Margaret Thatcher: Still More Alive Than She Herself Dared To Dream
, April 8th, 2013 11:14
Your celebrations at Margaret Thatcher's death are misplaced, says David Stubbs, for "Thatcherism never died, was never truly even un-elected" (originally published April 8th 2013)
As I write, I can practically hear the cheering of friends across the social media resounding like church bells. Ding dong... you know the rest. YouTube clips of Morrissey's' 'Margaret On The Guillotine', Mogwai's 'George Square Thatcher Death Party', Hefner's 'The Day That Thatcher Dies', even The Exploited's 'Maggie Is A Cunt' are popping up like black, inflatable anti-tombstones all over the internet. In parts of the North and North West, in Wales, it's possible that the bunting is being prepared for street parties.
Meanwhile, prepare for a counter-wave of nauseously grovelling and skewed official tributes, for the BBC to behave at its reverential, establishmentarian worst, and, God help us, a ceremonial funeral with military honours. I don't blame anyone for feeling euphoric at Mrs Thatcher's death. I feel it myself. I vowed I'd be restrained the day she died but instead tapped out an instinctive Facebook update expressing the wish that, if anything, she'd clung onto life longer if only to prolong her suffering. For a great many, this is a merry, cathartic day, a day for bad taste jokes and dancing jigs on the grave of the she-grinch who stole Britain - and let no one be in any doubt about the anger and depth of feeling from which this springs. In a review of The Iron Lady last year for The Quietus, I tried to encapsulate that sincere and suppurating antipathy.
"You presided over the dismantling of the UK's manufacturing base, sold off the country's commonly owned silverware to a bunch of money-grubbing, pinstriped opportunists, practically eliminated the country's social housing stock and eroded the welfare state by unleashing the worst of which the British people are capable – fear, ruthless greed and small-minded loathing, racism, xenophobia and homophobia – adding insult to injury by administering all this with a sickly, acrid, old-fashioned dose of castor oil moralism. It is just that you rot in senile purgatory and die a lonely death."
I'll begrudge no one their parties. But, as I suspect most of those partying already know, Thatcher may be dead but Thatcherism is more alive than ever – more alive than perhaps even she herself dared to dream.
Those of us of a certain age will recall the rise of Thatcher and her malign, divisive policies which she seemed to pursue with an obscene and ugly glee. Punk had represented a violent irruption in UK rock but it was politically vague and naïve, with its parading of swastikas, and figures like Paul Weller and Ian Curtis actually having voted Tory in the 1979 General Election. Both punk and Thatcherism felt like two sides of the same coin, both an attempt to sharply remedy the moribund condition of mid-70s Britain.
With post-punk, however, came a more sombre and smouldering realisation of the implications of Thatcherism and her desire to "roll back the frontiers of the welfare state" and bring the supposedly uppity unions to heel. What she and her followers, including the Tory ideologue Keith Joseph, were hellbent on doing was to tear up the fabric of postwar Britain and sell off the pieces. The short, sharp shock of early Thatcherism triggered an immediate countercultural response, from the explicit likes of The Beat to The Clash to the more implicit dissent of New Romantics, who flourished defiantly in the areas hit hardest by Thatcherism's enforced post-industrialisation. Everything about the new music of the 1980s – forward-looking, racially diverse, permissive, insolent, gleefully engaged in the "promotion of homosexuality", to use one of the more vile phrases of the Tories - flew in the face of the tetchy, small-minded, prudish, selfish flight behind the net curtains of pre-Beatles mores represented by Thatcher and her ilk.
Having plunged the country into deep unemployment in the early 1980s, many thought she would be a one-term leader. However, with the the unhelpful formation of the SDP drawing away moderate Labour supporters, and the ideologically progressive but shambolic state of Labour under Michael Foot's kindly leadership, coupled with success in the Falklands War, Thatcher was served a landslide victory in 1983. There is an argument to be made that the Falklands was, if a regrettable, absurd and tragic episode, a necessary campaign that resulted in the downfall of a fascist regime in South America, an argument not to be dismissed out of hand. However, the tone set by Mrs Thatcher during the campaign was one of repugnant, nationalist triumphalism, which helped seal Tory self-confidence and braying, popular delusion.
From this point onwards, Thatcherism consolidated as a perma-force. The spiky countercultural opposition of the early '80s lost its edge, its scathing temperature. In 1981, Thatcher had capitulated in the face of a possible miner's strike but, in 1984, took on Arthur Scargill and the NUM and won what most could not help but regard as a watershed victory, achieved with the frightening compliance of the police, and from which there seemed genuinely to be no turning back for the trade union movement. The whole country seemed to settle into a defeated torpor, with the decline in real wages offset by a boost in credit and a housing bubble and a general, cultural air of frivolity which has never really dispersed. Ironically, the supposed rise of barrow-boy yuppies and the right-to-buy policy for those living in council houses helped feed one of the sustaining myths of Thatcherism – that it was good for "ordinary" people, and emancipated the working classes. The privatisation of public assets was similarly sold as being a gift, or opportunity for regular folk (remember the "Tell Sid" campaign when British Gas was privatised?), with only increasingly marginalised sceptics raising the question of whether it was really a gift to the public to sell them something that had belonged to them in the first place.
