Thatcher’s bitter legacy
Thirty years ago, one of the most divisive figures in British political history became prime minister. For more than a decade, Margaret Thatcher presided over vicious attacks on the working class, wrecking the lives of millions. She was resisted by mass, militant struggle by the miners and printers, and Liverpool city council, among others, before her downfall at the hands of 18 million poll tax non-payers, only for her mantle to be picked up by New Labour. PETER TAAFFE assesses the Thatcher years.
ON THE 30th ANNIVERSARY (4 May 1979) of the coming to power of Margaret Thatcher – the most hated figure in Britain post-1945 – her record has been put under the media microscope. Predictably, it is her personality which has been the main subject of investigation by assorted capitalist newspapers, notably in the Observer and by Germaine Greer in the Guardian.
Most investigations of this character concentrate on her personal and psychological ‘disorders’, which reveal a deep and abiding hatred of Thatcher and everything that she stood for, even from middle-class media commentators but particularly by her victims, millions of British working-class people. The Observer Review, for instance, recalled the ‘appreciation’ of rock star Elvis Costello "singing live on BBC2’s The Late Show in 1988 about hoping he stayed alive long enough ‘to tramp the dirt down’ on her grave; ‘She has no soul’, Costello claimed, ‘she will burn in hell’." This evoked a postbag to that newspaper typified by one letter, appropriately from the former mining area of County Durham: "I would suggest as a memorial to Mrs Thatcher that instead of the usual headstone or statue, a dance floor should be erected over her grave".
This theme of dancing on Thatcher’s grave is also evoked in current plays in London such as Ed Waugh’s, Maggie’s End. Ed Waugh, formerly a member and full-time worker for Militant, now the Socialist Party, was it seems provoked into writing this play because of the scandalous suggestion that Gordon Brown was considering a £3 million state funeral for Thatcher after her death. This is something that only a select few prime ministers, usually ‘war leaders’ like Winston Churchill, received in the past.
But 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.
Heath loses to the miners
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...