Thatcher and the class divide

Spare me all the guff about Margaret Thatcher. British Labour leader Ed Miliband says that “we can disagree and also greatly respect her achievements”. Here in Australia Labor leaders, including Julia Gillard and Penny Wong, follow suit.
I don’t respect her. We didn’t have “disagreements”. We were on opposite sides of the biggest battle between the classes in my lifetime – a battle she initiated.
Thatcher came to office in 1979 with a plan. It had a name – the Ridley plan, drawn up by Nicholas Ridley, Conservative MP, aristocrat and free market ideologue. The plan was to wipe out the hard-won rights of workers in one basic industry after another. It involved privatising productive state enterprises and winding back the Welfare State, the great gain that the labour movement had wrested out of the suffering of the Depression and World War Two.
The new PM set her course to smash organised labour, culminating in the 1984-1985 confrontation with the miners. To achieve her aim she was prepared to sell off or close down one great industry after another – steel, shipbuilding, railways, car manufacture, above all coal mining because the miners were the strongest section of the working class.
She used every weapon at her disposal. When her authority in her own party was in doubt, she whipped up jingoism by making war against Argentina over the Malvinas and rejoiced over the war crime of sinking the Belgrano with the loss of 800 young lives. She unleashed the forces of the state to provoke and subvert the peace movement, left-wing organisations, the Irish Republican movement, trade union leaders and supporters of civil liberties.
Britain, say her supporters, couldn’t have gone on as it was. Certainly, it had a post-imperial, uncompetitive economy in which the profit motive was no longer compatible with the old-style paternalism of Tories like former PM Harold Macmillan who could tolerate a bit of collective bargaining and public ownership.
Thatcher’s answer was to asset-strip Britain, destroy jobs, drive up unemployment and make the City of London the capital of the new casino capitalism, where debt was considered an asset and everything was fine as long as speculators could make a quid and the fat cats of the banking world could pocket their ever-growing bonuses. There’s a direct line from Thatcherism and Reaganomics to the GFC.
The new order meant destroying the very basis of communities in Scotland, Wales, the north and the Midlands that had, in the course of two centuries, grown out of the Industrial Revolution. That never troubled the Grantham grocer’s daughter. There was no such thing, she declared, as society.
Her legacy is a Britain in which class division, masked by the bread and circuses of consumerism and debased media, is greater than ever. It’s a Britain where the social security net has frayed to breaking point, and where millions of young people simply cannot afford the kind of education my generation claimed as of right.
I was born in Lancashire when it still had pits and industry, and I owe my health and my education to the Welfare State. In 1986, a year after the defeat of the miners’ strike, I left the country. Memories of the northern world that gave me such a generous start in life still tug at my heart. But I’d never shed a tear for Thatcher.
Amid all the hypocrisy surrounding her death and funeral, thank goodness for Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams who said, in his habitual uncompromising way: “Margaret Thatcher did great hurt to the Irish and British people during her time as British Prime Minister. Working class communities were devastated in Britain because of her policies. Her role in international affairs was equally belligerent whether in support of the Chilean dictator Pinochet, her opposition to sanctions against apartheid South Africa; and her support for the Khmer Rouge.
“Here in Ireland her espousal of old draconian militaristic policies prolonged the war and caused great suffering. She embraced censorship, collusion and the killing of citizens by covert operations, including the targeting of solicitors like Pat Finucane, alongside more open military operations and refused to recognise the rights of citizens to vote for parties of their choice.”
British PM David Cameron says of Thatcher that “she saved our country”. No. She saved his privileged upper class, but only for a while.

4 comments

  1. I grew up in a military (RAF) family, as right wing as it gets. My brother and I went to public (as in private) schools. We would listen to BFPO letters home from empire outposts over the radio on Sunday lunchtime and so on. Two years of Thatcher turned my conservative voting mother to labor and later the Greens. I couldn’t wait to get out and moved to Australia. One curious thing about commentary from media and others is their willingness to continue call her conservative! How conservative? The thatcher style laid waste wide swathes of the British culture. A government of spivs and opportunists. And so it has remained. What a legacy

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