|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 168 May 2013
The death of Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher, the personification of the brutality of capitalism, is dead. In the following pages we carry an edited extract from a longer article by PETER TAAFFE on the thirtieth anniversary of Thatcher’s coming to power in 1979, with the introduction below written on her death. The full 2009 article, Thatcher's Bitter Legacy, is on this link to the Socialism Today website.
The analysis made in the 2009 article has retained its validity in the aftermath of Thatcher’s death. We wrote then: "Even before she has departed this world, a ferocious controversy rages over her heritage, with mass indignation at the idea of state recognition for her and her role". (Socialism Today No.128, May 2009)
And so her funeral proved to be. It was carried out at the cost of an estimated £10 million. The Socialist Party demanded that Thatcher should be treated in death as she treated others in her lifetime. The funeral should have been ‘privatised’ with Mark Thatcher – with an estimated fortune of £80 million – called upon to make a contribution, along with the sharks in the City of London and big business. They benefited most from her policies.
But "the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley" (go often awry), wrote Robbie Burns. The careful calculations of the entire establishment that Thatcher’s funeral would be an enormous political bonus for them have blown up in their faces. All the festering discontent, inherited from the Thatcher period and added to by the Blair and Brown governments, has surfaced. The sheer class hatred from the victims of Thatcherism, both past and present, has been expressed in their bitter opposition: "You didn’t care when you lied. We don’t care that you died", proclaimed a banner held by Liverpool fans at a football match, protesting against the Hillsborough slander campaign and cover up by Thatcher and her government.
Thatcher sycophant Andrew Marr, on his return to television, added his dose of poison against the people of Liverpool with the completely false assertion that, in 1979, the city council considered dropping the unburied dead into the sea during the action of low-paid public-sector workers!
A ferocious condemnation of ‘Operation True Blue’ – the secret preparations for the funeral made by Tory and Labour frontbenchers with the support of the Liberal Democrats – was the result. Those who suffered directly at her hands were reminded of the brutal methods which she and her government employed, particularly against the miners, Liverpool city council, the print workers and many others. Young people, who were not even born when she was in power, nevertheless began to understand that she and her cohorts laid the basis for the catastrophic position which they face today.
Thatcher quite consciously destroyed manufacturing industry, as we explain here, as a precondition for weakening the power of the working class and its organisations, the trade unions. The consequence was an army of poor, which persists and has grown, and a slashing of wages, with the replacement of relatively highly paid manufacturing jobs with low-paid ones.
The beginning of the dismantling of the welfare state was also a result of her policies, which her heir, David Cameron, is carrying through today. Semi-dictatorial methods, such as severely curtailing the right to strike, were put in place. John Stalker, ex-deputy chief constable of Greater Manchester, wrote in the Daily Mirror that she "took us to the brink of being a police state" during the miners’ strike.
Thatcher also backed to the hilt every bloodthirsty dirty dictator on the planet. Counted among her ‘friends’ were the Chilean dictator General Pinochet, the Pakistani dictator General Musharraf and many others. Moreover, an article in the Observer on 14 April showed that, even when she was out of office, "Thatcher 'gave her approval' to son Mark's 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea". That was a plot against a dictatorship, with the prospect of massive financial gain as its aim. She also later urged Simon Mann – who alleges that Mark Thatcher was closely involved in the plot – to join a conspiracy to overthrow the democratically elected leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez.
Is there any doubt that Thatcher would have given support to similar methods – the destruction of democratic rights – against the British working class and people if the situation required it, ie if capitalism was endangered? She indicated this in her anti-union laws. Without the right to strike, free of all state interference, there cannot be real democracy. The maintenance of her anti-union laws by Blair and retained by Cameron is a big impediment for the working class today to fight effectively the continuation of her policies by the Con-Dem coalition.
At one stage, Thatcher and her theoreticians criticised ‘elected dictatorships’, usually radical regimes which threatened to go beyond the bounds of capitalism, the system she defended. But her government was, in the true sense of the term, an elected dictatorship. Never once did the governments she presided over present their full programme in elections. But, once in power, they proceeded to implement vicious, class-based measures which enhanced the position of the minority, the greedy rich, at the expense of the overwhelming majority, the working class, the poor and the middle classes.
