Didn’t she die when the wall came down?
The ‘divisive’ or ’decisive’ Thatcher made history, but not in circumstances of her own choosing.
Since Margaret Thatcher died last week, much of the debate has focused on the former Tory prime minister’s distinctive personal qualities. Supporters emphasise that she was ‘decisive’ – unlike the wishy-washy politicians of today, while opponents complain that she was ‘divisive’ – unlike the consensus-seeking politicians of today.
This boring Maggie-and-me-me-me show has tended to miss the most important factor in Thatcher’s career: not her-story, but history. It was the historical context in which she operated that shaped much of what she did and did not do, rather than simply her personality. And it is the historical context in which today’s politicians find themselves that helps to explain their pathetic performance. Each political era tends to get the leaders that it deserves.
Thatcher’s abiding image as an ideologically driven figure is of course mixed up with a myth. As has been pointed out elsewhere, for instance, she was the hardline monetarist who increased state spending year-on-year, and the committed Euro-sceptic who signed Britain up to the Maastricht Treaty on further EU integration. Nevertheless, her style and record does seem to set Thatcher apart from the bloodless politicians of our age – she was apparently either more courageous and principled, or more cruel and ruthless, depending on which side you listen to.
But if Thatcher now appears to have been peculiarly divisive, it is because she lived in divisive times, when genuine political battles were being fought between opposing political views and movements in society. Today, by comparison, we are living through an era dominated by Thatcher’s friend TINA – There Is No Alternative – where such conflicts scarcely exist.
By the same token, if Thatcher now appears to have been outstandingly strong and decisive, it is largely because those historic battles demanded firm action – and because the leading opponents she faced were politically weak enough to give her the appearance of superwoman. By contrast, in the muddy middle ground of post-left v right politics, today’s political class looks like an indistinguishable clique of accountants with neither courage nor convictions.
To paraphrase Karl Marx: Thatcher may have made history, but it was not in circumstances of her own choosing.
During her years in power from 1979 to 1990, Thatcher presided over the end of the era of British political and industrial conflict that had begun in the 1960s, and saw the end of the Cold War on the world stage. As she sought to break with the past and address the problems of UK capitalism, she was faced with potentially powerful opposition forces with real roots in society. There was a mass trade union movement, with militant groups of workers such as the miners at its heart; the Irish republican movement, waging war against the British state with the solid support of a nationalist community in Northern Ireland; and other less organised opponents, such as the angry generation of black youth in the inner cities.
It was fighting against these and other forces of her time that enabled Thatcher to acquire a reputation for firm and decisive action. The record shows that the Iron Lady and her lieutenants were often uncertain and equivocal about whether and when to fight; recently published Thatcher papers reveal the extent of doubt within Downing Street even over what is now widely seen as her greatest personal triumph: the decision to send a task force to recapture the Falklands from Argentina in 1982.
However, the era-defining character of the conflicts they were faced with in the 1980s forced the Thatcher government to fight hard or surrender everything. It was the decisive historic battles she fought against the ‘enemy without’ (the Argentines), the ‘enemy within’ (the Miners’ Strike), and the IRA hunger strikers that allowed Thatcher to forge the abiding image of being both decisive and divisive. The tiffs which a David Cameron or an Ed Miliband might have with the rump of the trade unions or a few grungy Occupy protesters today hardly compare.
Even within her own party and cabinet, Thatcher was faced with genuine opponents at that time. The influential Tory ‘wets’ were not simply out for personal power. They represented an alternative approach to politics and economics – albeit the outdated one of more traditional Toryism. That was a far cry from more recent internal battles between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the Miliband brothers, or Cameron and Boris Johnson, which are about little more than which careerist individual is to sit atop the greasy pole of power.
On the international stage, too, the historical conjuncture of the late Cold War with the crumbling Soviet Union allowed Thatcher to pose alongside US President Ronald Reagan as the defender of the free world and an anti-communist crusader. Opposing hardline Soviet leaders and then encouraging the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev enabled her to stand tall as a champion of capitalism, despite all the Western world’s own problems. By contrast, all that the Western leaders of today can find to look tough against is the joke rogue state of North Korea.
If Thatcher’s image as divisive was shaped by the era of conflict in which she ruled, her image as a decisive and strong leader was also shaped by the political exhaustion of the leading opponents she faced at that time. The previous Labour government had tried to adopt ‘Thatcherite’ economics in practice, and paved the way for her 1979 electoral victory by provoking the unions into the strikes of the ‘winter of discontent’ over pay restraint. When her government went on the offensive, from the Falkands War to the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85, it found the Labour Party and trade union leaders unable or unwilling to rise to the new challenge and fight back as forcefully. Thatcher’s greatest achievement in this sense was exploiting the political weakness of her leading opponents.
It was telling in this sense that her greatest triumph also marked the end of her era. Having defeated the old labour movement and left at home, Thatcher had nowhere left to go. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Communism internationally was not only a mortal blow to much of the left – it also robbed the right of its primary raison d’etre. Thus the apparently invincible Thatcher only clung on to power for a year after the Berlin Wall came down, leaving her looking out of time and ideas. Just as historical circumstances had invited her in, now they showed her the door.
Whenever somebody famous dies past the height of their powers, I am reminded of John Lennon’s response to the death of Elvis Presley in 1977. Elvis, said Lennon, ‘died when he went in the army’ in 1958 – a move which ended his short reign as the king of rock’n’roll. By the same token, some might say that Thatcher died when she left Downing Street in tears in November 1990, having been brought down by her own cabinet. I think it would be more accurate to say that Maggie died in political terms when the Berlin Wall came down.
So we are left with the unappetising spectacle of spineless Tories trying to beef themselves up by praising Thatcher, while Labour politicians try to evade responsibility for their past failures by shifting all the blame on to her. These games reveal rather more about the flaccid state of political life today than they do about the era that created Thatcher and that she helped to shape.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever is published by Societas and is now available in print and Kindle editions. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.
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