Socialist Worker

How historic was Margaret Thatcher?

Margaret Thatcher tried to crush trade unions and public services but we shouldn’t overestimate her power, writes Bob Fotheringham

Issue No. 2166

Socialist Worker’s front page after the fall of Margaret Thatcher  (Pic: Glyn Williamson)

Socialist Worker’s front page after the fall of Margaret Thatcher (Pic: Glyn Williamson)

There can be little doubt that Margaret Thatcher’s election as Conservative prime minister 30 years ago and her period in power have had a major impact on British society – both politically and economically.

Without Thatcher it is difficult to imagine New Labour taking control of the Labour Party – indeed she cites New Labour’s very existence as one of her most important achievements.

She has also had a major impact of the leaders of the British trade union movement. No matter how unpalatable they have found the policies of Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, at least having Labour in power seems better to them than the Tory alternative.

However, it is also wrong to exaggerate Thatcher’s effect and influence. Unfortunately, Neil Davidson did precisely this in an article that dubbed Thatcher as an “anti-Lenin” and part of a “bourgeois vanguard” (» Thatcher can teach us, 8 August).

Thatcher’s premiership may have dazzled much of the British media and many a Labour politician, but her charms failed to impress the majority of the British people. The Tories never gained anything near a majority of votes in elections.

Successive surveys of British social attitudes when they were in government showed that most people supported the NHS and opposed privatisation.

This put the opinions of ordinary people well to the left of Thatcher and those who supported her. While introducing market forces to the NHS has weakened and undermined it, she certainly was not able to destroy our publicly funded health service.

For someone who was opposed to state intervention, Thatcher was not able to go nearly as far as she would have liked to in destroying the public sector.

The Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 was only defeated as result of the Tories buying off other sections of the working class and the treachery of the trade union leaders.


Thatcher’s relations with Europe highlighted her weakness. The section of the Tory Party that supported her was totally opposed to the European Economic Community – forerunner to the European Union. Yet she took Britain into the Exchange Rate Mechanism which was a forerunner to the euro.

Whether or not the reforms she made to British capitalism have benefited capitalism in general is doubtful.

By destroying much of Britain’s manufacturing base and encouraging the financial and service sectors she helped to create an economy which is especially vulnerable in the present period of crisis.

The political and economic leaders of countries like France and Germany never seriously followed Thatcher’s model of economic reform. They have been prepared to use state finances to prop up capitalism in their own countries.

While France and Germany are not able to avoid the effects of the crisis, their economies are in a much stronger position than Britain to deal with its consequence.

The manner of her departure from power is instructive. She was put out of Downing Street in tears – driven from office by her own party as a consequence of anti-poll tax riots on the streets of London.

In truth the main reason for Thatcher’s apparent success was the weakness and ineptitude of the Labour Party rather than any great foresight of her own.

There have been far too many speeches at trade union and political rallies in Britain calling for a “leadership” which is as determined as Thatcher to fight for the interests of the working class.

Of course, having leaders who are prepared to fight in a position of authority and power in the Labour Party and the trade unions would certainly help.

But one of the overwhelming lessons of the last 30 years is that this is not something we can rely on.

From the miners in 1984 to Vestas workers in 2009, ordinary working people have shown the capacity to resist and fight back. The job of socialists is to support, learn from and generalise these struggles.

This is where a new leadership of the working class can emerge and finally consign Thatcher and her followers, including her New Labour admirers into the “dustbin of history”.

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