Margaret Thatcher, who played Jane to Ronald Reagan’s Tarzan in that epic of the 1980s, The King and Queen of Jungle Capitalism, (whose author was more Milton Friedman than Edgar Rice Burroughs,) died last week in 2013. Or was it 1913? Or 1813?
The media is filled with stately photos, proclamations that she “changed Britain,” eulogies from assorted Tories of the right and center and some well deserved sneers from the left. I will do a little sneering in this article, which Thatcher deserves, and then get serious.
First the sneering. One of Thatcher’s enemies called her the wicked witch of North London and that was pretty much on target. Ronald Reagan, a B movie actor, tried as President and politician to play the A movie American hero roles he never got in Hollywood—the Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda roles. Thatcher was pretty much what she was, in 20th century terms a character out of a Harold Pinter play, or in the 19th century laissez-faire fantasy she projected, a Dickensian villain.
When she first became Prime Minister the joke was “What’s the Good News. A woman is Prime Minister of England, what’s the Bad News? The woman is Margaret Thatcher.” Then, her slash and burn anti-labor, anti-social welfare policies, led to a sharp increase in unemployment and her poll numbers plummeted, she turned things aroundwith the help of a foreign government to the right of her government; soon the joke was on the people of the United Kingdom and it got more surreal as the quasi-fascist Junta in Argentina, which she and Reagan had previously supported strongly against left insurgents, seized the Falkland Islands.
Thatcher went to war, won an easy victory against a very weak former friend and new enemy, and swept to political victory. “She’s Winston Bloody Churchill,” I remember a loud middle aged Brit shouting. Thatcher had saved the Falklands, a chilly feudal colonial enclave off the cost of Argentina, from the Argentinean Luftwaffe, U-boats, and Panzer Divisions in the British tabloids. The Royal Navy could now add Argentina to victories against the Spanish Armada, Napoleon, the Kaiser, and Hitler.
Thatcher continued her real war, against the British welfare state. Some of it was very petty. For example, I read that she put in pay toilets in public facilities. Some of it was simply crackpot—bringing “market mechanisms” and competition into public and social services and even higher education, a sort of Milton Friedman meets Monty Python, except these policies did damage, stimulating among other things a brain drain out of Britain.
My favorite story of Thatcherism from this period occurred in Scotland, where her policies were hugely unpopular. She went in the afternoon to a football (what we call soccer) game, and was roundly booed. A handful of angry young men even mooned her. Then in the evening she addressed a conclave of the Church of Scotland and ventured into the world of theology and political economy.
The employment crisis in Scotland was not. she claimed, the result of her government’s economic policies but of the decline of the Protestant Ethic. And who was responsible for that? Obviously the Church. In her usual threatening and condescending way, she admonished the clergy to get on with the job of reviving the Protestant ethic, which would then solve the unemployment problem.
She won another term in office as official figures, ala Reagan in the U.S., proclaimed economic growth, the British equivalent of Yuppies surfaced, and the real living standards and quality of life for the majority of people stagnated and declined. In the end her own cabinet members, whom she had long tyrannized over, used a political crisis to turn against her and remove her from leadership. I remember one of them I remember, was quoted to the effect that she “broke our pencils,” which I have always considered to be a great Freudian moment in the history of the British Conservative Party.
Then she was replaced with a minor figure named Major and became Dame Margaret Thatcher. Unfortunately, Ronald Reagan was out of office by then and his mind was entering the great beyond. It would have been a fitting end if he had been there to sing “There is Nothing like a Dame” as Thatcher left 10 Downing Street.
Enough of the sneering though. Now for a little serious analysis of Thatcher and Thatcherism. After World War II, as the British Empire collapsed, the British Labor Party, still committed to building a “socialist Britain,” came to power in 1945 and advanced a left program, nationalizing the Steel Industry, banking, and most importantly establishing a comprehensive system of socialized medicine, the National Health Service,(NHS) along with other significant social welfare oriented reforms.
While the Labor government followed U.S. cold war policy, and did not “stay left” as the founder the National Health Service and its most important left leader Aneurin Bevan sought, and the Conservative Party regained power in 1951 and denationalized much of what the Labor government had nationalized, the social welfare reforms, especially the NHS, were maintained.
In the 1960s after a long period of Conservative government, Harold Wilson, whom the U.S. initially feared would advance a left Labor party policy, became Prime Minister. Wilson did not revive any “socialist Britain” policy, seek to nationalize sections of the economy, but he did advance the British welfare state, especially in higher education, and defend the trade union movement.
The long period of global economic expansion after WWII in the developed capitalist countries ended in the 1970s. What also began to end was what the former left New Deal economist John Kenneth Galbriath in the U.S. called the “truce on equality,” namely, the acceptance by capital of the gains that labor and peoples movements had made in the previous decades and the practical acceptance by labor and the political parties which represented it that more advanced policies,
In Britain, this meant socialist nationalization policies, in the U.S., an advanced welfare state program and a full employment oriented mixed economy would be postponed indefinitely.