The attempt of the capitalist media to burnish her image as a ‘wonder woman’, who ‘transformed Britain and the world’ is a great exercise in historical amnesia. The claim to have established a ‘property-owning democracy’ lies in ruins. Owning a house now is completely out of the reach of the young generation. Private landlords own one third of former council homes!
She also carried through an economic revolution in Britain, claim her acolytes. This is completely false, as even capitalist commentators like Will Hutton have shown. Average growth rates when she was in power were lower than in the previous 20 years. Moreover, the ‘big bang’ in the City of London led to the orgy of unrestrained financialisation of capitalism, as we warned would happen at the time. This helped to create the conditions for the 2008 economic crash, which the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, described as the "worst ever".
Thatcher is dead, but Thatcherism lives on in the three main political parties in Britain. She created ‘mini-Thatchers’ at local as well as national level who are busy today savaging services and jobs in the public sector. How hypocritical that a £15 million Margaret Thatcher library and museum is to be opened after her death, while the little Thatchers are busy closing libraries up and down the country as part of the cuts programme.
When asked what her greatest achievements were, Thatcher replied: "New Labour, Tony Blair". We must draw all the necessary conclusions from this in fighting energetically for a new mass party of the working class.
One of the conclusions we drew in 2009 was that: "A Cameron government would be a re-run for the working class of the experience of Thatcher herself, only probably much worse because the economic situation is dramatically worse than during her reign. It would provoke a massive social confrontation, probably even forcing the conservative officialdom of the TUC to move into action. A one-day general strike could come quickly onto the agenda".
This has been borne out, with the TUC forced into unprecedented mass action with the demonstration on 26 March 2011 and the subsequent strikes. A 24-hour general strike has not yet been implemented. But the idea of a general strike is rooted in the situation. The death of Thatcher provides the opportunity for us to build a movement that will eradicate the conditions which bred Thatcherite capitalism, and raise the alternative of a democratic, socialist planned economy.
Thatcher’s bitter legacy
Margaret Thatcher was not cut from the same cloth as those representatives of British capitalism who preceded her at the head of the Tory party. Post-1945 Tory prime ministers, in the main, such as Harold Macmillan, presided over a ‘post-war consensus’, which prescribed that the government and the ruling class would seek to avoid a head-on confrontation with the organised labour movement. Following in the so-called ‘Whig tradition’, Tory grandees developed the special art of British statecraft, by bending with the class and social winds. This served them well during the post-1945 boom in accommodating to the tops of the labour movement in particular in ‘sharing out’ a growing ‘cake’. But the ‘slow inglorious decay’ of Britain was masked during the boom. When this ran out of steam it inevitably culminated in a collision between the classes. This took shape in the 1960s but intensified in the tumultuous 1970s and 1980s.
The Heath government that came to power in 1970, following the dismal failure of the Labour government of Harold Wilson between 1964 and 1970, set out to correct the decline of British capitalism, naturally at the expense of the working class. Edward Heath, although not himself a grandee – he was a ‘grammar school boy’ – was in the same political tradition as his Tory forebears. He nevertheless threatened the labour movement with the idea of provoking a ‘general strike’ which the government would defeat. However, when his government confronted the miners in 1972 and 1974, it lost both times. The latter strike led to the three-day week and the defeat of the Heath government in the February 1974 election.
These events, particularly the unprecedented event, for Britain, of an industrial dispute provoking a general election and the defeat of the Tories, exercised a profound effect on the strategists of British capitalism. Heath gambled on an election whose theme was ‘Who rules, us or the miners?’ and he lost. The ruling class began to prepare for the future when it could take revenge on the labour movement. Heath was unceremoniously thrown overboard and replaced by Thatcher in early 1975. Formerly a minor figure in Heath’s government, as education minister she had already earned an anti-working class mantle as ‘Thatcher, milk snatcher’ for removing free school milk for primary school children. But her ascent to the Tory leadership was no accident. Friedrich Engels, alongside Karl Marx, the originators of the ideas of scientific socialism, commented that each era calls for personalities required by objective circumstances. But if they do not exist in a rounded-out form, it ‘invents’ them. Thatcher, without any of the scruples or hesitation of the aristocratic Tory grandees, was the brutal face of British capitalism required by the situation. She not only polarised society but the Tory party itself.
