When Margaret Thatcher died we were told that, as in life, her death had polarised and divided Britain. On the one hand there were the parliamentary tributes, the claims for her greatness as a woman and principles as a politician, and a funeral with dignitaries arriving from all over the world. Against this there were the street parties celebrating her death, the singing of “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead”, and the outpouring of vitriol against ‘Britain’s most-hated Prime Minister’. More than twenty years after she left power Thatcher was still able to play a role in the false ideological alternatives of different factions of the ruling class.
For a start, US President Obama called Thatcher “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty”. This curious description involves a revival of the language of the Cold War. Margaret Thatcher had as much to do with ‘freedom’ as the Stalinist leaders of the USSR had to do with communism. What she did do during her time in office was ensure that British imperialism sustained its role as a loyal lieutenant to the US leader of the western bloc. And when the Russian bloc fell apart, and the British bourgeoisie wanted British imperialism to pursue a more independent orientation, the ‘men in grey suits’ arranged for her replacement. There was no longer a place for the hard-line Cold War rhetoric. Thatcher was clearly dispensable.
On the level of the economy, the denigrators of Thatcher blame her for the increase in unemployment in the early 80s, the decline in the steel, car and shipbuilding industries, and the attack on coal mining. These were not the individual responsibility of one person. The decline in many major industries was felt internationally, not because of the whim or personality of individual politicans but because of the deepening economic crisis of capitalism. In that context, British capitalism was particularly burdened by outdated and uncompetitive industries. The laws of profit demanded the vicious pruning pushed through under Thatcher’s government.
In terms of the specific role of government, the attacks that characterised the 1980s did not start with the Conservative government but with the preceding Labour government of Callaghan and Healey. After all, the working class struggles, the strikes and massive demonstrations of 1978-79 that became known as the ‘winter of discontent’ were against the cuts imposed by Labour. And when John Major left office in 1997 the incoming Labour government explicitly committed itself to the Tory spending plans. And when Gordon Brown’s Labour government was replaced by the Cameron-led Coalition the same basic regime continued.
Under Thatcher and Major the Left denounced the way that the unemployment statistics were continually being manipulated. Yet, apart from a couple of tweaks, the unemployment figures have never been recalculated so that accurate comparisons over recent decades can be made. There are in the UK officially nearly 9 million people of working age that are described as ‘economically inactive.’ Whatever numbers you subtract from this figure mass unemployment in the UK didn’t go away in the thirteen years of Labour rule. It’s been with us, without interruption, for thirty years. This is not the fault of any individual, nor any government or government policy. It’s an expression of the depth of the crisis of capitalism.
Back in the 1980s there were Tories who thought that more government investment could change things, as well as the whole of the Left who proposed different degrees of state intervention. None of these amounted to an ‘alternative’. In that sense, when Thatcher said ‘There is no alternative’ she was right. The economic crisis was a crisis of state capitalism, something that no amount of resort to debt could do anything other than worsen.
But what of the class struggle of the 80s in Britain? Surely it’s clear that Thatcher and the hated Tories were the sworn enemies of the working class, and showed this blatantly during the miners’ strike of 1984-85? Yes, the state was prepared for the miners’ strike and used repression and propaganda against the year-long strike. But that’s only part of the equation. The job of ensuring that the miners remained isolated was the responsibility of the unions. The potential was there for the struggle to extend to dockers and to car workers, but the unions kept the workers divided. Throughout the 80s the Left and the unions played their role, as part of the political apparatus of capitalism, in putting forward false alternatives. This involved not only ‘alternative’ economic policies but also campaigns around issues such as the threats to local government or the presence of American weapons on British soil. Ultimately, during the 80s, workers in Britain came up against not just the material attacks backed up by the state, but the whole range of lies put out by the Left. Tony Blair has recently said that Labour must not return to being a ‘party of protest’. In fact, under Thatcher, Labour played an absolutely crucial role by being just that. You might have hated the Tories, but Labour, the Left and the unions were ready and waiting to embrace you … and undermine any developing militancy.
One of the things that Thatcher will be remembered for is the Falklands war against Argentina in 1982. To this day it remains a focus for propaganda campaigns. Some say that the Falkland Islanders’ wishes should be considered first, for others, it’s a typical episode in the history of British imperialism. Looked at in the context of the time you see something different. The Falklands were, and remain, of no strategic or material importance. In the early 1980s Argentina was an ally of the UK in the US bloc. Moves were already underway to change the status of the Falklands. The war over the Falklands can not be understood as a military matter, it can only be understood at the social level. The stimulation of such a nationalist campaign (with Labour leader Michael Foot prominent in the chorus) was a massive diversion at a time the different class interests within the British population were becoming so sharply posed.
Thatcher, because of her constant invective against the Russian bloc, became known as the Iron Lady. Her reputation as a warmonger is undisputed. Yet, if you look at the deployments of British armed forces during her period of office (Falklands, Northern Ireland etc) it’s on nothing like the scale of the operations carried out by Labour under Blair and Brown with Afghanistan, Iraq etc.
In parliament Glenda Jackson criticised the “social, economic and spiritual damage” inflicted by Thatcher. Lives that were devastated during the 1980s suffered the impact of the capitalist economic crisis. In opposition to Margaret Thatcher, marxists say that there is such a thing as society. And the capitalist society in which we live is not just economically destitute; it has developed a culture of each against all, of atomised, alienated individuals, of emotional impoverishment. Throughout her adult life Thatcher certainly played her role for the ruling class, but she was only one, admittedly important, cog in the whole capitalist state machine.