Maggie Thatcher rests in peace now. She won't be coming back from the dead, but neither will the memory of the Iron Lady rust for many of us who lived through the Thatcher years.
The amazing thing, as I was listening to all the old cronies, David Mellor and Lord Young being the greatest disciples, was how much people try to attribute to her. She was in fact more of a figure head.
A bit like good Queen Bess probably, a strong and determined woman who was allowed to lead the cabinet into both necessary economic reform, dark waters and necessary evils.
As a Boadicea holding a sword and narrating the platitudes from the pulpit over the battles which we all know, had to be fought. Making decisions and taking leadership that many wanted but few had the gall to dare enact. She was also used as both an excuse and a scape-goat in the cabinet and the country for the bitter pills she made many swallow in her own party and in the North, Wales and Scotland. There was dirty work to be done, and someone seen to be strong had to make it happen - or as i say, "allow others to make it happen" as in the famous 1960 Milgram experiment. Cruelty because we wanted to do it, we knew something cruel had to be done, but needed to have the orders to obey and those orders were then taken and carried out without human compassion, in destroying industrial communities in the north. Like a female Fuhrer ordering the final-economic-solution.
How much she changed the world and how much the changing world found a voice and mirror in Thatcher, is really the question.
My own opinion is that Mrs T was a messiah for the bourgeois. She was a great white hope for middle England who didn't want to see beyond their village green and certainly didn't want to pay taxes to feed poor people or "prop up" industries, which were being propped up all over the world anyway. Britain lead the way to the free market ideology dogmatically and cruelly, even the USA still protected its steel and coal industries into George W's reign, and of course still have a largely socialist agricultural system.
She was a shining light for the selfish of society, who nod to each other and understand the small conservative c without having to say a word, as willow stuck leather and warm ale was sipped in a stupefying, myopic and anti-egalitarian boredom.
Meritocracy- A Moses Figure for Great Britain.
As I blogged last night, her election as Prime Minister in 1979 marked the end of Old Labour and all that it stood for, but also the Old School Tie. The two diametric opposites had both become dinosaurs. In some way she liberated opinion and injected positive attitudes to personal achievement and helped move Britain towards becoming a meritocracy I never could have imagined as a teenager in 1982.
In a way she delivered the tablets TO the mountain : the message from Britains who were moving towards middle class values and higher levels of education and living standards, that the old ways of the "bowler hat and the bunnet" , the Old Labour Movement and the Old School Tie were in need of being consigned to the history books.
So move today's blogg on a positive and reconciliatory view, I see that the UK was moving away from being a class ridden society with a ceiling not made of glass, but made of "high class" : the old school tie, your fathers connections in the city. Thatcher definitely helped this perception of self worth of the individual to determine their own success. To some extent it was going to happen anyway as the momentum in society had gathered, but she accelerated it by being an exemplary self-fulfilling-prophecy. Just by standing up and being herself as PM, she both embodied and radiated that self confidence.
As much as her reign and law making swept aside then the heavy unionisation of the Heath -Callaghan period, it also brushed out the class-ceiling. Some of my more Left-of-left Socialist acquaintances at University often claimed to be existentialists: however socialism as existed in the 1974-1984 period, was a strange homage to the working class as a kind of god. An old god as a Marxist image of a romanticised working classes, united, homogeneous, largely male, a body of oppressed masses needing a 36 hour week and council houses and never ending over inflationary pay rises.....the reality of which was changing with the benefits of the Wilson years such as the red-brick-universities, student grants and the open- University, and the entrance of women en masse to the labour market in the late 60s and early 70s.
- "power corrupts a man, but liberates a woman" - Hugo Young -
Thatcher and her cabinet had the public support to do the obvious thing: reign in the trade unions, and balance the books of the economy. This is what Dennis Heally dearly wanted to achieve himself, but by that time the once righteous trade union movement, a body for freedom and emancipation, had become a power hungry monster which was ruining life in the UK.
This was legislation and political will on the back of that mandate. Castrating the unions and dismantling industries in the course of 1983-1986 with no concern for the communities who were dependent on that work was of course her evil legacy. She did not care, the Tories did not care: "get on your bike" said Norman Tebbitt . I have some understanding for that view point, being a get-up-and-go type myself but imagine of course being a miner, age 45 then in 1984. Low education, skilled only in the specialities of hacking out coal.
Get on your bike and become poorer, and poorer as you migrate around the country doing odds and sods. A northern-nation on their bicycles begging for work down south. Door knocking in Camberly and Virginia Waters selling coal carvings. This would have been more effective in doing something to the conscious of middle England than either Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock could achieve.
This was the negative and sometimes draconian legislation she was a figure head for, and also a decisive cruel actor for of course. She prosecuted the working classes in Northern England, Wales and Scotland with the crime of economic irrelevance to the middle class', south eastern view of life, when those mining and steel communities through their taxation and supply to industry had built the wealth of the nation with their bare hands.