Many, myself included, hoped that the economic stagnation/inflation crisis and the ensuing “fiscal crisis” of governments in the U.S. NAT0 bloc would see a revival of left mass movements and forms. This, however, was not to be the case However
Instead, it led in the U.S. to Jimmy Carter, in terms of the Democratic Party the most conservative of the Democrats seeking the presidency becoming President and in Britain, James Callahan, a more conservative figure representing the rightwing of the British Labor party, replacing Wilson.
In West Germany and other countries, although not at the same time and sometimes with a different political balance of forces there were similar developments, as parties representing working class and low income voters moved away from their traditional policies and embraced some version of austerity, cutbacks, “learning to do more with less” as the Carter administration in the U.S. argued. France, with a conservative government, was the major exception to this, as Socialist Francois Mitterrand reconstructed in the 1980s a people’s front alliance of French Socialist and Communist Parties and gained the Presidency on a left program, but this was an exception.
The general trend was toward the right and toward a broad based capitalist offensive which sought to undermine if not repeal entirely the gains of the past.
In Britain sharp inflation and a wave of strikes, with left leadership of those strikes threatening British capital directly, saw the conservative party and its leader, Margaret Thatcher, come to power in 1979. Unlike her predecessors, Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, and Heath, Thatcher directly attacked the British Welfare State, in both ideology and policy. She identified with and implemented the monetary policies of U.S. economist Milton Friedman, who advertised those policies as both an alternative to Keynesian fiscal (government spending policy) and government taxation and regulation of capital, i.e., a safe way to restore laissez-faire capitalism without depressions. Soon her enemies called her “the mad monetarist” although there was method in her madness.
She won against a weakened and divided Labor party. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won against a weakened Democratic party and in general advanced similar policies, even with the large differences between the two nations’ political systems and level of institutional social welfare. Thatcher did succeed in dividing her enemies. When the Labor Party chose the left oriented intellectual Michael Foote, as its leader, in the early 1980s, the rightwing elements within the party bolted, formed what they called a “Social Democratic Party” and later merged with the Liberal Party—the present “Liberal Democrats” who are the “partners” with the Conservative Party in the present rightwing austerity government in power in the UK.
In domestic policy the legacies of Thatcher are similar to the legacies of Reagan in the U.S., inequality, destitution poverty, a stark revival of the “two nations” that Benjamin Disraeli, a more sophisticated Tory, wrote about in the 19th century to which Thatcher sought to return.
Those who speak of “modernization” and greater efficiency under Thatcher and her successors see an economy in terms of money and machines, not people, an economy in where the increased concentration of wealth at the top is progress.
In foreign policy, Thatcher made no major innovations. Like all postwar British governments she followed the lead of the U.S. Unlike Labor governments, the Atlee government for example with Truman and even Tory governments, Churchill with Eisenhower and MacMillan with both Eisenhower and Kennedy, she did not privately seek to moderate the aggressive and dangerous cold war policies of U.S. Presidents but if anything egged on Reagan’s cold war revival.
Her open support for brutal Latin American dictatorships, especially Pinochet’s fascist regime, was a major departure from previous British governments both Labor and Tory. She also continued her support for Pinochet, joining with other rightists globally to oppose the Chilean government’s prosecution of Pinochet for his crimes against the Chilean people.
At the same time, she did nothing to support the tiny British Commonwealth country of Grenada, which against much of the Western Hemisphere supported Britain in the Falklands War, when the Reagan administration launched a massive invasion of the island to destroy its revolutionary government. A cartoon which showed her in a movie theater swooning at Ronald Reagan on the screen pretty much summed up her foreign policy.
In a sense, Thatcher’s “greatest legacy” was Tony Blair, who did more to achieve what she sought to achieve than she did, consolidating rather than repealing her policies, establishing a government that one might call “Thatcherism with a human face,” and under the banner of “New Labour” going back to the future himself as he sought to erase what the Labor Party in theory and sometimes in practice had struggled for since its inception in the early 20th century and make it into something resembling the Liberal Party of the 19th century
For American labor and all American progressives the task is to eradicate both the policies and the underlying ideologies of the Reagan-Bush era. For British labor and the British left, I would say,the task is to eradicate the Thatcher era which today is carried forward by the present Tory led austerity government, which in its policies is to Thatcher what George W. Bush was to Reagan.
Inequality, insecurity, a harsher labor discipline and much more destitution poverty are Thatcher’s only legacies, as they were Reagan’s and Bush’s.
Although Thatcher like Reagan was not a fascist, and I am not calling either of them that, perhaps the best answer from the left to both her and Reagan was Winston Churchill’s wartime answer to Adolf Hitler and his hagiographers. “We will not rest until we have rid the earth of Hitler’s shadow.”
We should not rest until we have rid the earth of the shadow of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, and the other architects of inequality, insecurity, and a global political economy on the edge of catastrophe.