I guess in many ways there is no real pressing need to share my thoughts on the death of Margaret Thatcher. At the time of writing there have been countless other personal contributions and there is probably very little to add on top of the blogs, news coverage, tweets etc etc. But I’m going to have a go at committing some of my thoughts to writing.
I should start by saying that I was born in 1976 and whilst I didn’t directly feel the impact of the Thatcher government, I was aware of it. Up until the age of 14, all I knew was Thatcher as Prime Minister. Even after she left office, it was only when I hit 21 that I saw the end of one Conservative Party, and the beginning of another. There is no doubt, however, that her premiership had an impact on me and it still does to this day. I grew up in a town in the south-east that had a strong socialist worker presence and, despite having a Tory MP, I don’t think anyone could accurately describe it as a town of the right (indeed, it has fluctuated between left and right for decades). I worked with people who had a visceral hatred of her. People who were desperate to see the back of her. She was a divisive character, provoking extreme emotional responses.
The news of her death today provoked a mixture of responses from me. I felt that her passing would mean a sort of closure for many people whose lives had been destroyed by her destructive economic policies. But I was also well aware that her death is, in many respects, meaningless. The ideology she espoused of Friedmanite economics, the shrinking of the state, expansion of the private sector and assault on workers’ rights live on to this very day. Indeed, so powerful has this corrosive ideology been, that even the party of the left has caved in to the neo-liberal agenda. Thatcher may have died, but her ideology lives on and will, sadly, live on for some time to come unless progressive forces challenge it effectively and coherently.
But I was also angry. Angry because of the way history is currently being re-written. Throughout the day, right-wing commentators have been acclaiming Thatcher as one of our great Prime Ministers. Not only acclaiming her, but demanding that opponents keep quiet as a mark of respect for her passing. Of course, this was not about a mark of respect, but presenting the right with an opportunity to whitewash her record and present her as a modern-day Churchill – a hero who saved this country from destruction. I even saw John Major claim that he can’t think of a single peacetime prime minister in the twentieth century who comes even close to her impact (to which I screamed Attlee at the TV – a man who introduced social security and a National Health Service on the back of the economic crippling of the Second World War…a man who created, rather than destroyed). All the while, her opponents were supposed to remain quiet and allow this whitewash to proceed unhindered…standing by whilst history was re-written before their eyes.
Well, Thatcher wasn’t the great Prime Minister that some would have us believe. The truth about the miner’s strike is gradually coming out, with allegations emerging that the police provoked a riot to justify their brutal crackdown on the strike . A crackdown that helped pave the way for the brutal economic policies that followed. Of course, this has all been presented rather differently by Thatcher’s supporters. This isn’t seen as an assault on decent, hard-working people, but as part of a clinical, necessary process to turn the country around. Never mind that public support was won on the back of smears and possible MI5 involvement, this was, as far as the right would have us believe, a regrettable but necessary move. And no matter how hard you try to argue with them, they will remain convinced it was justifiable because, in their minds, it was a crucial step towards ‘saving the country’ and building the Great Thatcher Myth.
But it’s not quite so easy to bat away all aspects of her record. In 1999, Thatcher spoke of the‘debt’ the UK owed Augusto Pinochet and thanked him for bringing ‘democracy to Chile’. Pinochet, a man who came to power on the back of a coup against a democratically elected government. A man who murdered many thousands of left-wing opponents of the coup and his subsequent military dictatorship. A man who, alongside other right-wing dictators in South America, had suspected communists murdered across the entire continent. And Thatcher considered this man a friend and a man that she felt the UK was in debt to? A vicious, murderous dictator? And some believe this support for a murderous dictator warranted receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Amongst all the talk of Thatcher as being a great and powerful voice for freedom and liberty from her supporters on the right, I have never come across any who have been able to explain away or whitewash her part in enabling the vile Pinochet regime. Sure, they bat away the other criticisms with great ease, claiming that those who argued against them were somehow beholden to vested interests or were simply enemies of progress. Whilst I disagree with that, it’s hard to argue against it (which has perhaps been a general failing of the left, a coherent argument that the vast majority can rally around). I can’t possibly comprehend how anyone can put forward a coherent, moral defence of her support for Augusto Pinochet. This support will, for me, always be her legacy. And it will be what I tell my children of her. Because I don’t want that aspect of her record to be eradicated as part of a drive to present her as a ‘great leader’.
Economically speaking, there is no doubt that the Thatcher legacy lives on. We see it all around us, in the world that she has created for us (a world, incidentally, where she gets the credit for the positive consequences of her actions, but must not be criticised for the negative consequences – social breakdown etc). We see it in the way those on benefits are demonisedon a daily basis. We see it in the way the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are hastening the end of the National Health Service (a service created by a truly great and courageous leader). We see this in the way that the poor are divided between those who are deserving and those who are not. We see it in the way that those who must pay for the banking crisis are not the bankers or the financial sector, but the poor. We see it in the way that democratic accountability is eroded as public services are shifted to the private sector and removed from public scrutiny. For me, Thatcher will be remembered both for her support for vile regimes and for her destructive economic policies. We must ensure that her public record is not whitewashed to present her as the great leader the right demand. But, more importantly, progressives must make a concerted effort to undo the Thatcher Legacy rather than adopt a watered down variant (Labour). Her legacy should be confined to the history books, but only as a footnote.