The demise of Margaret Thatcher, for 11 years prime minister of Britain, has attracted eulogies from the conservative right and condemnation from the left. She is not entirely deserving of either.
Although credited with destroying the welfare state, her role was much smaller than her public persona made it appear. The “Iron Lady” was a carefully cultivated media image of single-minded ruthlessness for a woman who in actuality limited herself to the politically possible. Obama is mistaken when he says that she was able to shape history with her “moral conviction, unyielding courage and iron will.”
The social consensus of postwar Britain had already been eroded in the 1970s by changes in the economy deriving from technological innovations like automation and the emergence of international capital markets. When Thatcher took on the miners’ union in 1984, the labour movement had been weakened both by economic decline and the removal of legal immunity for damages resulting from strikes. She unleashed the forces of the state to crush the political opposition of miners fighting to keep their jobs in the pits: however, their union was isolated by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and faced a legal and physical onslaught against their pickets. The miners were unable to counter the state’s strategic build-up of coal reserves imported from Poland in preparation for the conflict.
What Thatcher really did was to dispense with the role of the TUC in government. Since 1945 the union leaders had worked to keep disputes within a legal framework, while workers in shop floor organizations had become increasingly militant, in effect bringing down the Heath government in 1971 and undermining the Callaghan government after 1974. She abrogated this arrangement and took on the most militant union for political effect, similar to the way she attacked Argentina in 1982 – sending a naval task force to retake an old coaling station off the South American coast – and to when she allowed Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands to die rather than concede political status for IRA prisoners.
She hardly deserved to be a world figure. Her outlook was distinctly parochial and small-minded. What gave her international influence was her relationship with Ronald Reagan, who recognized in her an ideological kinship. Thatcher later wrote: “I knew that I was talking to someone who instinctively felt and thought as I did, not just about policies but about a philosophy of government, a view of human nature.”
Although she claimed the mantle of Churchill, her politics were closer to those of Neville Chamberlain: she appeased dictators and was viciously hostile to unions. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out: “She played a key role not only in bringing about the first Gulf War but also using her influence to publicly advocate for the 2003 attack on Iraq. She denounced Nelson Mandela and his ANC as ‘terrorists’, something even David Cameron ultimately admitted was wrong. She was a steadfast friend to brutal tyrants such as Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein and Indonesian dictator General Suharto…”
Author John Mortimer described Thatcher’s political achievement as snatching the Conservative party from “the privileged but often well meaning old upper-class gentlemen, and giv[ing] it to the shopkeepers, the businessmen, the people in advertising and anyone she considered ‘one of us.’ ” Historian Kenneth O. Morgan elaborates: “The Thatcher background was one of entrepreneurial, upwardly-mobile, self-sufficient, middle-class neoliberalism. … The roots of Thatcherism lay in acquisition rather than in production. It sought to create a business, perhaps a rentier culture.” [The People’s Peace, Oxford 1990:443]
What Thatcher gave to many parts of Britain, especially in the formerly industrialized north, was mass unemployment, collapsing public services, and urban decay. But decline in manufacturing coincided with a boom in technologically sophisticated smaller industries located mainly in the south, and this more than anything else sustained her base.
She was able to get public support for the privatization of nationalized industries and council houses by doing so in a way that seemed to advantage workers who bought shares in the initial offerings. Later, of course, the real profits accrued to the banks and businessmen who were able to buy these assets at prices considerably lower than their valuations.
Her political legacy has to be seen as that of a neoliberal transition from the consensus politics of the postwar years to a country dominated by financial institutions. She spearheaded a state assault on unions, the public sector, and local government from an ideological free-market position, and met her political end after attempting to impose a “poll tax” which would have hit the poor the hardest. The monetarist philosophies that had apparently revived the economy were failing, and by 1990 Thatcher’s belligerent but idiosyncratic style was rejected by the Conservative party itself and she was booted out of office.
Thatcher’s agenda was a counterpart to the globalization of production and exchange that had weakened and undermined the national compromise embodied in the welfare state. So to regard her as destroying it single-handedly, as some on the left imply, is mistaken. Movements of resistance now have to take on international capital, and are no longer confined to what was possible within a relatively closed national economy. Although many in places like Merseyside and Tyneside will be drinking extra pints tonight, Thatcher merely pushed over an edifice whose foundations had already decayed.