Margaret Thatcher was a class-war warrior who dragged British capitalism screaming into the 20th century at the expense of millions of working people. She lives on in the shape of leaders of the main parties who, in a variety of ways, espouse her reactionary policies.
Individuals can and do make a big difference in history. Thatcher confirmed this in a brutal way. While aristocratic Tories dithered, a petit-bourgeois woman acted decisively at home and abroad.
She used the power of the capitalist state to create a Bonapartist form of rule. The impact of a virtual dictatorship was felt during the 1982 war with
over the Malvinas/Falklands, to the hunger strikers who starved to death in Ireland and the
miners’ union which for a year fought a civil war with the Thatcher regime.
Right-wing Tories had long prepared to destroy the union, which was provoked into strike action by a programme of pit closures. While the NUM responded, the leaders of most trade unions sat on their hands, along with the Labour leader Neil Kinnock. Anti-union laws – which remain in force to this day – frightened the TUC and the miners were driven back empty handed
It would be a mistake, however, to see Thatcher’s policies just as some kind of personal crusade, though that element was certainly there. They reflected changed international circumstances which perilously exposed an outdated British capitalist economy.
The post-war consensus actually ended at the beginning of the decade Thatcher first came to power, in 1971 when the Bretton Woods agreement collapsed. This system of tight capital controls, fixed currencies and tariff barriers sustained by a gold-backed dollar fell apart.
What followed was a decade of massive inflation, economic depression, soaring interest rates and class confrontation. In
a tripling of oil prices coincided with a miners’ strike, a three-day week and
the bringing down of the Heath Tory government in 1974.
A minority Labour government implemented a series of cuts and also fought the trade unions. It too was defeated. The consensus – which was essentially a period of class compromise accepted by all the parties - was shattered, never to return.
Enter Thatcher, stage right.
Influenced by the monetarist theories of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, she set about giving capitalism a new lease of life. Industries nationalised by Labour after World War II because they were bankrupt were sold off. Public spending was cut back and local councils lost their historic powers to raise revenue. Others, like the Greater London Council, were simply abolished.
And yet, it was a close run thing. The recession of 1981 was devastating and led to mass unemployment, reaching 3.5 million. Huge mid-week demonstrations saw her poll ratings plummet.
Argentina’s military adventure
played into Thatcher’s hands. So did Michael Foot, then leader of the Labour
When the Commons met on a Saturday morning to discuss the response to the invasion of the Malvinas, Foot gave his blessing to sending a task force. Peace deals brokered by the Peruvians were literally torpedoed when
Downing Street authorised the sinking of the
Argentine battleship, General Belgrano as it was sailing away from the
By the mid-1980s, the intense period of corporate-driven globalisation was well under way. Thatcher’s response was to internationalise the City of
in 1986 through what became known as the Big Bang. From that moment, the
financial sector went global and the seeds of today’s present crisis were sown.
Party leaders past and present fell over themselves yesterday to pay tributes to Thatcher. Ed Miliband said he we should “greatly respect her political achievements and her personal strength”. Here speaks one of Thatcher’s children, politically speaking.
Labour has no intention of returning industries to public ownership or of reconstructing a financial system that in large parts resembles a global casino. Miliband believes in monetarism too, citing the need to cut the public spending deficit. His party began the dismantling of the welfare state and the introduction of market structures into the National Health Service. He is for a “responsible capitalism” that rewards “wealth creation”.
Rejecting Thatcher’s poisonous so-called legacy will require a vision and real alternatives to an economic and political system in terminal decline.