange to me that, so far at least, her ‘close friend’ Rupert Murdoch says he is too busy to come, as do the former U.S. presidents called George. Hmm true friendship, or fair-weather friends? Ironically it’s Hillary Clinton who is coming, to honour a fellow female politician and show her humanity.
Oh okay, just to be fair, I’ll include the protest of the protest… which is perhaps a softer, more tasteful protest in itself??