Sunday, April 14, 2013

A view of Margaret Thatcher, not from the left or the right, but the North

There will be plenty of people on the left drifting into a fantasy world of what life would have been like with no Margaret Thatcher, now that there is no longer a real living Margaret Thatcher to despise, just a grave to dance on.
If you want to properly assess the legacy and the impact of the so-called Iron Lady then start with the words she chose to use when she’d won the election of 1979. Twisting the beautiful words of St Francis of Assisi she said: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
The reaction to her death – more disharmony, no consensus over what the truth is, plenty of doubt, it rather points to a failure on all fronts. And for many communities, the only hope came from successive governments.
As the brilliant sociologist Stuart Hall said, “Thatcherism” was defined by what it was for and what it was against: “the virtues of the market, competition, elitism, individual initiative, the iniquities of state intervention and bureaucracy… and against trade union militancy, national aspirations, permissiveness, women’s liberation.”
It’s all very Manichean* – if you know what that means fine, if you don’t, then that’s fine too, but you probably need to read more.
But to make things easier, I believe you have to separate what she said and what the government did. In fact, a lot of what she said was errant nonsense, ill thought through and arrogant. Such as that breathtaking baloney about there being no such thing as society, just collections of individuals and families.
But let’s for a moment concentrate on her quest for the truth.
For me the biggest failure of Thatcher and Thatcherism is that it was never really true to its revolutionary rhetoric. There was never any attempt to create new models of co-operative business, genuine shareholder democracy, or to forge a revolution in home ownership beyond selling off council houses. It remains a challenge now.
I don’t come at this from the left or the right, but from the North. I have always suffered from an excess of civic pride.
There are proud intellectual traditions in the north. Like mutuality, the co-operative movement and free trade liberalism. Instead the anti-Thatcher and pro-Thatcher camps have painted us all into a nasty form of rampant capitalism pitted against a dismal protectionist socialism.
There is a myth too that the North stood strong in 1984, but was defeated, that the brave miners led the struggle against her mighty state armoury; that they were the vanguard of the enemy within, who took her on. No they weren’t, they were pretty much on their own. I was active on the left in the 80s. I supported the miners (see above, with Rik Mayall), marched for Derek Hatton and his cronies in Liverpool, peacefully picketed Padiham power station, danced at Red Wedge gigs and bought Billy Bragg records (the revolution is just a t-shirt away, comrade).
It was a debate that was hopelessly lost. The miners were defeated, not just because they weren’t united, but were led by a tyrant to an unpopular strike that divided communities with rhetoric and tribalism. As a supporter, you rattled collection tins in working class areas and were as unpopular as a Tory. People didn’t want to know. The coal industry was a pawn in a politically motivated class struggle – by both sides.
As for her battle with the local authorities, Manchester City Council only began to be in a position to make the city a better place when they accepted the new rules and engaged. Former leader Graham Stringer deserves a lot of credit for this.
Society had changed, Thatcher provided a mood music for a generation of entrepreneurs, 11 per cent of the workforce in 1989 were self employed, made up of people like my dad, who had his own milk round. Yet that was against a backdrop of high interest rates and no real attempt to remove red tape. Instead, just the unchallenged march of the banks and their concentration of power.
I dispute the view that this created a culture of selfishness that made the world a harsher place, but something clearly snapped.
Only by attempting to govern from the centre, by taking the country with you could any politician ever hope to govern again. And a new language of business engagement has taken root.
Neil Kinnock partly saw this, but Tony Blair grasped it fully, and so too we now see the leaders of every political party today occupying familiar territory. Thatcher even said that her greatest success was New Labour. And I have always held that David Cameron is truly Blair’s heir. It all rather drives home the point that no other politician could ever expect to win one election, let alone three, by declaring war on an ‘enemy within’.
And let’s remember that. The left has been properly marginalised and defeated. The supremacy of post-Thatcherite politics for the last 23 years has been the killing of the idea that there will ever be another Thatcher of the right, or the left. For all of the talk of the triumph of neo-liberalism, most western countries have a state that produces over 40 per cent of GDP.
Finally, I can’t let the week pass without a nod in the direction of the grave dancers. I can’t personally celebrate the death of anyone. As a good mate of mine, Simon Sinclair, said this week in response to an invitation to a party to mark her death: “I’d be very sad and think less of you if you actually celebrated the death of another human being. I don’t remember anyone celebrating the death of even Fred West or Osama Bin Laden. And nobody danced for the death of Stalin or Mao Zedong. So why anyone I respect might do a childish jig over the death of someone who took an immense popular mandate to fight a huge national decline in the way she understood the country would want to, and repeatedly elected her to do, makes me feel a little diminished as a member of the human race.”
*Manichean – the belief that everything can be reduced to a fight between good and evil.

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