The media frothed against those of us who celebrated Margaret Thatcher’s death. They said we were unpardonably using someone’s death for base political ends. That’s only allowed if you are chancellor George Osborne and the right wing media seeking to exploit the deaths of six of Mick Philpott’s children in order to bolster the war on benefits.
For all the efforts to whip up a sense of mass mourning, the turnout from ordinary people for Thatcher’s funeral was low. One story in the Daily Mail said that “more than 250,000” had lined the streets of London. But another (more accurate) account in the same paper spoke of “the estimated 50,000 onlookers”.
Although threats of heavy policing kept most protesters away, there’s no doubt that many people were bitterly resentful that £10 million was laid out for Thatcher’s funeral at a time when there’s “no money” for basic services. A ComRes survey for the Independent on Sunday and the Sunday Mirror found just 25 percent thought the funeral should be paid for out of public funds compared with 60 percent who were opposed.
Amid all the guff, it’s important to remember what Thatcher achieved for the ruling class, how she could have been stopped, and the limits of her “victories”.
Thatcher came to office determined to jack up the profits of British capitalism. The return of economic crises from 1974 had sent tremors round the world. In 1976 the Times published figures saying that the rate of profit at replacement cost had shrunk from 18 percent in 1960 to 4 percent in 1975. The ruling class was determined that it should be turned around.
The process of tearing into the working class began under Labour prime minister James Callaghan and his chancellor Denis Healey. Labour first secured a Social Contract with union leaders that cut pay, and then did a deal with the International Monetary Fund in 1976 that secured a £2.5 billion loan (a large sum at the time) at the cost of massive cuts in public spending. Workers’ living standards slumped, but working class resistance was still a potent threat.
The miners had defeated the Tories in 1972 and two years later played a key role in driving Tory prime minister Edward Heath from office. In 1978-9 the “winter of discontent” saw mass strikes against pay cuts.
Labour stood in 1979 on a right wing manifesto. A famous cartoon from the Sunday Mirror has Callaghan appearing at a Thatcher election rally and saying, “If you must have a Conservative prime minister, I’m your man.” Unsurprisingly such tactics did nothing to rally workers disillusioned by Labour’s attacks. The Tories gained 3 million votes compared with 1974, largely at the expense of the Liberals, and Thatcher was in Number 10.
The Tories knew it was going to be a tough job to break working class strength. There were more than 13 million workers in the trade unions, over half the workforce. In 1978 top Tory Lord Carrington wrote: “Strong unions and advanced technology operated by their members, particularly in fuel and power, mean that no government these days can ‘win’ in the way Mr Baldwin’s Cabinet triumphed during the General Strike of 1926.”
Taking on the unions
Such defeatism was not for Thatcher and her acolytes. This was her key contribution, the reason she has received such plaudits from the ruling class. She banished the sense of retreat, and took on the unions.
She could not do it all at once. A report produced years before by right wing Tory MP Nicholas Ridley had laid out a careful strategy to divide and rule, to fragment opposition, to take on the weaker unions first and only later to confront the strongest sections. So Thatcher took on steel workers, civil service workers and others but made a hasty retreat in 1981 when South Wales miners struck against pit closures and pulled out other areas unofficially.
At this stage the main weapon against the working class was the use of soaring unemployment. As Tory adviser Alan Budd wrote afterwards, there was much discussion in the cabinet about the use of the money supply to control inflation. But these abstruse arguments were really about something else. Ministers understood that “raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes – if you like, that what was engineered there in Marxist terms was a crisis of capitalism which recreated a reserve army of labour and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since.”
Fear of the dole, and the cowardice of the union leaders, meant that by 1983 strike days fell to the lowest number since the Second World War.
Workers who kept their jobs largely managed to maintain their living standards. In the summer of 1982, The Economist suggested the government needed to cut wages by an average of about 20 percent if it was to restore the rate of profit of British capitalism. All Thatcher’s successes still left her a very long distance away from achieving this goal.
She had done enough to make herself very unpopular but had not broken the unions. The Tories could easily have lost the 1983 election. They were aided by the split from Labour by the right wing Social Democratic Party, by Labour’s support for the Falklands War, and by the sheer luck that saw the risky Falklands gamble come off.
