The official response—including of course that of the establishment media—to Margaret Thatcher’s death has sought to embalm her in “statesmanship”.
Those who remember what Thatcher did to the miners and to many other working class communities will prefer her immortalised as the poet Shelley did another Tory politician, Lord Castlereagh, after the Peterloo massacre in 1819. He wrote, “I met murder on the way—he had a mask like Castlereagh”.
For murder was Thatcher’s business. Sometimes the murder was metaphorical—of industries and communities. It still destroyed people’s lives.
Sometimes the murder was real.
Thatcher oversaw the ongoing dirty war in Ireland. Her callousness was on display when she condemned Irish Republican hunger strikers to death, rather than concede the recognition as political prisoners for which they were campaigning.
The 907 Argentine and British military personnel killed in the 1982 Falklands war would not have died if Thatcher hadn’t decided to take back an absurd colonial anomaly by force. Her legacy was continued British possession of the Malvinas (or Falklands) that still poisons relations with Argentina.
Thatcher gloried in war. When her cabinet finally decided to remove her in November 1990, she pleaded to stay on as prime minister till the forthcoming war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was over.
Morally contemptible though Thatcher was, she could probably claim to be the last British political leader of world-historic importance.
She came to office in May 1979 at a critical historical juncture. The world economy was entering its second great recession that decade—evidence that the long boom of the 1950s and 1960s was truly over.
Underlying the economic crisis was a sharp fall in the rate of profit on capital compared to the last boom years. Restoring profitability required forcing up the rate of exploitation for workers. But, particularly in Britain, the ruling class was caught between hammer and anvil.
It faced a well organised, combative working class that had built up powerful rank and file workplace organisation during the boom.
Led by the miners and the dockers, the British workers’ movement had put paid to Thatcher’s Tory predecessor, Ted Heath, between 1972 and 1974. The great pay revolt of 1978-9,
the “winter of discontent” that destroyed the Social Contract brought in after Heath by Labour, showed the enduring strength of this movement.
Before Thatcher won the 1979 general election, Thatcher had already branded herself as the “Iron Lady”, represented a much harsher and more combative form of ruling-class politics than had become common in the boom years. She disinterred free-market orthodoxies that had been buried with the Great Depression of the 1930s.
More than any other leading capitalist politician Thatcher pioneered what would soon come to be known as neoliberalism. She soon had an immensely powerful ally in the shape of the new right-wing Republican President of the United States, Ronald Reagan.
But Reagan faced a less powerful workers’ movement, and by the time he took office in January 1981 he could benefit from the impact of the brutal recession imposed by Paul Volcker, chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board, in October 1979.
Thatcher and her sycophants liked to praise her courage. In fact, particularly in her early years in Downing Street, she ducked and dived, often avoiding premature confrontations that could provoke too powerful a working-class response.
She enjoyed one huge advantage that she inherited from her predecessors, the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson and, after him, Jim Callaghan. While the Social Contract eventually failed, it had succeeded in integrating an increasingly bureaucratised layer of senior shop stewards into collaboration with management and the state.
This meant, for example, the bosses at the British Leyland car giant could move against one of the most powerful of these stewards.
Derek Robinson, the convenor at the Longbridge plant in Birmingham, found himself cut off from the shop floor and was successfully victimised.
It also meant that sectionalism often trumped solidarity.
This made it easier for Thatcher to isolate the epic miners’ strike of 1984-5.
But she was lucky as well. If Argentine armourers had put the right fuses in their bombs, most of the British battle fleet would have ended up on the floor of the South Atlantic and Thatcher would have had to resign in ignominy.
She was also fortunate in her enemies. This was true of her Labour opponents—first Michael Foot and then Neil Kinnock concealed increasingly right wing politics beneath a hot-air balloon of rhetoric.
Above all, it was true of the trade union leaders who to their eternal shame allowed the men and women of the mining communities to fight on alone for a year. Militarised police squads occupied pit villages and Thatcher’s cronies organised a scab union, as despair and privation sapped the miners’ will to fight.
But there were moments when she could have been defeated—above all in July 1984, when an organised scabbing operation provoked a national dockers’ strike, and then again the same autumn when the pit deputies (supervisors) threatened to walk out.
On both occasions, trade union officialdom came to her rescue.
In the aftermath of this victory, Thatcher sought to radicalise her efforts to remodel Britain for the possessive individualism of the market.
By the late 1980s she and her chancellor of the exchequer Nigel Lawson had engineered the first of the financial bubble-driven booms of the neoliberal era.
But, in the end, Thatcher overreached herself. Vaingloriously, in 1989-90 she imposed the poll tax, charging everyone from billionaires to paupers the same amount to finance local government.
Out of nowhere came a social explosion—the biggest riot London had seen since the 1930s and a mass movement of 14 million people refusing to pay the tax.
Eventually self-preservation forced the Tories to expel Thatcher from her bunker and to scrap the tax.
This is the most important lesson of Thatcher’s premiership.
By chance she has died as an even greater assault on the welfare state than any she mounted is coming into force.
The best form of class revenge on Thatcher would be to build an even bigger social movement to break the coalition government and bury everything she stood for even deeper than her coffin will lie.