There was a foretaste of the euphoria some are experiencing today in 1990, when Thatcher was forced to retire, following her obduracy over Europe and a cabinet fed up with her divisive, hectoring management style, in particular her chancellor Geoffrey Howe. The ding-dongs resounded that day too. The universally applauded release of Nelson Mandela that year, whom Thatcher insisted to the last was a "terrorist", only served to bolster the feeling that she was on the wrong side of history, an outdated Aunt Sally. However, the Tories would hang on for seven more years, even if in their last months they were a Dead Party Walking. Another moment of euphoria when Tony Blair was elected in 1997 – a landslide victory, an economy perceived to be in good health, the greatest opportunity for a reforming Prime Minister since World War II and Attlee.
However, it would slowly become clear that Tony Blair's pliant, Murdoch and business-friendly, transatlantic toadying administration merely set the seal on Margaret Thatcher's defiant, ultimately prophetic words - "There is no alternative" - a sleight of phrase which the entire, increasingly managerial and self-interested political establishment had now taken to heart. Thatcher herself recognised this – she once described her greatest achievement as "Tony Blair". New Labour, under both Blair and Brown, would see no rolling back of the rolling back. Corporations became ever more powerful, unions dwindled in influence even as they continued to bankroll what was increasingly laughingly known as the "Labour" party, under whose aegis inequality in the UK actually increased. The political goalposts had been shifted permanently to the right. The anaemically sanguine earworm of D:Rream's 'Things Can Only Get Better' had now been replaced by Johnny Rotten's caustic disillusion; "Ever had the feeling that you've been cheated?"
Come the 2010 election, there was the paradox of Thatcher clinging to her life in her sad dotage, barely sentient enough to realise the permanency of her legacy as Cameron, Clegg and Brown vied for the votes of a disaffected electorate with the blandishments of competing estate agents. Those who groaned cynically about how they were "just as bad as each other" could not have anticipated the almost Flashman-like viciousness of the Cameron-led coalition and its programme of austerity measures ideologically designed to push the welfare state back still further than even Thatcher had felt able to. No sign of the working classes supposedly freed up by Thatcherism in the 1980s as a claque of Bullingdon multimillionaire elitists reassumed the roost.
A list of the sins of the Cameron administration would be as long and as familiar as your arm. The demonisation of the working classes, the deliberate attempt to divert blame for Britain's current economic woes onto "benefit scroungers", the risible, black-is-white insistence of the "we're all in this together" mantra. Some would argue that Cameron and the gaggle of tumescent, wonky ideologues egging him on are going further than even Thatcher would have desired to in their assault on the NHS. This, she professed to consider sacrosanct in her own time. The idea that the neoliberal, market-driven ideas that have blighted Britain since 1979 only happened because Margaret Thatcher happened to be born may also be inaccurate. These were abstract forces, raging from across the Atlantic and in rightwing think tanks of the day. Whether they would have been pursued with such repellent, unabashed, populist gusto by another politician is another matter, however.
Whatever, the gist of the calamity besetting UK and the rest of the world can be traced back to the policy of deregulation, in finance, tax law and ownership of public utilities, for which Thatcher was among the foremost of those to set in train over 30 years ago. The idea was somehow that in taking away from the state you gave to the "people", enhancing their individual economic freedom and lifting them up through their private enterprise. Free up the "wealth creators" and their profits would cascade like manna upon us all. That was the basis of her popularity.
Of course, no such thing has happened. Instead, that which once belonged to us all has been transferred into the hands of a tiny elite, with astonishingly little protest, or consciousness, from a populace still cowed by those magic, hectoring words, "There is no alternative". A recent Guardian report showed that this elite is hoarding £13 trillion in offshore accounts. Were even some of that money properly collected by the state in due taxes, it would be spent on public services, public works to the immeasurable improvement of life as currently being endured by the majority of ordinary people.
Thatcherism, however, in its demented passion, caricatured public spending as bureaucratic and somehow stifling to ordinary people. So, there it sits, uninvested, as millions cry out for unemployment – an insanity Marx described as "surplus capital, surplus labour" - these elites won't invest the money because they don't think that we, the people, are good for it.
Over the coming days, there'll doubtless be a lot of "love her or hate her, good points/bad points" debate in the more mainstreamed, "balanced" media, inclining respectfully, no doubt towards the idea that she was ultimately a formidable stateswoman who effected real change in the UK. Well, too right (too right, indeed), she did. There'll be historical contemplation of battles won and lost decades ago.
What needs addressing as a matter of absolute urgency right now, however, is that Thatcher 's legacy is one of gross, almost comically staggering inequality. We are not all in this together. We are heading down shit creek while a tiny few of "them" are up on the clifftop holding all the paddles. Inequality, inequality, inequality, stupid. If there's good to come from her death, beyond a few street parties, it's that we realise that Thatcherism never died, was never truly even un-elected. It's time to shake ourselves, and others, out of the daze into which we were collectively not so much handbagged as headbutted back in the early 80s. Thatcherism was the worst thing to happen to this country since the Second World War and it'll carry on happening to us unless we do something about it.