The divisions between the Thatcherite ‘dries’ or ‘hards’ and the Heathite ‘wets’ were found not in any personality clashes but in the methods chosen to confront the labour movement following the latter’s triumph over the Heath government. The wets correctly feared that Thatcher and her government would lead to a class confrontation which would question the very basis of capitalism. They remained unreconciled to Thatcher for almost all of her reign but largely accommodated themselves to her government when it appeared to score successes.
The winter of discontent
Buttressed by ill-digested ideas from the ultra-right Austrian economist, Friedrich Hayek, and the messianic monetarism of her ‘mad monk’, Sir Keith Joseph, Thatcher capitalised on the retreats and ineptitude of James Callaghan’s Labour government. This government was more set on confronting the legitimate demands of trade unionists than the dire economic situation which was developing, culminating in the so-called ‘winter of discontent’. The strikes of the most lowly-paid workers were vilified by the capitalist press, the Tories and even by the Labour government as the ‘dirty jobs’ strike.
Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) warned in October 1978: "Sooner or later… the strategists of capital will conclude that the Labour government has served its purpose as far as they are concerned. In any case, if the government continues its present policies into next year, especially if it takes on more and more sections of workers fighting for decent living standards, it will virtually ensure a defeat for Labour". These prophetic words were, unfortunately, borne out in the May 1979 general election.
Militant also warned that Thatcher "would eventually be forced to launch an offensive against the working class and its organisations. Ridley indicates this". This refers to Tory shadow cabinet minister Nicholas Ridley, who had prepared a blueprint for confronting the unions. He had written that "in the first or second year after the Tories’ election, there might be a major challenge from a trade union, either over a wage claim or redundancies". Ridley thought that this would come in the mines and therefore proposed: "A: build-up of maximum coal stocks, particularly at power stations; B: make contingency plans to import coal; C: encourage the recruitment of non-union lorry drivers by haulage companies to help move coal where necessary; D: introduce dual coal/oil firing in all power stations as quickly as possible". Right-wing Tory MP, Ronald Bell, again indicating the future role of the Tories, stated: "Strike-breaking must become the most honourable profession of all".
The winter of discontent generated all the class spite which was to become the hallmark of the Thatcher years. At Reading hospital, for instance, patients who turned up for treatment were asked whether they were trade unionists. Those who answered yes were refused treatment by a consultant surgeon. We pointed out in Militant at the time: "The demand for a living wage is seen as treachery by the capitalists". However, the Callaghan government had run out of steam and was incapable of imposing the will of the capitalists on an almost insurgent labour movement. Noises began to be made about splitting the Labour Party – which, at that stage, was still a workers’ party at the bottom, although with an increasingly pro-capitalist leadership – and the formation of a national government. A left-wing Labour MP of the time, the late Stan Thorne, revealed that some right-wing Labour MPs had been involved in secret talks with the Liberals and Tories on the issue of splitting Labour and forming a new national government, as a previous Labour leader, Ramsay Macdonald, had done in 1931.
This proposal has resurfaced in the capitalist press in relation to the Brown government. So dire is the present situation that there is despair that any government – let alone a David Cameron-led Tory cabinet – could ignite a social explosion if it tried to solve the crisis with draconian pro-capitalist measures. Therefore, why not a ‘government of all the talents’? This is probably a non-runner before an election but if there is a hung parliament, with no party in overall control, then it could resurface. A coalition government is, however, as the 1930s showed, just a Tory government in disguise.
The plans in the 1970s came to nothing because the government that the capitalists expected would follow the next general election would be firmly under their control. Moreover, it would be determined, as we pointed out in Militant, to confront the working class: "A Thatcher government will be even worse than the hated Heath government which was kicked out by the trade unions in the economic chaos of the three-day week… The Tories want the state to interfere with the unions – outlawing flying pickets, breaking the unity of closed shops and imposing rules on union elections as a condition of unions being ‘certified’ by the government, similar to the ‘registration’ under the notorious Industrial Relations Act".
