How iron was the Iron Lady?

Both right-wing eulogisers and left-wing partiers are wrong: Thatcher was neither ideological firebrand nor destroyer of modern Britain.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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Margaret Thatcher, British prime minister between 1979 and 1990, died yesterday aged 87. But the myth of Margaret Thatcher, and the ersatz ideology named after her – Thatcherism – is still very much alive.

For the remnants of the right, especially dyed-blue Tories, the idea of Thatcher is predictably important. Her era, her electoral successes in 1979, 1983 and 1987, appears as something to be celebrated, a period of apparent success to be basked in. Once regarded as ‘the sick man of Europe’, awash with industrial conflict and a sense of inevitable post-colonial decline, Britain was said to be restored to health by Thatcher, runs the typical narrative. As current prime minister David Cameron put it: ’We have lost a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton.’

But for many of those who today preen themselves as left-wing, the idea of Thatcher is arguably even more important. And that’s because she can be blamed for everything that is wrong today. She may have left office nearly a quarter of a century ago, but so potent was the ideology she apparently promulgated – Thatcherism – that we as a nation continue to be in thrall to it. As one prominent left-wing columnist stated yesterday: ‘Thatcherism lives on. Nothing to celebrate.’ Ex-London mayor ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone agreed: ‘In actual fact, every real problem we face today is the legacy of the fact she was fundamentally wrong.’

Elsewhere, Johnathan Freedland at the liberalish-leftish Guardian joined the Thatcherism Lives chorus: ‘The country we live in remains Thatcher’s Britain. We still live in the land Margaret built.’ At the much-reported-upon, little-attended street parties in Brixton and Glasgow, staged in ironic honour of Thatcher’s passing, the belief that her ideas still walk among us was palpable. In the words of one 28-year-old student: ‘It is important to remember that Thatcherism isn’t dead and it is important that people get out on the street and not allow the government to whitewash what she did.’

Indeed, given the power, the brain-melding ideological force, with which Thatcher has been invested since her 1980s heyday, it is unsurprising perhaps that the Judy Garland song ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead’, from 1939 film musical The Wizard of Oz, is now being tipped for a No1 spot in the charts. For too many, Thatcher really has become a supernatural, witch-like figure, responsible for everything that is rotten in the world.

The problem with such a desperate finger-pointing exercise, aside from the fact that blaming everything on a long-departed political leader is as absurd as it is responsibility-averse, is that it turns Thatcher into something she was not: namely an ideological visionary waging an ideological war. Because, as incredible as it may seem, Thatcher was not an evil right-wing visionary in talks with an elderly Adolf Hitler (as 1980s TV satire Spitting Image had it). In fact, she wasn’t really an ideologue at all. As her one-time adviser Alfred Sherman admitted: ‘In the eight years that we worked closely together, I never heard her express an original idea or even ask an insightful question.’ Thatcher was, above all, a pragmatist.

This is not to downplay the significance of Thatcher’s period in office. It is merely to see it for what it was: an attempt to ensure the survival of capitalism after the collapse of the postwar consensus. And why had the consensus collapsed, why was it no longer possible for the state to work with the unions and employers to manage the grievances and expectations of workers to the supposed benefit of all? Because the postwar economic boom, a boom born of the destruction and reorganisation of capital during and after the Second World War, had come to an end. As a result, the conditions which had sustained the consensual management of capitalism, allowing wages to rise while profits were made, were no more.

So, with the developed economies of the West stagnating and slipping into recession during the 1970s, labour and capital could no longer be easily reconciled. Conflict quickly supplanted the politics of consensus. Edward Heath’s Tory government (1970-74) was the first to try to break with the consensual management of capitalism, by implementing a more direct, top-down management of the economy. But thanks to two miners’ strikes, in 1972 and 1974, plus the implementation of a three-day working week, Heath’s government fell.

Then came what Brendan O’Neill calls the ‘dirty little secret of Thatcherite economics’ – Harold Wilson’s and then Jim Callaghan’s Labour government of 1974-79. Picking up where Heath had left off, Labour pursued austerity, which led to unemployment doubling between 1975 and 1977 to nearly 1.5million. The series of strikes in 1978-79 known as the Winter of Discontent sealed Labour’s electoral fate, and the Conservative Party, with a leader the Sun had once called ‘The Most Unpopular Woman in Britain’ during her days as education secretary, were the beneficiaries.

Thatcher’s Tory government did not represent a rupture with the political past. Rather, it merely built upon the efforts of first the Heath and then the Labour administration to sustain capitalism during a period of falling profitability. She merely succeeded where the others had failed. So, austerity measures were once again pursued, unemployment more than doubled from 1.3million in 1979 to three million by 1983, and the nation slipped into recession. But somehow, with an economic uptick arriving by 1983, plus a tinpot triumph over Argentina in the Falkland Islands, Thatcher managed to win a second term (albeit on an ever-declining percentage of the popular vote). Whereupon, of course, she continued to shake down the economy, bust the unions – with the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 the defining moment – and ultimately achieve what her predecessors merely aspired to: a break with the traditions of Labourism and the postwar consensus.

And here is where reality stops and myth begins. Because that’s not what the left saw. They saw something more ideological than brutally pragmatic. They saw, in the words of Marxism Today editor Martin Jacques in 1985, ‘a novel and exceptional force’. They saw, in short, Thatcherism.

Given the fact that Thatcher herself never had an actual ideological project to which ‘Thatcherism’ might actually refer, it is unsurprising that a recent book on the subject admitted that ‘talk of “Thatcherism” obscures as much as it reveals’ (1). Instead, the idea of Thatcherism always revealed far more about the left than it did about some perpetually elusive right-wing ideology. That is why the concept, first used by academic Stuart Hall in 1979, gained intellectual traction on the left in 1983, the year Labour, under the leadership of Michael Foot, suffered a devastating defeat at the General Election: it shifted the responsibility for failure from the Labour Party, and its complicity with so-called Thatcherite economics, to the working class, a social constituency supposedly seduced away from the Labour Party by Thatcher’s advocacy of social mobility and aspiration. The idea of ‘Thatcherism’ let Labour off the hook.

So the legacy of Thatcherism may indeed live on, as some sunk on the left insist. But not because of anything Thatcher herself did. It will live on because too many are more comfortable attacking a phantasm from the past than reckoning with political reality today.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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