The economic boom that followed the Second World War created agreement among mainstream politicians that capitalism could be regulated by state intervention.
The relentless decline of the British economy and the global recession meant the death of this consensus by 1973. The strikes of 1972–4 that destroyed the Tory government of Edward Heath prevented initial attempts to make workers pay for the crisis.
It took the Labour government of 1974–9 to push through austerity measures that cut living standards. But by the late 1970s British capitalism required a new political outlook—one which did not simply acquiesce to the needs of the bosses, as the Labour Party did, but which was fully committed to their views.
Margaret Thatcher was the architect of the so-called “free market revolution” that swept across Britain in the 1980s—privatising public services, rolling back workers’ rights and allowing the rich to grab even more wealth.
Thatcher tends to be praised for her “determination”. This is a polite term for her class hatred towards workers. In general the feeling was mutual.
Hardcore Thatcherites were a minority in the 1979 cabinet. But Thatcher was a class warrior and determined to push through her agenda.
This was seen even before she became prime minister. Worried that party officials were muting her message, she went on television during the wave of public sector strikes in the winter of 1978–9 to denounce the unions as “above the law”.
In her memoirs, Thatcher wrote that she put anti-union legislation “higher on the agenda than some of my colleagues really wanted... I had broken ranks. People could see that I was going to fight.”
Thatcher rallied a section of the ruling class that championed the unrestrained free market.
As she put it in 1980, “We should not expect the state to appear in the guise of an extravagant good fairy at every christening, a loquacious companion at every stage of life’s journey, the unknown mourner at every funeral.”
The Thatcher government had a way of dealing with those who resisted its policies.
First the government would launch a campaign to demonise any potential enemy—so the National Union of Mineworkers became the “enemy within” and the councils were all said to be run by the “loony left”. Then the isolated opponents could be picked off one at a time.
Unemployment rose by 250 percent in the first three years of Tory rule. The government welcomed this, as it demoralised working people and undermined the ability of unions to fight.
Thatcher’s position was solidified through victories. The first was over the Argentinean military in 1982.
The “Falklands factor” did not have any lasting popular impact. But it did consolidate Thatcher’s supremacy over the Conservative Party.
Nicholas Ridley, one of Thatcher’s key ministers, devised a strategy to reduce the unions’ strength.
The Ridley Plan meant the government picked off trade unions one by one, starting with those seen as weak—such as steel and health workers—before moving on to more organised groups such as dockers and, ultimately, the miners.
The 1984–5 Miners’ Strike was the key battle.
Despite all the myths about it being an “unwinnable” strike, the miners almost secured a victory on several occasions.
It was lack of support from the union and Labour leaders that led to their defeat. This was the high water mark of Thatcherism.
But the government’s arrogance meant it then dreamed up the poll tax, apparently confident that it would not be opposed.
The tax—the same for everyone and not based on income—was a break from the Tories’ strategy of taking on individual groups.
In parliamentary terms, they were right. But the crucial opposition to the tax came not from MPs but the mass campaign outside parliament.
That revolt led the Tories to dump the poll tax and Thatcher—she was driven away from Downing Street in tears.
Even an apparently powerful government is vulnerable to mass opposition. Thatcher had a large majority, a loyal civil service and a weak opposition, but she was still beaten.
The Tories proceeded to tear themselves apart, despite winning the next election. It took them more than a decade to recover.