Thatcher: mythologies and legacies

The past week was inevitable. It was always going to be the case that when Margaret Thatcher died, there would be a torrent of Thatcherabilia in the media; much of it adulatory, some of it reopening the old wounds from the 1980s.  The State Funeral question had been well-trailed; it was always clear that the Westminster political class would unite in eulogy (although the recall of Parliament for seven-and-a-half hours of expensive rhetoric probably went further than many predicted).  It was, too, always going to be an important moment in the Conservative Party’s uneasy dialogue with itself; David Cameron, a weak leader held in open contempt by much of his party (not least for his failure to win a decisive election in 2010) would inevitably be measured by his response to the passing of the iconic Conservative figure of recent history, who famously never lost a General Election.

As one of the Thatcher generation (I cast my first vote, a few weeks after my eighteenth birthday, in the 1979 General Election) it has been fascinating to see the divisions of those years re-open, and to read the various opinion pieces on her legacy.  It has also been interesting to see the generational divide; the diffierence between those of us who lived through the Thatcher years and those who came after.  Not just the experience of explaining the Miners’ Strike, or the Falklands War, or even free school milk, to people who were not born when those were live issues; but the sense of a newer post-Thatcher generation for whom the things she did are part of the background.  But I’d argue that in order to understand the politics of the Coalition it is essential to bear witness to Thatcherism and remember it for what it was, not the sanitised version that the media and political establishment want to present.

Thatcherite legacies

The Conservative-led political establishment are now busily engaged in building the mythology, the strong leader who saved Britain and transformed the economy.  I think the legacy is real, but rather different; for all her divisiveness there are key elements of our mainstream political society that are essentially Thatcherite.  I list some thoughts on these in turn below.

1.  Markets trump democracy

In some ways this is the most fundamental of all.  If there is one phrase that one associates with Margaret Thatcher, it is that there is no alternative – the imperatives of the market rule.  In our post-2008 austerity, this has come to mean that the demands of economic orthodoxy will always triumph over expressions of democracy.  Economic activity runs according to iron rules rather than democratic mandates – as Italy and Greece with the imposition of “technocratic” governments to impose austerity packages to ensure that the risk associated with lending to governments is borne, not to any extent by the lending institutions, but by the people of those countries without any risk of their having any democratic say in the matter.  David Harvey, among others, has pointed out how the erosion of democracy is at the heart of the neoliberal project; more recently we have seen the EU seeking to create a treaty which would effectively surrender member states’ ability to set deficit budgets, and hence to make macro-economic decisions.  Although there is a growing reaction against this mechanistic view of economics and the unquestioning acceptance of assumptions about the operation of markets that underpins it – following Keynes’ view that policy-makers can influence economic outcomes for both good and bad – the assumptions of austerity, supported by intellectually-dubious constructs like public choice theory, occupy a position of hegemony in policy decisions.  And, importantly in the UK, that consensus is shared across all the main political parties.  Ed Balls has made it  clear that there will be no relaxation of austerity if Labour wins the 2015 election; but more generally celebration of the market was among the salient features of New Labour.

2. War and the cult of the military

It seems to me that one of the most interesting social changes in recent years concerns the way the military is viewed in Britain.  In that underrated masterpiece The Lion and the Unicorn, Orwell – writing during wartime – describes the British indifference towards war and militarism; he suggests that if the British Army ever adopted the goosestep, people would laugh.  My father’s generation did National Service; it was a generation that joked of the imbecility and pointlessness of military life.  It seems to me that since the Falklands War we have seen a complete change in public attitudes towards the military – something that has gone hand-in-hand with British involvement in successive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and an almost Orwellian acceptance of permanent war (although not of course the total war that Orwell envisaged in Nineteen Eighty-Four).  It is a different type of war, in which a relatively small army of professional soldiers achieve heroic status by fighting wars from which the civilian population is thousands of miles distant, in pursuit of war aims that are described as “liberal” – about freedom and dealing with dictators – but whose aims are anything but.  The talk of heroes is proportionate to the distance from the front line.

Moreover, as the generations who fought in the century’s two total wars pass away, the attitude to remembrance has notably changed.  The comments of the last British survivor of the First World War, Henry Allingham, who had experienced the reality of war and loathed it, contrast powerfully with the gung-ho Poppy Fascism and the sheer theatricality of modern remembrance.  Nobody much cared if you wore a poppy, and there was no two-minute silence on the 11th November as well as on Remembrance Sunday.  Thatcher was both the first British Prime Minister in modern times not to have served in war, but also the first – through the victory in the Falklands – to understand its potential as a political weapon.  In a notorious speech at Cheltenham Racecourse in the weeks after victory in the Falklands, Thatcher coined the phrase “the Falklands Factor” to contrast the bravery of British servicemen with the attitudes of striking railway workers.  It seems to me that before the Falklands War, there was a general assumption that a political leader who led Britain into war would have lacked popular support; it is possible that without the post-colonial narratives of beleagured Brits in the South Atlantic who wanted nothing more than to be part of Britain (although, crucially, the management of the Falkland Islands before the 1982 conflict was in the hands of a private company and had nothing whatsoever to do with democracy), war would still have been intolerable; but Thatcher, in the Falklands, normalised British involvement in war.  Moreover she popularised it and made it into a rallying cause for the tabloid press.  It was perhaps the experience of the Falklands in the back of Blair’s mind (it is often forgotten that his debut on the political stage was as Labour candidate in a by-election in Beaconsfield during the Falklands War) while lying his way into an illegal war into Iraq while a million people marched through London in protest.  And Thatcher had already made the poisonous link between backing “our boys” and neutralising dissent at home, with the backing of a feral tabloid press.

