Friday, 8 May 2009

A legacy of ruin

Monday marked the 30th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher's ascent to power, 93 years after the Haymarket Massacre. The crossover of the two events is interesting, given the contrasting results of each for the labour movement, the latter largely positive and the former unrelentingly negative. However, whilst the events of 4th May 1886 have merited little or no media scrutiny, and their legacy no debate, one would be hard pressed to avoid the discussion of May 4th 1979 and the legacy of Margaret Thatcher.

Media "debate," of course, is framed within very specific bounds. Though the British media is not yet as uniform as its US counterpart, and it is still possible to find opinions that dissent on more than mere strategic issues with comparative ease, the fact remains that for the most part discourse on Thatcher has remained demonstrably uniform. Beyond the aforementioned exceptions, all talk of Thatcher takes as self-evident and irrefutable certain doctrinal precepts that are anything but.

My main frame of reference here is last Saturday's essay by Peter Oborne in the Daily Mail, as it contains all of these oft-repeated fallacies. However, the same premises can be found underlying the essays of William Rees-Mogg in the Mail, Charles Powell in the Times, Simon Heffer and Boris Johnson in the Telegraph, Maurice Saatchi in the Financial Times, and doubtless elsewhere. The presuppositions discussed below are asserted by fiat, as though to even think of questioning them is the height of absurdity, and are all demonstrably false.

Before Thatcher, so the legend goes, Britain was "the sick man of Europe," facing "constant national humiliation." "There was mass unemployment, inflation was out of control, and the collapse of ordinary services was so grave that at times rubbish lay uncollected in the streets." But, of course, "along came Margaret Thatcher," who "almost single-handedly" saved us when she "took on the unions, tamed inflation, restored our industrial productivity and made Britain ... once again a force for tremendous good in the world." Her legacy, so we are told, is that "she improved beyond measure the lives of millions of her fellow citizens" and "gave them jobs, hope, homes and the self-respect that comes from standing on your own two feet."

Empirical study quickly demolishes the myth and reveals a very different face of Thatcherism to that presented in neoliberal rhetoric.

Economic growth in the 1970s stood at 2.4% per year, roughly the same as during the Thatcher years and significantly higher than in the two decades since she left office. Moreover, the percentage of GDP going towards wages and salaries peaked at 65% in 1975, much higher than the 53% we saw only last year.

It is true that the 1970s were a time of economic crisis, but the truth is vastly different from the presentation. Rather than being the fault of "destructive unions" who "held the country to ransom whenever constructive industrial reform was attempted," the crisis was down to the fact that then, as now, the prevailing model of capitalism was collapsing. The difference was that then the unions had the strength to fight the government's attempts to revive it at the cost of the working classes in public spending and wage cuts and other attacks on workers' interests.

The "constructive industrial reform" that Margaret Thatcher forced upon the United Kingdom was nothing more than the same prevailing economic doctrine, under a different name and altered emphasis, more finely tuned to serve the interests of wealth and power. For "the ordinary people of Britain," who commentators such as Oborne falsely insist "cherish her memory for ever," the situation worsened drastically.

Margaret Thatcher's policies tripled unemployment. A report on Consumer Price Inflation from 1947 to 2004 for the Office of National Statistics shows the number of jobless rising to 3.6 million by 1983. Homelessness also increased dramatically, rising from around 57,000 households in 1979 to around 127,000 in 1989. At the same time, the "policy of selling council houses and encouraging home ownership," was not matched with reinvestment in social housing - a policy continued under New Labour - with the end result of the present social housing crisis.

A report for the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) has amply demonstrated that "intergenerational income mobility" saw a "sharp decline" for "for children born in 1970" and reaching employment age under Margaret Thatcher "compared with those born in 1958" which has "stabilised," or remained constant, "for children born in the period 1970-2000," meaning that Thatcher managed to grind social mobility down so that it remained virtually nonexistent even twenty years after she left office. This is to say nothing of the dramatic increase in poverty and crime that resulted.

Obviously, Oborne and his fellow Thatcherites mean something else entirely when they speak of "jobs, hope, homes and self-respect."

The idea that the neoliberal doctrine "restored our industrial productivity" is another bald lie. Through her determination to crush the unions, Margaret Thatcher effectively annihilated Britain's major industries. And, of course, in the shift to a service economy, and the creation of an artificial boom with the deregulation of the housing and finance industries, she set us up not just for the current catastrophic recession.

Her supporters claim that it is unfair, even outrageous, to blame her for our current economic woes. On a superficial level, that is true, as no one individual can be held accountable for the recession. However, what can be held accountable is the neoliberal doctrine that she and Ronald Reagan gave rise to, and which has held sway ever since. It is commonly said - including by members of the Labour Party - that Thatcher "ended the economic debate" within the two party system. What is not added is that she didn't do this by winning but by crushing dissident opinion under foot.

But, as Britain's recent withdrawal from Iraq reminds us, the economy is not the only arena of British politics where Thatcherism has had a largely negative effect. Oborne's contention that Thatcher made Britain "a force for tremendous good in the world" hints at the one aspect of her legacy that has perhaps had more criticism than the economy in recent times - the "special relationship" with the United States of America.

The US's imperial endeavours are well-documented, as is Britain's role as "junior partner" since the balance of power shifted in the post-World War II era. Thatcher's reign as Prime Minister saw not only a continuation of this role but a strengthening and redefinition. I need not go into too great detail about the parallel between Thatcher's uncompromising support for Reagan's "war on terror" and Tony Blair and latterly Gordon Brown's loyalty to George Bush II's re declared war. Suffice to say that, in the intervening years, all that has changed are pretexts by which we can class aggression and state terrorism under the banner of "a force for good."

Overall, Margaret Thatcher was not the saint that the "conservative" end of the mainstream spectrum depicts her as. But, by the same token, she was never entirely the bogeyman of the "liberals" and the working class people who felt the brunt of her policies. The truth is that she was quite ordinary as a leader. Suppression of popular movements, international aggression in pursuit of "national interest," and genuflection to elite interests are standard practice in politicians, even world leaders.

What set her apart is that she happened to be at the helm at a time when disaffection was so great that it was possible to see established power for what it truly was. We are at such an impasse once again. We must not allow another Thatcher to pull the curtain shut once more and place the boot back at our throat. History is repeating itself yet again, and we may have but one chance to break the cycle.