There’s been a lot of talk about Margaret Thatcher recently, what with the film and the debate over who should pay for her funeral when she finally snuffs it. It seems to be the done thing to write a load of waffle about what you thought of her, so I thought I’d chip in.
There are many myths around Thatcher, as there are around all high-profile leaders, but the biggest and ugliest one is the bullshit pseudo-truism that Britain was “in a right mess” before she came along and “sorted it out”.
The UK in the late seventies wasn’t all that bad as things go. Britain was a country that had emerged from two devastating World Wars with a strong, modernising social democracy. We’d survived losing an empire yet possessed a powerful industrial economy, some of the highest living standards on the planet and record low levels of inequality (the UK’s Gini coefficient was a positively Scandinavian 0.25 when Thatch came to power).
Sure there were problems that hadn’t been addressed. Successive governments had failed to broker a workable compromise with the big unions; unemployment had been rising steadily; Northern Ireland remained a running sore. But Thatcher not only failed to “sort out” any of these, she made all three worse.
Thatch’s approach to labour relations was to pass some of the strictest anti-union laws anywhere in the developed world (6 different pieces of anti-union legislation were passed while she was PM) and to throw away our energy security just to win a fight with the miners (Britain is basically a giant lump of coal floating in the North Atlantic yet we import more than we produce and are utterly reliant on foreign supplies). It’s well-known that, after criticising Labour’s record on employment, she doubled the number of people out of work, but it’s crucial to remember that this was part of her plan all along - her slavishly adherence to the crackpot economics of hard-right loony tunes like Milton Friedman and her clumsy, dogmatic reading of Friedrich Hayek made rocketing unemployment inevitable. Her casual attitude to the jobless and her attack on mining communities have left decades of deprivation in their wake, the cost of which is probably far higher than the cost of subsidising British coal mining ever was. Of course, it wasn’t just miners – her government deliberately ran down every British manufacturing industry except defence-aerospace (even that came back to bite us on the arse when we collectively realised during the noughties than BAE Systems now runs the country).
As for Northern Ireland, her main policy seemed to be ‘behaving like a petulant child’. She consistently refused to deal with the substance of protests, or to negotiate with republicans, who were willing to talk. After Bobby Sands was elected MP, her response was to pass a law to make sure no one else could do it and let’s not forget the not-at-all counterproductive strategy of almost literally gagging republicans. I’m surprised she didn’t stick her fingers in her ears and shout “na na na can’t hear you” as well. Still, being silenced on air is better than being shot and killed I suppose and it did give us a wonderful Day Today sketch.
Any reputation as a great visionary is entirely undeserved - she had a remarkably quiet early career as an MP, making few waves other than the whole “milk snatcher” controversy and only decided to stand for leader when her best buddy and fellow humanityphobe Keith Joseph became damaged goods after dropping an unsubtle eugenics dog whistle (teen pregnancies apparently meant that “our human stock is threatened”) in a 1974 speech. A naive and childishly obstinate politician, she came out with numerous howlers while in charge, some of which are only seeing the light of day now via the 30-year rule. On taking office, her brave bold vision for a prosperous Britain was “patios for all”. She asked if it was possible to redraw the border between the Six Counties and the Republic of Ireland as a straight line to make it more defensible and she suggested founding a new crown colony in 1979 (that’s 1979 AD) on an Asia-Pacific island to house Vietnamese boat people (she didn’t want them coming to Britain where they’d be “given council housing”).
She ended 1981 as the most hated PM in history. Her popularity may have had a brief bounce when she turned the might of the British military against a bankrupt third-world dictatorship in 1982, but she received fewer votes in every subsequent general election after 1979 (the brief popularity of the SDP-Liberal Alliance was the single factor that won her the landslide in 1983). At the end of her career, after setting in motion the Tory anomie towards the rest of the EU that still torments the party to this day, she shat her sepia-tinted pants when the Berlin Wall fell, unable to handle the idea of a geopolitical shift away from the comfortable antagonisms of the Cold War. She didn’t have a problem with dictators after all, just look how well she got on with the mass murderer Pinochet.
And just in case any dimwit out there believes otherwise, there was no Thatcher economic “miracle”. She pissed away North Sea oil revenues, which were just beginning to pour in at the time she got elected, to fund a recession of her own making before giving the rest to the rich through income tax cuts for top earners while raising more cash by selling off everything that wasn’t nailed down. There was a massive transfer of wealth from wages to profits (employees’ share of national income fell from 65% to 53%), from poor to rich (that Gini index I mentioned earlier had crept up to 0.33 by the time the old witch resigned). Despite all this, government spending rose year-on-year and growth was no higher in the eighties than it was in the seventies. The Winter of Discontent lasted a couple of months, the Winter of Thatcher lasted a full fucking decade. The so-called boom of the late eighties was an unsustainable blip caused by dangerous deregulation of finance capital, the fallout from which we’re only now (not) dealing with. See also: infrastructure crumbling from lack of investment and massive affordable housing shortage. Maggie’s vainglorious, Churchill-fellating crap about making Britain great again was an illusion that screwed an entire country, possibly permanently.
In short, everything she touched turned to shit. She failed to deal with any of the problems facing the country and disastrously intervened where things weren’t broke. A shrill egomaniac (“we are a grandmother”) who visibly hated the public - look at the venom in her eyes when she gets her arse handed to her by Diana Gould, her lasting legacy was poisoning the country by remaking it in her own image, that of a spiteful, joyless, paranoid harridan. She took the “one nation” idea of previous Tory leaders and shattered it to atomised dust – the line about there being “no such thing as society” wasn’t an observation, or a statement of principles, it was a promise and a prophecy. Britain today, especially England, is a miserable place – far drabber than the otherised, bell-bottomed, grainily-shot seventies ever was – not just because of the ruined infrastructure, or because housing, transport, utilities and services are both exorbitant and shoddy, but because it’s filled with shallow, self-important, mean-spirited, money-obsessed arseholes who’re all tormented to agony by the idea that someone somewhere is getting a free ride at their expense. We live in a country where people happily vote for their own impoverishment if they think it means someone else will be shafted harder than them, an outlook a sharper commentator than I has christened “fuckyounomics”. That is Maggie’s true legacy.
Let me know where they bury her, so I know where to direct my piss.