Ephems on the death of Lady Thatcher

This blog is on extended holiday while its owner is writing a book (of which more some time later).  But it’s impossible to let Margaret Thatcher’s death pass without adding a few drops to the torrent of comment that has predictably inundated the country’s media, including a river of crocodile tears from a number of the prominent Tories who brutally deposed her when she was no longer electorally useful to them.  It’s crude and unseemly to celebrate anyone’s death, but there’s an obligation on any self-respecting commentator, even a humble blogger, to try to tell the truth about the dead as well as the living.  ‘Nil nisi bonum‘ is an irresponsible motto when it comes to judging public figures and their records.

For an assessment of her overwhelmingly negative legacy, it would be hard to improve on today’s Guardian editorial, here.  It’s required reading: respectful, judicious and balanced.

However, it’s perhaps worth adding one point that’s easily overlooked, perhaps because it’s contentious.  Mrs Thatcher’s ferocious assault on the power of organised labour, welcomed by many as a corrective to the excessive power of the unions but carried to unforgivable extremes of destructiveness, made a major contribution to the rapidly widening gap between the richest and the merely average earners in society.  It was the theft of an indefensible share of the nation’s income by the top earners and owners of obscene amounts of wealth which steadily ate into the earnings of ordinary people and the below-average poor, forcing them to shoulder a growing burden of private debt if they were to maintain their standard of living, let alone to improve it year by year.  The avaricious banks and other financial institutions were happy to go on lending even to the most obviously impecunious borrowers, and it was this (not just in Britain) more than anything else that eventually led to the banking collapse which in turn caused the steep recession that is with us still, six years later, now aggravated by the perverse and economically ignorant policies of Messrs Cameron and Osborne.  But the origins go back to Margaret Thatcher and her deliberate destruction of the capacity of organised labour to defend its legitimate interests.  It’s as if she consciously set out to demonstrate the kernel of truth in Marx’s perception of capitalism as containing the seeds of its own destruction.

The lady’s other attacks on many of the features of post-war Britain that had helped to bind us together in some degree of solidarity, rather than dividing us into selfish and greedy individualism, are well described in the Guardian editorial.  It’s enough here to confirm that almost everything that Margaret Thatcher stood for, this writer finds abhorrent.

It’s only fair to add that on the two occasions when I came face to face with Margaret Thatcher as prime minister during my time in the diplomatic service, once when she came to Lagos for discussions with the Nigerian government, and once in London when I accompanied the then Polish foreign minister on an official visit, she could not have been more charming and friendly.  During one-to-one meetings with her, she would ask me for my opinion on some current issue, and — in striking contrast to most other politicians great and small — she then listened carefully and without interrupting to what I had to say.  I have it on unimpeachable authority, too, that in her relations with her own staff at No. 10 Downing Street, and again in contrast with some of her predecessors and successors, she was invariably kind, thoughtful, and solicitous of their and their families’ welfare.

Perhaps the main lesson to be learned from this extraordinary woman’s extraordinary career in public office is that we should beware of “conviction politicians”, so unshakably convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that they are impervious to rational advice to consider the possibility that they might be wrong.  Some bloodshed and much human misery might have been avoided if it had not been for the blind obedience to their convictions of Margaret Thatcher — and of her later successor in No. 10 who in too many ways adopted her as his role model, Tony Blair.