One aspect of this militarisation that may become clearer as the funeral progresses – if the expected dissent is shown – is the militarisation and politicisation of the police.  It is an irony that as the rhetoric of policing has shifted away from the idea of force to the language of service, policing of dissent has become more systematic and militarised, often drawing on practice from the brutalisation of occupied Palestine.  During the Brixton riots the police notoriously protected themselves with dustbin lids as makeshift shields; by the Miners’ Strike the police were using force of numbers; now tactics like the collective punishment of kettling and the practise of “pre-arresting” those likely to indulge in visible dissent (like the arrest of a street theatre company before a royal wedding) are routine.  Thatcher came to power weeks after the murder of Blair Peach by illegally tooled-up police officers; the use of officially-sanctioned police violence is now central to the maintenance of the Westminster consensus.  Students, betrayed by politicians who had lied about fees, took to the street to protest and were kettled and beaten, learning, perhaps, an early lesson in the limits of democracy in the eyes of the Westminster consensus.  This – and the Orwellian tale of Alfie Meadows, beaten by police until he bled into his brain and then charged with violent disorder – is a key legacy of Thatcher; one that nobody in the Westminster consensus is willing to disown.

3. The marginalisation of compassion and solidarity: no such thing as society

In almost every respect political discourse in post-1979 Britain has become harder, crueller, less compassionate.  Hugo Young’s magisterial piece on Thatcher’s legacy - written in 2003 but reprinted in the Guardian the day after Thatcher died – made the important point that Thatcher did not much care about being liked; it is part of a wider aspect of her politics, which is that she ended the pretence that government was conducted on behalf of the people as a whole.  Thatcher was overtly partisan; there were whole swathes of people that did not matter – people who were not going to vote for her, or to vote at all, and who could therefore be disregarded – or demonised for the gratification of her supporters.  Of course, it helped to have a supine media; Thatcherism represents the triumph of tabloid values erected into a system of Government.  But at a more basic level, Thatcherism elevated the psychopathology of the playground bully into a principle of public administration, providing legitimacy and cover for some of the most feral tabloid journalism on the planet.  (When conservatives – of all parties – call for “respect” in the run-up to her funeral, it is worth remembering the “respect” that Thatcher and her media cronies showed for the 96 victims of police stupidity and negligence at Hillsborough)

If you stand back, and try to listen dispassionately, it becomes clear that casual brutality has become the dominant tone of political discourse, right across the political spectrum: the language used to describe people who are not quite like us.  Owen Jones has of course written eloquently about the “Chav” phenomenon and the language used to describe the poor at a time when economic and social policy seems calculated to make life more difficult, more marginal for people who do not enjoy the security of privilege.  And the rhetoric of demonisation goes across the political spectrum; listen to New Labour’s adoption of the “strivers versus shirkers” rhetoric, or the way in which so much political rhetoric argues the case for “hard working families”; the language of exclusiveness and exclusion appears increasingly hard-wired into our political discourse.

Above all, the legacy of Thatcherism is that you have to earn the right to a say, through conformity to certain values and practices.  One of the most potent of Thatcher’s legacies is the way in which the Westminster establishment – regardless of party – has returned to the language of the deserving and undeserving; Thatcher’s hankering after Victorian Values made into the centrality of political discourse.  Hard work as a precondition for acceptance when, for millions, there is no work at all; or when the grinding hard work of caring for, or even being, physically or mentally disabled counts for nothing because no exchange of cash is involved.  I have blogged before about how the Westminster establishment has re-adopted the values of the workhouse, and how citizenship has become contingent on conformist contribution.  When Labour luminaries use the language of individual effort and personal sanction in their response to mass unemployment, the legacy of Thatcherism is all too clear.

4. Class Warrior and enemy of the establishment

One of the most insightful of the many pieces that appeared following Thatcher’s death was a piece in the Glasgow Herald which, for all its value, made the fundamental error of claiming that Thatcher was not a class warrior.  Perhaps not in the sense that Cameron and Osborne – scions of an old aristocracy reclaiming what they think of as their heritage – but, as ever with discussions of class in England, it’s complicated.  It is difficult to think of the young Margaret Roberts, the bright and driven grammar-school girl at Oxford, viewing the antics of the Bullingdon Club with anything but distaste; Thatcher was undoubtedly a warrior for her class, but it was not the class that had run the Conservative Party for so many decades (although it was of course the class of her predecessor Edward Heath).