Preparing to attack the working class
Militant, in other words, outlined in advance exactly the programme on which Thatcher was elected in 1979 and explained how she and her cabinet were likely to act once in power. However, prior to the election, while ruthlessly preparing behind the scenes, Thatcher took pains to disguise her real intentions. Unbelievable as it sounds today, and in view of the havoc over which her government presided, Thatcher quoted St Francis of Assisi on the need to end discord as she entered No.10 Downing Street! In her very first budget, however, paltry tax concessions were given to average wage earners, which would be wiped out by inflation in a few months, while value added tax was increased to 15% and the Tories gave notice of further savage attacks on the living standards of working people.
The right wing of the Labour Party had prepared the basis for Thatcher by both failing to tackle the problems of the working class but, at the same time, seeking to aim blows against the left and particularly against Militant. Two Labour prime ministers – Wilson, who had resigned in 1976, and Callaghan, who took over from him – had scathingly attacked Militant in a dress rehearsal for what was unleashed by the later Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, and his allies in the 1980s. Callaghan stated on TV: "We [Labour Party leaders] neglected education. We have allowed it all to fall into the hands of the Militant group. They do more education than anybody else".
The Labour right wing, however, wished to ‘educate’ young people and the working class by teaching them to accept cuts in living standards as a fact of life. In fact, the right wing began an almost permanent war against the left, with their main figures, such as David Owen and Roy Jenkins, threatening a split, which subsequently took place with the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). This eventually collapsed into a merger with the Liberals, becoming the Liberal Democrats, but they were the praetorian guard of the capitalists’ attempt to purge the left from the Labour Party. In January 1980, The Times, then the house-journal of British capitalism, under the headline, ‘Time for a Purge’, called for action to be taken against Militant.
At the same time, the predicted offensive against the working class, both by the government and the employers, together with the rise in unemployment, provoked mighty working-class resistance to the Thatcher government. This was demonstrated by the 140,000-strong TUC demonstration through London in March 1980. The Times, at this stage, was speaking about the "irreversible decline" of British capitalism.
The mood began to grow for the TUC to call a one-day general strike, which was eventually watered down into a ‘day of action’. Nevertheless, 14 May 1980 was still a massive demonstration of working-class opposition to the Tory government. This was followed in November 1980 with an historic Labour Party demonstration of 150,000 against unemployment in Liverpool. Massive demonstrations followed in Glasgow, Cardiff, Birmingham and London. For the first time in generations, the Labour Party had actually taken the initiative in mobilising working-class people in action.
Such was the relationship of forces that the Thatcher government was compelled to step back temporarily from its plans for a head-on confrontation with the labour movement. This was shown in the mining industry in early 1981. The threat to begin a programme of mass pit closures was met with the threat of immediate strike action in South Wales. This panicked the government. Thatcher, for the first time since she had come to power, was forced into a humiliating retreat. But Militant warned: "The miners showed what could be done by bold and determined action, but if the Tories were allowed to do it they will come back later with further attacks on workers’ rights and living standards". This was what had happened in 1925, when the capitalists, facing resistance from the miners, bided their time to prepare for the 1926 general strike. Unfortunately, the tops of the trade unions complacently accepted the situation in 1981 without any serious preparation for future battles. The miners were to pay a very heavy price later, as Thatcher and her boot boy, Ridley, built up coal stocks, beefed up the police, and prepared new laws in order to try and smash the miners.
Britain was politically convulsed at this time with the very existence of the government in peril. Riots erupted in Bristol, Liverpool, London and other inner-city areas, class polarisation developed on an unprecedented scale and, as a by-product of this, the ideas of Marxism, signified by the dramatic growth of Militant, became more popular. The Thatcher government, however, relentlessly pursued its mad policies of monetarism – squeezing inflation out of the system and cutting down the money supply – which resulted in the wholesale closure of factories. This enormously aggravated the economic crisis developing at this time in Britain and internationally.