Look at the banks now: HBOS- bailed out to the tune 20 billion pounds. Adjusted for inflation that is still a lot of modernisation for the steel industry or retraining in real skills for the redundant coal miners. Instead a life time on subsistance: job club and low expectations. In a world with a shortage of quality steel from the late 1990s to 2008.
Legislation was a necessary cure but the old labour movement was open for crucifiction at the mercy of the majority of 57% of seats for 42% of the votes ie the 1987 election was the final death toll for mining and steel in the UK, voted for in an unfair electoral system with the new found SDP and Liberal movement splitting the opposition vote in key seats Labour could have won, more than it then split the Tory vote. A lib-lab pact was a little unthinkable then, just due to the baggage of the SDP and old labour still in parliament though.
A Tory Reign 1979-1990 without Thatcher is Highly Conceivable
But Legislation was one thing, and it could and would have happened without her. There were enough right wingers and I could imagine a Heseltine-Tebbit fight for leadership in any of the times 1978/83/87. Or some gray tory PM with a strong cabinet including those two. Heseltine has always had a feel for redevelopment so he would have been a good "One Nation" PM in my opinion. Tebbit could have done the dirty work on the unions, and I am sure he would have pursued it just as far as a leader as Mrs. T. They would have gone to war with the Argie's too, rightly so IMHO.
The real thing was that she was good "copy" : she was the stuff of once in a life time for the media: a mouth piece for a whole section of society who were aspirational, selfish, snobby and a figure head for the disaffected lower middle classes and non unionised workers, sick of the Union movement's excesses.
She rose from the ashes of the winter-of-discontent, from the Falklands War and from the Miners Strike as a pale blue and cerise Phoenix able to embody the spirit which so appealed to middle bourgeois England ( or 'lower england' as northern commentators sometimes call middle England due to its center of gravity being the home counties) and managed to enthuse enough of the country to the changes which could then perhaps be accelerated.
This is the point, the acceleration towards a far larger proportion of the economy being a market economy and a far harder punitive regime against the union movement and people working in the industries chosen to be surgically dissected , even amputated, were the two factors I could perhaps attribute to the "iron will" of the iron lady.
So she was more than a figure head and more than a pragmatic, hard leader or legislator: she was a catalyst and that only need be a very small amount of material in a system for the reaction to move over to the the new status.
Actor For Change or Symbol Reflecting Society's Movement ?
I turn back to my old point of view that much of what changed in the 1980s was either inevitable, or was caused by other momentous developments, underlying market economics and geo-demographic changes.
In a nutshell then, here is my arguement that Mrs T was more of a catalyst and figure-head than that she actually achieved so much as a single person in her two and a half terms:
1) There was obviously going to be a collapse in Labour support in 1978-9.
2) Later with Michael Foot as the pacifist, academic leader of the Labour party in contrast to Falkland War as the biggest ever Tory party-political-broadcast, the conservatives would have won despite high unemployment, still a high public sector borrowing requirement and inner city riots and social problems.
3) In this parliament of 83 to 87, the real IT benefits and reduction of red-tape in the stock market came on line : Big Bang in 1986 was a focal point, stimulating money flowing around London and the UK as a whole. Also IT and credit deregulation meant that loans and credit cards were more freely available, and were and still are used irresponsibly. This injected a massive consumer spend in those "yuppie" years.
4) In 1987 it was the SDP-Liberal Alliance and Neil Kinnock's Party's continuing CND stance which lost labour the election: enough labour potential wins in weak Tory seats were spoiled by votes drifting away to the Libdems, and people not wanting to vote CND. see footnote *
5) The Thatcherites as they were called then, would have been then Sans Boadicea, a fairly definable (at the time and in retrospect ) group of right wing Tories who could have become more used to governing by coherence in the cabinet, without the worry of such a media prominent and strong minded leader. The divisions in the party over Mrs T would have been divisions without a figure head too. Decision making could have been better, perhaps more compassionate for the mining and steel workers being laid off in terms of directed and higher skill economic regeration under a later Heseltine leadership. I imagine a Tebitt followed by Heseltine reign, perhaps also the Labour Party moving centre left quicker and being electable in the early 1990s.
*Thatcher won the 1987 general election, with an increase majority of seats in the lower house, while in fact a much decreased proportion of the national vote over 1983. Even though the Alliance vote went down, and Labour went up it was down to seats in middle England, (with the Tories if I remember, being eradicated from Scotland in 1987.) Labour could not win back enough SE seats with a welsh leader and nuclear disarmament.
I remember much of that campaign, and was involved on the Labour side as a party member. There was a lot of CND 'one issue' people involved with the party then and a lot of more left wing "militants" Ordinary members were well to do working class folk who knew what they were fighting for-. decent pay, decent conditions and decent housing.
However the Labour leadership didn't seem to really stand for anything apart from being anti-thatcher and pro CND. Kinnock's "No Society?" and " Why am I the first Kinnock ...?..they had no platform`" speeches may have roused the party core but it failed to ignite the south east of england. However the anti militant centralising approach appealed to some new moderate, centre left back benchers who would soon become the New Labour elite.