The 30th anniversary of the Tories coming to power in 1979 has provided few consolations, except for the fact of Thatcher’s imminent demise.
Her death will be greeted with outpourings of joy by most working class people, although her funeral will unfortunately involve lying in state at Westminster Abbey, rather than a crossroads burial at midnight with a stake through her heart.
Nevertheless, there is least one respect in which socialists can learn from Thatcher—the way she was prepared, starting from a minority position, to fight for what she thought was necessary for her class.
As the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci pointed out in the 1930s, in times of crisis capitalism requires politicians who will decide on a particular strategy and fight for it with absolute conviction, if necessary against individual members of the capitalist class themselves.
By the late 1970s British capitalism required an entirely new political regime—one which did not reluctantly acquiesce to policies, as the Labour Party did, but which was fully committed to their implementation.
In that sense Thatcher was an “anti-Lenin”, part of a bourgeois vanguard that was prepared to take risks before which others would have retreated.
She was necessary to capitalism in Britain in a way that Ronald Reagan was not in the US. Reagan was a charismatic, but replaceable, front-man for the collective leadership of neoconservative ideologues and corporate representatives who actually directed White House policy.
In a partly-justified response to the notion of an all-conquering “Thatcherism” which so paralysed and disorientated the left during the 1980s, several writers have tried, from different standpoints, to play down the significance of Thatcher.
In his interesting history of the 1970s, When the Lights Went Out, Andy Beckett argues that James Callaghan could have called the general election for October 1978 and Labour would likely have won. But even if they had not, the Conservatives would then have had to deal with the Winter of Discontent—a contest for which they were unprepared and which Thatcher herself believed would have destroyed the government before it had begun.
The opposite view has been taken by the Scottish novelist James Kelman: “If she hadn’t been around somebody else would have been chosen. The very notion of ‘Thatcherism’ suggests that what is happening in this country began with her and will therefore end with her.”
Beckett sees the period as involving a series of contingent events which could have had other outcomes. Kelman is deterministic, emphasising the conditions of crisis which would have ultimately brought forth the necessary political leadership in an attempt to resolve them in the interests of capital.
Both arguments have some validity, but both ultimately underestimate the role of leadership. The crisis in which British capitalism was engulfed would have forced whichever party was in office to move in neoliberal directions, albeit more slowly and with greater caution.
But neoliberalism could not have been introduced at the speed and intensity it was without Thatcher or a similar personality. Thatcher was in a minority among the leadership of her party, which had itself been elected by only a minority of voters.
She nevertheless had several advantages. One was the financial support provided by revenues from the export of North Sea oil. Another was that she faced a compromised and incoherent Labour Party.
Above all her real enemy the broader labour movement, was in ideological and organisational turmoil, disillusioned by the previous Labour government and weakened by unemployment.
Thatcher’s position only became unassailable through two victories. The first was over the Argentinean military in 1982. The “Falklands factor” did not have any lasting popular impact, although it was widely believed to have by writers around the then influential (if badly misnamed) journal Marxism Today.
The real impact was to consolidate Thatcher’s supremacy over the Conservative Party.
The war was a gamble. Not in the sense that there was ever much likelihood of the British forces losing—their relative weight compared to the Argentineans was far too one-sided for that to be plausible.
The real risk was that victory would come at the price of so many British casualties as to be publicly unacceptable. But it did not.
The second victory was over the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in 1985, which finally consolidated the neoliberal regime in Britain. The alternative outcome could have resulted in a different future.
This was by no means the impossibility that tends to be argued by those who—openly or not—welcomed the actual outcome. There were crucial turning points at which the NUM could have achieved victory as late as six months into the strike.
Neoliberalism could have suffered a reverse in Britain, as it was later to do in France, with consequences we cannot know.
David Cameron is unlikely to play the same role as Thatcher. The vanguard regimes of Thatcher and Reagan in the US shared a small but clear set of key objectives and strategies.
Their successors no longer do so. Instead, they display an increasingly well-founded sense of panic and agree about only one thing—that ordinary people will pay for the crisis.
Faced with an enemy that is both vicious and disorientated, revolutionaries have to prove our collective capacity to lead our class as Thatcher individually did for hers.
Neil Davidson is a visiting research fellow at the University of Strathclyde and the author of Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692–1746