A small cameo from my own student days: a debating contest at the Oxford Union in which first-year students hoping to make their mark on that smug and over-rated institution vied for attention.  The subject of debate was Margaret Thatcher and no sneer was spared by the young future masters of the universe: she was provincial, shallow, narrow-minded, with a vision that extended no further than the double-entry ledger of the grocer’s shop over which she had grown up.  Of course, what they – we – lacked was the wit or maturity to understand that these things were the core of her strength; the certainty that she spoke for a class of English people who believed themselves to be misunderstood and undervalued, and how she became the medium by which the frustration of an entire class could be released.  It’s very easy to make generalisations about Poujadism, but that missed the point.  We now of course know that the policy of selling council houses is one of the root causes of a deep housing crisis that blights modern Britain, but of course in the 1980s it was seen as a sign of genius.  The great strength of Thatcher was that she knew her supporters and played to them, and empowered their values in her politics; it represents a powerful contrast to a Labour Party that has abandoned its aim of acting as a voice for organised labour, the poor and dispossessed.  In her ability to tune into and mobilise the discontent of the relatively-privileged, Thatcher’s strengths closely mirror New Labour’s weaknesses.

Aneurin Bevan famously wrote that the art of twentieth-century conservative politics lay in persuading poverty to use its political freedom to keep wealth in power.  Thatcher offers a powerful exemplar of that; how to capture the discontents and aspirations of a discontented middle-class to ensure that wealth keeps power, but in a way that suggested that power was being taken away from old aristocracies and oligarchs (including erecting a whole new category of trade union barons who were portrayed as having the real power in society).  One of the fascinating things about Thatcherism is how it managed to reel in the radicalism and discontent of the sixties generation; how swinging London swung behind Thatcher in 1979.  One answer of course is that, for all the discontents of 1968, the popular radicalism of the 1960s was often hedonistic and lacking in any theory or grounding – it was essentially selfish, and a fertile ground for the denial of any such thing as society.  The redefinition of aspiration in hedonistic and individualistic terms – the mythology of home ownership as independence and freedom, the great car economy, the idea of higher education as an investment to be purchased rather than as something that defined a good society, the idea of a vibrant neighbourhood as one containing cafes and bars rather than collectively-provided libraries, parks and schools –  was a Thatcherite triumph that has never really gone away.  We idolise celebrities – pop stars, sports people and so on – who articulate a content-free, safe and wholly solipsistic ideal of aspiration; the X-Factor, with its competition, its sentimentality and its grandstanding of sincerity and effort, is the purest Thatcherism. When Labour agonises about aspiration, it is showing that it simply lacks the intellectual and moral equipment (not to mention the grasp on its own history) to get away from the Thatcherite terms of reference.

Cementing the mythology: Thatcherism and the redefinition of Britishness

Those seven hours of Parliamentary eulogy, the official funeral with full military honours, even the absurd debacle over whether the BBC should play Ding Dong the Witch is Dead – driven to the top of the charts by sales to anti-Thatcherites; it is clear that something way beyond the usual commemoration of a deceased Prime Minister is happening.  This is ideological; it is about taking the most divisive Prime Minister in modern times and cementing her divisive and bitterly-contested ideology into the canon of British identity.  The political and media establishment are uniting around a single idea – that we are all Thatcherites now.

And, if your concept of Britishness simply includes the political and media class, that’s probably true. The simple fact is that a political class drawn from a steadily-narrowing – and privileged –  social spectrum remains predominantly loyal to the Thatcher doctrine.  But of course the ambition of this funeral is to go much further than that.  This is about power, and about the boundaries of legitimate citizenship.

Milan Kundera famously wrote that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory over forgetting.  The pageantry of the past week – the Parliamentary tributes, the tabloid adoration, the Ruritanian excesses of the taxpayer-funded funeral – are much more than the excesses of a political establishment that, in its economic weakness and its reliance on myth rather than fact, has never really looked weaker.  They are a ritual of forgetting; a mechanism for pretending that the divisions and resistance never happened, or at best represented the discontent of deviance.  While Orgreave, the Belgrano and the riots in Brixton and Toxteth fade into grainy black-and-white, the fundamental unity of the British political class is to be paraded through central London in full, if respectfully muted, technicolor. This is Britain coming together, and you’ll damn well celebrate your freedom by mourning. And if you turn your back on the procession there’s a kindly bobby with a baton to set you right.

And here is the irony.  For all the establishment rhetoric of respect and solemnity, the real message of this funeral (appropriately enough) is – rejoice.  The political establishment is saying – these are your values now, and this is your identity – whether you like it or not. Rejoice.  And unless we learn to resist we are all Thatcherites now.

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