‘It’s like we’ve gone back to the 1980s. We had the cuts, and now we’ve got the riot.” That was the response of one student protester interviewed outside the broken windows of Tory HQ last week.
Newspaper headlines that scream of rioting in central London and targeting of the Tories remind many of how Margaret Thatcher fell from office 20 years ago this month.
There are important lessons from that era for the fight against Cameron now—both the potential for resistance and the dangers we face.
Thatcher, the supposedly “invincible” Iron Lady, was brought low by the movement against her hated poll tax which made the poorest pay the same level of local taxes as the richest.
The campaign culminated in rioting in Trafalgar Square and outside town halls the length and breadth of Britain during the spring of 1990.
The press responded by hysterically denouncing “mob rule”. The Labour Party’s deputy leader, Roy Hattersley, blamed anarchists and the Socialist Workers Party for the violence and called for the mass arrests of “ringleaders”, demanding “exemplary sentences” for those convicted.
Some on the left even joined in the condemnations of the riots.
But as it became clear that millions of people were refusing to pay the tax, Tory MPs feared that unless they ditched Thatcher they would lose their seats—and that the anger on the streets could spill over into other issues. They began hatching plots to remove her.
By 22 November, the pressure had become too much, and the Tory leader announced her resignation after more than 11 years in office.
Thatcher left a trail of destruction. Hers was nakedly a government for the rich. Yuppies celebrated as they made a fortune from privatisation and rising property prices.
Meanwhile, working class communities were destroyed as the Tories pushed up unemployment to a record three million.
But there was no reason why workers should have endured such a beating for so many years.
We could have defeated Thatcher years before the poll tax. She was vulnerable from the day she took office in 1979—and she knew it.
Thatcher’s right hand man, Nicholas Ridley, formulated a plan for dealing with the strikes he predicted would greet their plans for slashing spending and laying waste to manufacturing.
The miners had twice humiliated Heath’s Tory government, in 1972 and 1974. The Tories wanted revenge.
Ridley identified key industries that were central to the economy where concessions to workers should be made—including water, electricity, gas and the NHS.
The plan also listed the docks, railways and mines as areas where extreme caution should be used.
In all of these industries, he said care had to be taken not to provoke confrontation until a time that suited the ruling class. And even then, the plan could only work if strikes could be limited to those directly affected, and there was no prospect of solidarity action.
There were lengthy and well-planned confrontations with steel workers, civil servants, rail workers and car workers at British Leyland during Thatcher’s first term.
The Tories deliberately strung out some of these confrontations to punish workers. But when, in 1981, miners threatened to strike, the Tories were quick to settle.
In the same year inner cities exploded in riots against racism, poverty and unemployment, and again the government decided that it was better to offer concessions, rather than risk the anger spreading.
In each battle, people displayed great militancy and courage—their battles quickly capturing the imagination of a public ravaged by recession and cuts.
Some 10 million people were members of trade unions. But transforming the situation would take solidarity strikes, not just sympathy.
The Labour government of 1974-79 had successfully blunted the immense wave of industrial militancy of the early 1970s. It did so through a “social contract” with the trade union leaders, who agreed to curtail strikes.
Workers had been wrong-footed by attacks from “their government” and this undermined their confidence to fight back. And a string of sell outs by union leaders led to a pattern of defeat, out of which began to grow the myth of “Thatcher the invincible”.
After rabid right wing newspaper boss Eddie Shah successfully used riot police to break the powerful print unions to launch his new Warrington plant, the government decided the time was right to launch a new offensive.
Early in 1984, they banned workers from the GCHQ spy centre from joining a union—a move that so outraged the union leaders they felt compelled to act. They called a national protest strike with just four days notice.
The response to their call was huge—hundreds of thousands struck. Glasgow and Liverpool appeared to be at a total standstill.
The Tories were suddenly vulnerable. But union leaders backed away from further confrontation, hoping that by appearing reasonable they could persuade public opinion and thereby shift the government. They could not, and the mood was wasted.
Thatcher sensed their weakness and decided the time was right to launch her biggest attack yet—on the miners.
Miners in Yorkshire began their strike in March after management announced the closure of two pits. Within days the action had spread and become national.
Thatcher and her allies hoped a strike could be defeated within weeks and unleashed the full might of the state.
The police harassed pickets and invaded mining villages, attacking and arresting people.
The media launched a full-scale attack on the strikers, denouncing their picket line “violence”.
But the miners stood firm and working people in Britain and across the world rallied to the miners’ cause, raising money and solidarity.
Yet the TUC and Labour Party leaders did not match this spirit. The TUC promised to mobilise solidarity action, which worried the government.
It failed to materialise. At crucial moments, steel, docks and the pit deputies’ unions had the opportunity to strike, but their union leaders backed down.
Despite huge pressure from his own supporters, Labour leader Neil Kinnock ensured that Labour nationally did nothing to support the strike. And, at the crucial moments, it was Labour leaders who put the boot into the miners.
After many months of extreme poverty, police violence and vilification, increasing numbers began to drift back to work. A miners’ union conference narrowly voted to go back on 3 March 1985, over a year after the strike had begun.
The leaders of other unions used the defeat as an excuse to repeat the myth that the miners had fought a hopeless battle.
But at several points the government feared that it had lost. Thatcher herself admitted nine years afterwards that the strike “could indeed have brought down the government”.
With the strongest battalion of the working class movement defeated, the Tories now started to believe they could never be conquered, and that they had changed Britain forever.
Class is a dead concept, they said. Thatcher even went so far as to argue, “There is no such thing as society—only individuals and their families.” In the dark years that followed the miners’ defeat even many on the left began to believe her.
But the Tories’ overconfidence was to be the beginning of their leader’s undoing.
The Ridley plan said that groups of workers should be taken on one at a time. The poll tax did the opposite—it took on millions of workers at the same time.
Notions of class and struggle re-emerged with startling speed. Small meetings grew into big meetings. And, in a succession of towns and cities, rallies became riots.
Defiance and hatred of the rich became the hallmarks of the campaign. More than a decade of pent up anger arose seemingly from nowhere and tore into Tory councillors and MPs.
As once-invincible Thatcher was forced from Downing Street in tears, for millions of working class people there was at last something to smile about.
Bringing down the Iron Lady didn’t liberate us from the Tories. It would take another seven years for that to happen.
But it smashed the notion that defeat was inevitable. It reminded us that even the most formidable of enemies could be defeated—something Cameron and today’s other pale shadows of Thatcher would do well to consider.