It was this period that ushered in the catastrophic economic devastation of British industry, which was in decline but was furthered by Thatcher. So terrified was she and British capitalism of the industrial working class, signified by the defeat of Heath and Thatcher’s step back in 1981, that she was prepared to contemplate and even half-welcome the de-industrialisation of Britain. Manufacturing industry collapsed on an unprecedented scale. Manufacturing output dropped 30% from its 1978 level by 1983 and unemployment reached 3.6 million. This reduced British capitalism to a minor player in manufacturing production and competition on the world markets.
We consistently warned at the time and since that the substitution of a casino economy of the ‘candyfloss’ industries of finance, banking, etc, in place of production, of industries producing real value, would ultimately result in a catastrophe for British capitalism and the British people.
This appeared to be falsified by a combination of factors which saved Thatcher’s skin during her first government. The most overwhelming reason was the cowardice of the right-wing leadership of the trade unions, who refused to take decisive action, for instance, when the most brutal anti-working class, anti-trade union legislation in the advanced industrial world was introduced. Weakness invites aggression. Prevarication, hesitation and outright cowardice were the hallmarks of the right wing of the trade unions both then and today. This emboldened the Tories. Thatcher was also saved by the Falklands war. Napoleon wished for ‘lucky generals’. Thatcher herself came very close to military disaster in this war but her luck held out and she managed to defeat the even more unpopular and decrepit Argentine dictatorship of General Galtieri in 1982. This allowed her the full backing of the patriotic press of Britain, with the Sun in the vanguard, conjuring up Britain’s past imperial ‘glory’.
The miners, Liverpool, and the poll tax
This Falklands factor, in turn, laid the basis for Thatcher to go into another general election in 1983. Her hand was strengthened by the pusillanimity of Labour, this time led by the hapless ‘left’ Michael Foot, who presided over the expulsion of the five members of the Militant newspaper editorial board. Also, the recuperation economically from the crisis of 1979-81 furthered the Tories’ cause with the promise of ‘economic glory’ to follow what had been achieved in the South Atlantic. This laid the basis for Thatcher to recommence her war against the miners.
The outcome of the 1984-85 strike was not at all predetermined, as some have argued. In fact, Thatcher’s government was about to capitulate just a short time before its end. But a decisive and pernicious role in the defeat of the miners was played by the right wing within the trade unions and the equal, if not greater, treachery of Kinnock, the then Labour leader. A similarly treacherous and cowardly role was played by Kinnock and other Labour leaders in the Liverpool struggle between 1983 and 1987. A socialist Labour council had begun to transform the lives of the people of the city and, moreover, had achieved something that neither Galtieri nor Kinnock had managed, that is, to defeat Thatcher in 1984. This excited the most vicious hostility from Kinnock and his entourage.
At the same time, Thatcher undoubtedly found some political succour in the economic changes being wrought in Britain and worldwide. The neo-liberal economy, characterised by the development of new technology, was beginning to take shape. Thatcher, using the limitations of the past so-called ‘mixed economy’ under Tory and Labour governments, almost stumbled on the idea of privatisation, of which she was a ‘late convert’, to begin her ‘revolution’, in effect a counter-revolution.
Ideologically, the labour movement, under right-wing domination, was unprepared for Thatcher’s offensive. The halfway house of the mixed economy, with a bureaucratically-run state-capitalist sector in the hands of the government and its appointees, and the majority of the economy in the hands of private capitalists, had reached a dead end. Thatcher and the right-wing ideologues that bolstered her, such as Milton Friedman, seemed to offer a new, exciting departure from the discredited quasi-managed Keynesian model. The sale of council housing, combined with selling off profitable sections of state industry (what former Tory leader, Harold Macmillan, termed the ‘family silver’) followed. This received hosannas alongside the soaring of the stock exchange, not just from British but world capitalism, which hailed Thatcher’s ‘experiment’ as the prototype for a new capitalist Eldorado. And it certainly was for a few, as profits and the capitalists’ incomes soared, and the City of London benefited in a new orgy of financialisation.