Returned in 1983 with a stronger majority, Thatcher prepared to take on the miners. The significance of the strike can’t be overestimated. It was the defining moment. The Tories prepared by building up coal stocks, passing anti-union laws, changing social security regulations to enforce starvation and homelessness on strikers, and mobilising a force to beat and arrest pickets. John Stalker, former deputy chief constable of Greater Manchester, wrote in the Daily Mirror after Thatcher’s death that she “turned the police into a paramilitary force and put us on to a war footing. That was never clearer than during the miners’ strike in 1984 when I believe Margaret Thatcher took Britain to the brink of becoming a police state.”
Thatcher fought class war. The trade unions and Labour leaders didn’t. Heroically the miners held out much longer than the Tories had expected and if they had received the support they deserved they would have won.
As one well-researched account says, “When the strike began [in March 1984] ministers were told they could hold out for months and weeks, not a year. Power stations could last for six months. Large-scale industry like steel that relied on coal had only six weeks.”
But a miners’ victory should not have depended on the coal stocks running out. Victory could have been achieved if a dockers’ strike in July had spread and then crucial imports would have been cut off. Instead union leaders ended it.
In October 1984, six months into the strike, members of the pit supervisors’ union, NACODS, voted by 83 percent for a strike. If it had gone ahead it would have shut every pit in Britain. It marked a very dangerous moment for the government.
Former chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) Sir Walter Marshall was to say afterwards, “Our predictions showed on paper that miners’ leader Arthur Scargill would win certainly before Christmas. Margaret Thatcher got very worried about that… I felt she was wobbly and she was actually inclined to bring the troops in to move coal. All my guys [CEGB workers] would have gone on strike immediately.”
lan MacGregor, the boss of the National Coal Board, was commanded to appear at Downing Street. Thatcher describes in her memoirs how, “We had to make it quite clear that if it was not cured immediately then the actual management of the Coal Board could indeed have brought down the government.”
But instead of calling the strike the NACODS leaders accepted a “review procedure” for pit closures – which never saved a single pit.
Abandoned by the trade union bureaucracies and the Labour hierarchy, the miners went down to defeat after a year. Thatcher’s victory meant that, whenever workers considered striking, the argument would be heard, “If the miners couldn’t win, how can we?” The anti-union laws became a normal feature of life, the police felt even more certain they could get away with murder (as they did at the Hillsborough football ground four years later) and the slide to the right inside the Labour Party became an avalanche.
But it’s also crucial to remember that Thatcher’s success was eventually followed by humiliating defeat. She was ejected from Downing Street in tears because of the rebellion against the poll tax. She was beaten by the 14 million who didn’t pay the tax, the groups set up in every area to campaign against it, and the hundreds of thousands who marched in London and then rioted after a police assault on them.
And Thatcher created the basis for the shrinking of Tory support. As the Economist wrote last month, “Mrs Thatcher was a true Blue Tory who marginalised the Tory party for a generation. The Tories ceased to be a national party, retreating to the south and the suburbs and all but dying off in Scotland, Wales and the northern cities.”
Thatcher herself quipped that her greatest achievement was “Tony Blair and New Labour”. And certainly they continued the key parts of her agenda – support for privatisation, imperialism, anti-union laws and strong backing for the market, bankers and bosses.
Recalling this history is very relevant today. A discussion of bitter class battles, of the sheer nastiness of the Tories and of their poll tax defeat probably wasn’t exactly what David Cameron wanted at the moment.
There is a volatile mood in Britain today. The Tory attacks are going much further than Thatcher went, battering millions of ordinary people and pushing some right over the edge. The vague feeling that “the cuts” are coming has been replaced by the stark reality of a government prepared to lay waste to people’s lives. They may not win the 2015 election, but by then the Tories will have inflicted horrendous damage unless they face much more serious resistance.
The level of strikes remains generally low, although there are important battles by the PCS union and others. And the 80,000 votes for Jerry Hicks in the Unite general secretary election shows that the betrayals of the past 18 months have left behind a large minority of workers who are looking for a more serious way to hit back at the government and the bosses.
There are other hopeful signs. The Bedroom Tax has seen serious organisation in many areas, with a whiff of the poll tax defiance about it. More than 25,000 marched in south east London against health cuts in January – and 30,000 last month in Stafford. The level of fightback is still limited, partly because Labour holds it back, partly because the union leaders won’t give it a focus. But we can also see how the anger (or perhaps more precisely the desperation) at the base of society can lead to explosions.
The best way to stamp on Thatcher’s legacy is to build the struggles against Cameron and Co. and to strengthen the socialist alternative.
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