Politics

On Margaret Thatcher

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Back in the dog days of 2008, I did something I do not usually do: I cut out a newspaper cartoon and pasted it on my door. It was a Steve Bell piece, a portrait of the City of London, at the time resembling Rome under Nero, all harsh sunlight, glass and chrome; in the foreground, and in shadow, was a green wheelie dustbin. In the dustbin, you understand, was Margaret Thatcher.

That Thatcher could still appear in a political cartoon in 2008 – that she appeared in them well afterwards, and will dominate them tomorrow – is, of course, eloquent testimony that she remained the dominant politico-mythical figure of our age. Not only that, but I wasn’t yet eight when she left office – and yet I cut out that cartoon because it seemed to me to capture quite profoundly (if optimistically) a jonbar point, a moment when paradigms were in flux. Her bodily death is neither here nor there, except to those who knew her personally – we could have had shot of her half a decade ago.

Of course, through the back door and without the popular support Thatcher once enjoyed, since 2010 the Coalition has ensured that, like Pavlov’s well-trained dog, we have snapped firmly back to the paradigm Thatcher set. Indeed, hers was a paradigm which has not stood still: in the 1980s, welfare reached its lowest level relative to wages in thirty years; it is now 8% lower. We now spend almost half the amount of GDP we spent on welfare then, and yet the Coalition continue to demonise claimants as the great drag on our economic and social life (and not, naturally, the elite irresponsibility the neoliberal Big Bang helped inspire). The position of those against whom Thatcher’s government was set continues not to erode – the vicious passive voice – but to be eroded.

So, where there is despair, there might seem to be little hope. When a Prime Minister times a statement to appear live on the 6 O’Clock News, as David Cameron did tonight, it is because he believes the potential benefits outweigh the risks; a St Paul’s funeral for Thatcher, and the hagiography which will precede it and ensue, will help the Tories further entrench her vision of society and of her opponents which they are peddling anew. For trades unions read benefit claimaints. For Kinnock read Miliband. For all-powerful self-correcting markets read … well, more of the same.

That’s why, and perhaps here I’d think differently had I the same bitter and immediate political memories of the 1980s as some of my friends, the gloating over Thatcher’s death isn’t just misplaced – it makes the Left look counter-intuitively spiteful, even when they may be that correct that public figures who reject compassion as Thatcher did give up the right to the obligatory respect due to private individuals. No, that schadenfreude is missing the point: Thatcher was an avatar of capital, of its interests and stratagems, and capital has not gone away. In fact, unlike creepily reverential young Tory bucks, it moved on from her long ago except as a sort of fairground animatronic to be wheeled out on special occasions.

Gloat all you like (and, in case I am being unclear, I will shed no tears on the day of the over-emphatic funeral). The Disability Living Allowance will still be gone in the morning.

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3 thoughts on “On Margaret Thatcher

  1. Hi dan, long time no blog (Well for me, at least).

    What I’ve found weird is how predictable the reaction to this news has been. The centre giving either impassioned or begrudging respect, the left complaining about criticism being drowned in a sea of properganda and eventually, no doubt, calls from the right about cameron renewing his style of rhetoric (this might serve as a more powerful inspiration than ukips rather mediocre rise in inspiring cameron/osbourne even further rightward).
    It may suprise you sir to find, as it happens, that I am not one of thatchers great admirers (I know you secretly suspect I’m s tory- come on admit it). Don’t get me wrong, I’m probably more willing to confess my admiration for her political talent and her place as probably the most significant post war pm than my friends of the true left but, like ken livingstone, I don’t claim that very significance as an overall positive.

    Unlike livingstone, however, I suppose I don’t hold yearnings for a return to the politics of the 1970’s. I think it is possible to not be in complete opposition to markets but also think the welfare state is a pretty good thing- the scandinavian countries seem to manage the acceptance of competetion as a positive in some areas whilst holding on totheir socially semocratic ideals.

    This, of course, is the problem. If moments like this are a cause for reflection then thats as true for the left as it is for the right. The left should ask itself why it couldn’t make its case clear at the time. I think, and forgive my constant livingstone referencing, kens newsnight interview. When talking about mass unemployment or the lack of council housing he was engaging but as soon as the discussion turned to the bt phoneline he seemed reluctent to accept that competition should exist in such areas. This point may seem minute but I feel it exemplifies the problem that the British left had at the time. British socialists seemed to cling to an old fashioned very statist version of socialism that didn’t hold up well in a changing world. This turned socialism into such a dirty word that when the left did come round we didn’t get the progressive modern social democracy ala sweden but instead, new labour- basically thatcherism but a little nicer.

    As for your last point, it is interesting how these big events allow other bits of news to get buried. As I’m sure you’re already aware the government are making sweeping cuts to the legal aid budget. Today it was announced that they are holding a commission to see if they should make even further cuts- at least I think thats what they announced, forgive me if I’m wrong (I hope I’m wrong). Of all the government cuts I fear, long term, what they are planning on legal aid will be the most harmful.

    • danhartland says:

      Heaven forfend I should ever accuse you of Toryism, SC! Your wrong-headedness is of a different stripe entirely. 😉

      I think you’re right that advocating a return to statism is a blind alley, although I might suggest that Thatcher’s biggest legacy is to leave us understand state/market as a binary opposition. It’s less interesting to me why the Left couldn’t make its case during the 1980s, and of more pressing importance why it is dallying about making a hybrid case now. In part, of course, because the hybrid has been, despite party political rhetoric to the contrary, the cosy consensus whcih replace the cosy consensus Thatcher tipped into the dustbin of history.

      But, as you say, with rightwards pressure on Cameron and Osborne (I agree that the changes to legal aid, focused as they are on family law and women, represent a real step back by the state from the brutality of the legal ‘market’), that consensus is breaking down: there is a rabid desire on the Tory right to let the markets, in the wake of their failure to self-manage, self-manage even more. We see this in the NHS reforms, in the new kinds of schools that are being conjured up by Michael Gove, and in the refusal to ameliorate the by-product of malfunctioning markets: poverty.

      In this light, the new kind of hybrid case Labour (and the Lib Dems?) need to make is complicated, and presentable as a dangerous, divisive shift. In other words, it is Miliband who is Thatcher now.

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