We warned that this would end in tears, not just for the working class but for capitalism itself. Thatcher was answered ideologically by us but crushingly in life by the development of the current economic crisis. According to Thatcher, the combination of Britain’s North Sea oil receipts and the ‘expertise’ of the service sector, led by the banks and finance houses of the City, was the answer to the ‘discredited’ theory of a manufacturing base. But it is impossible to open any newspaper today without seeing a devastating rebuttal, either indirectly or directly, of Thatcher’s ideology, and with it that of the overwhelming majority of the capitalists in Britain. Every single platform of Thatcherism has been reduced to dust. The famous ‘property-owning democracy’ lies in ruins as homelessness, repossessions and negative equity become the norm for millions. House building is at its lowest level since 1924 and five million people in Britain would now like to live in decent ‘social housing’.
Thatcher was defeated, not on the issue of Europe, as countless commentators have claimed, but on the poll tax. And it remains an incontestable historical fact that it was the Marxists around Militant who played the decisive role in this battle. On this issue, Thatcher herself had no doubt: "The eventual abandonment of the charge represented one of the greatest victories for these people [the organisers of the anti-poll tax demonstrations on 31 March 1990] ever conceded by a Conservative government". (The Downing Street Years, p661) Absolutely decisive in this battle was the campaign for non-payment, initiated by Militant comrades in Scotland and taken up on a mass scale one year later in the rest of Britain. Eighteen million non-payers of the poll tax finished it off and in the process reduced the ‘iron lady’ to iron filings.
The defeat of laissez-faire capitalism
Thatcher represented primitive, brutal, class warfare against the rights and conditions of the working class. The lesson of Thatcherism is that capitalism under whatever guise is incapable of ultimately delivering the goods for the working class, either in Britain or on a world scale. She helped to enshrine for an era the ideas of neo-liberalism. Ideologically, they were countered by the very small force of genuine Marxism with the majority of intellectuals and leaders of the labour and trade union movement adhering to the ‘Washington consensus’, that is, Thatcherism on a world scale. Militant (to become the Socialist Party) and the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) stood out. But the reality is that the pro-capitalist parties in Britain have not completely abandoned the economic heritage of Thatcher. Yes, the most ‘dangerous’ aspects for them have been relegated to history – unregulated, unrestrained financialisation of capitalism – but the same intentions are still there. Their mantra is that the working class must pay for this crisis. Our answer is at one with those workers and youth demonstrating in Italy, in Germany and elsewhere earlier this year, who marched under the slogan: ‘This is not our crisis!’
Larry Summers, the main economic adviser to president Barack Obama, desperately tries to separate this crisis from capitalism itself: "There are those who just as in the 1930s tried to learn the lesson that capitalism did not work and needed to be replaced with an entirely different model. I don’t think that’s right". The problem for Summers is that a growing number do not agree with him. For instance, an online poll, in March, for a German TV talk show answered the question: ‘Which economic system is better for you?’, with the result, capitalism 46%, socialism 54%.
No poll can fully portray what the mass consciousness is. But one thing is clear; ‘laissez-faire’ capitalism has been defeated. The state has been forced to step in to rescue the system. The capitalists do not like this because this raises the idea of not only rescuing the banks but also the majority of other industries which are on their backs. Not just the Tories oppose this but so do the Liberal Democrats, with the allegedly ‘radical’ Vince Cable coming out against long-term state intervention (‘dirigisme’), and voicing hostility to further state rescues for firms like Visteon by the government. The consequence of this hands-off policy will be an inexorable rise in unemployment and growing discontent, which is laying the basis for a massive radical movement in Britain and worldwide.
Thatcher has been pictured as a towering presence during her lifetime. Yet even before she has departed this world, a ferocious controversy rages over her heritage, with mass indignation at the idea of state recognition for her and her role. She was an important, but is now a diminishing, factor in British politics. There is nothing for the most politically developed workers to learn from Thatcher, from the era that she represented, other than, no matter who represents this system they will attempt to pin the blame and the burdens of capitalism on the backs of the working class. Whether it is the face of Thatcher or the seemingly more ‘acceptable’ visage of Cameron, implacable opposition to them and their system, combined with intransigent criticism of those at the summits of the labour movement – who are not prepared to oppose them, root and branch, as the miners, Liverpool and the poll tax protesters did – must be the cardinal principles of a revitalised labour movement.