Gordon Brown and David Cameron are vying to claim the mantle of Margaret Thatcher, the Tory prime minister from 1979 to 1990 who was elected 30 years ago this week.
Brown even invited Thatcher to Downing Street so that he could be photographed alongside her.
She was the architect of the “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.
Tory historians, senior media commentators and former left wingers celebrate the philosophy of Thatcherism for ending divisions in society and the “dominance” of the unions.
Brown praised Thatcher for her “conviction”. This was a polite term for her class hatred towards working people.
The majority of the British population who suffered the brunt of the “Thatcher revolution”, which meant mass unemployment, low wages and a harder life, returned that hatred.
Some of those who were once on the left employed supposedly Marxist language to insist that Thatcherism was “hegemonic” – that its ideas of individualism were dominant among the majority of the British population.
They believed that Thatcherism represented the decline of the working class and that there would be no Labour governments in the future without a radical shift to the right.
This pessimism was termed “new realism” and led directly to the creation of New Labour.
The evidence for Thatcher’s dominance was her three general election victories. Even after she was deposed her successor John Major chalked up a fourth Tory victory in 1992.
Yet her initial election was not the result of any great wave of popular Thatcherite zeal.
Thatcher won the 1979 election with just 43.9 percent of the vote. At the time, this was the third lowest vote for any British prime minister since the Second World War.
The Tories won largely because Thatcher won back former Tory voters who had defected to the Liberals, the Scottish Nationalists and the Nazi National Front.
Her subsequent victories were aided by four leading Labour right wingers, who in 1981 split the party to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
Labour leaders cheering on Thatcher’s decision to launch the Falkland’s War in 1982 also helped to save her government.
Hardcore Thatcherites were a minority in the 1979 cabinet. But Thatcher, a class warrior, was 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”.
Someone, she said, had to “grasp this nettle” and confront union power. Strikes in essential services should be outlawed and state benefits paid to strikers’ families restricted so that none could be paid during a strike held without a secret ballot.
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.”
In truth, Thatcher was relieved that James Callaghan, the Labour prime minister, had not called a general election in October 1978 as had been expected.
If she had been prime minister during the 1978-9 Winter of Discontent, as she later wrote, “it might have finally broken us, as it finally broke the Labour government”.
What Thatcher did from 1978 onwards was rally a section of the ruling class that championed the unrestrained free market – even though they had been regarded as being on the political fringe.
The boom that followed the Second World War created a consensus among mainstream politicians that capitalism could be regulated by state intervention.
But the strikes of 1972-4 that destroyed the Tory government of Edward Heath, the relentless decline of the British economy and the global recession of 1973, which ended the long post-war boom, meant the death of this consensus.
Monetarist forces moved to centre stage. Senior figures in the Labour government and their advisors were converted, in private at least, to the free market.
In 1976 the Labour government introduced austerity measures that cut living standards in a way that even Thatcher was never to succeed in doing.
This monetarist group dragged the whole political establishment behind them.
Once elected, Thatcher’s aim was to launch a “shock and awe” offensive to destroy the post-war pattern of “boom and bust”.
Monetarist policies combined with high interest rates and a high exchange rate for the pound, forced up the price of exports. Claiming that British industry was “over-manned”, the policies also led to mass redundancies and the forcing up of productivity.
Thatcher ruled out state aid for “lame duck” industries. She was determined to enforce the limits on public spending put in place by the previous Labour government.
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.
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.
Thatcher was determined to have revenge on the miners for their victories over the Tories in the early 1970s.
The mass picket by miners and other workers at Saltley in Birmingham in February 1972 forced police to close this key coal depot. It guaranteed the striking miners a victory.
The event was reported to a shocked cabinet. Thatcher recalled, “For me, what happened at Saltley took on no less significance than it did for the left.”
Fight on one front – even when this means buying off other enemies in the short-term – became the Tories’ key strategy.
They also moved to outlaw the methods behind the great working class victories of the early 1970s – solidarity and effective picketing.
Rather than targeting individual activists, who might become symbols of resistance, new legislation was aimed at trade union funds. It was designed to scare union full-timers into complying with what are the most restrictive anti-union laws in Europe.
Thatcher won a series of major victories over the unions. The key battle was the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike.
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 far from it being “hegemonic”, its ideas found little popular support.
The British social attitude’s survey of 1984 found that 85 percent of those questioned opposed reducing spending on health and education while 69 percent wanted a government that combatted unemployment rather than inflation.
This was the opposite of Thatcher’s priorities. Some 72 percent thought the gap between rich and poor was too great.
Just how shallow Thatcherism was is demonstrated by how its key figure was finally swept away.
Thatcher pushed through the poll tax in the 1980s. In her twisted logic it was good that the “duke and the dustbin man” should pay the same amount of local tax, despite the differences in their wealth and the value of their property.
But it created a massive backlash. It was an attack on the majority of the population, and was a break from the Tories’ strategy of taking on individual groups.
The poll tax was introduced first in Scotland, despite the fact the Tories had little support there. By the end of 1989 a grassroots campaign of non-payment had massive support. When the poll tax was introduced south of the border the campaign quickly spread.
In March 1990, a demonstration in central London of some 200,000 people exploded into the biggest riot the capital had seen in a century. This was sparked by police who attacked a sit-down in Whitehall. Demonstrators fought back and forced the cops into flight.
In June 1990, an opinion poll found that five million people in England and Wales were prepared to resist paying the tax, despite the fact Labour and trade union leaders bitterly opposed the non-payment campaign.
The rebellion against the poll tax led the Tories to dump Thatcher – she was driven away from Downing Street in tears. Television coverage cut from the former prime minister to scenes of rioting in Trafalgar Square.
Thatcher left amid a recession, which showed her policies had failed to solve British capitalism’s problems.
The crisis of today is, in many ways, a product of the Thatcher years. One of her priorities was to make Britain a leading financial centre, a plan that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have both continued. This has left Britain badly exposed to the current crisis.
If Thatcherism’s ultimate aim was to reverse Britain’s post-war decline, then it failed. Yet Thatcher herself has said that her greatest legacy was New Labour – in other words removing any thoughts of socialism from the established political agenda.
Her other lasting legacy has been trade union leaders who are intimidated into bowing down before the anti-union laws. This means that working people are always forced to fight with one hand tied behind their backs.
To overcome these legacies we need the kind of class combativity that Thatcher brought to her side.
For further details on the events leading up to Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election read Andy Beckett’s, When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the 70s. Available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848
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