10 Responses

  1. Brian,
    Come off it. By the time the Thatcher government appeared the Unions were oppressive and out-of-touch. We all had the dubious ‘solidarity’ of sitting glumly in the dark waiting for the unions to decide to define their ‘legitimate interests’ by ending a strike and turning the country’s electricity back on. That form of ‘collective bargaining’ enforced by closed shops, intimidation and sporadic violence was destructive/malevolent and deserved to die. Good riddance.
    You completely miss the main driver now for ‘inequality’, namely global competition and accompanying migration, not least from your beloved EU. Any coffee shop or restaurant in London if not the UK is far more likely to be staffed now mainly by non-UK nationals. That is leading to a radical obliteration of what previously were reasonable ways for poorer people to learn basic working disciplines and get onwards and upwards. Add to that weak outcomes from the inefficient state education sector that make so many UK school-leavers scarely better than illiterate, and you have a massive problem existing quite separately from your Roget’s Thesaurus list of adjectives about banks and top earners.
    However, those changes exacerbate inequality here yet are part of a wider drama of the world as a whole getting richer. See the recent FT piece http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d69ec792-9e08-11e2-9ccc-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2Px73AFMQ
    Eighty countries – four times as many as in the previous period, located in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America as well as Asia – started catching up with US living standards. Their growth exceeded that of the US on average by nearly 3.25 per cent, implying that this broader group was catching up twice as fast as did countries following the second world war. Put simply, prosperity was spreading across the globe, and at an accelerating pace.
    The implications are enormous. For example, if this pace continues, sub-Saharan Africa – and, indeed, 80 per cent of all countries – could in 50 years be in a situation comparable to that of Chile today.
    Did the subprime and eurozone crises set back this process? Between 2008 and 2012, developing countries’ growth did decelerate in absolute terms, from about 4.5 per cent to about 3 per cent. But the pace at which they were catching up with rich ones did not slow significantly.
    All this means that the European Union countries and their dismal demographics are increasingly uncompetitive. The sort of ‘social models’ we have are too process-heavy and wasteful to survive against the ‘No work? No food!’ model of the sort I saw recently in fast-growing communist Vietnam. What Thatcherism did was give the UK a sustained growth record that for some 30 years was at the top of the EU league, boosting jobs and all-round wealth. Those hooting against ‘austerity’ now would love to have a fraction of that restless energy on their side.
    Any fair assessment of Lady Thatcher has to include the hugely positive moral and political impact she had across communist Europe, where for decades people had seen Western governments sucking up to those useless communist regimes. My site has a fine link to her magnificent visit to Poland in 1988: people there knew that she represented something extraordinary – someone who took human dignity seriously. http://charlescrawford.biz/blog/thatcher-in-gdansk-turning-back-the-wheel-of-history
    Selfish and greedy individualism? Give me that any day over selfish and greedy collectivism/socialism.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this classic exposition of hardline Thatcherism, Charles. I won’t go through it arguing it point by point: I’m content to be judged by my post (and by the Guardian editorial to which it links). The one exception I really must make is about your assertion that Thatcherism had a “hugely positive moral and political impact … across communist Europe”. On the contrary: by forcing primitive Thatcherism down the throats of the unfortunate Russians when Soviet communism there collapsed under the weight of its own incompetence and repression, the west opened the way to the current kleptocracy of Putin and the oligarchs, when a fairer form of social-democratic society devoid of Thatcherite harshness and economic illiteracy might have brought democracy to Russia for the first time in history. The harm done by Margaret Thatcher was by no means confined to Britain.

  2. Tim Weakley says:

    “This woman is headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated.”   ICI personnel department assessment, rejecting a job application from the then Margaret Roberts in 1948, quoted on BBC News website today.
    A fair assessment, as it turned out.  Although I can’t help wondering: if she’d been a man, would the same source have praised her for her determination and for having the courage of her convictions?

  3. Bob says:

    “They poured concrete down!” “Sorry, Terry. They what?” “They poured hundreds of tons of concrete down the pit so that it can never be re-opened.” This sad requiem for the happy pit I’d once got  to know quite well rang down the phone line like some vicious tale of mafia revenge.
    It was a few years after the 1984-5 miners’ strike, and I was talking to Terry Harrison, NUM secretary at Betteshanger colliery in the Kent coalfield. From 1977 to 1983 Terry had generously organised an annual visit for a dozen of my graduate Industrial Studies students to one of the colliery’s coalfaces – during a working shift, at my request.  I had  grown up in a Yorkshire council house with mining families as immediate neighbours, and I wanted my largely southern students, en route to careers in college or university teaching, to see how coalminers lived and worked. 
    After every visit I would see my students – both male and female – emerge blinking from the ‘cage’, often quite shaken and unfailingly astonished at what they had just experienced during their four hours underground: First they had put their coin-like tally into the tallyman’s tin (“in case of difficulties and loss of personnel underground” – a revelation to them!), dropped like a stone for hundreds of feet, walked for up to a mile to the coalface, crouching or crawling on all fours for the last 100 yards or so. There they watched how the men at the coalface earned their living – cramped, sweating and uncomfortable amid the deafening noise, dust and danger of the ripping machine and the hopefully trustworthy roof props. They always unfailingly swore they would never hear a word spoken against a coalminer for as long as they lived. And I knew they meant it.
    Welcome to the working world of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Enemy Within’! – where my students commented on the interdependence and mutual support of a quite exceptional sort; where one tally left in the tin at the end of a shift meant a man missing and immediate emergency action all-round. The same spirit prevailed above ground too, where we were invariably overwhelmed by the warmth, kindness and evident social cohesion of the miners’ families, who we met in the welfare club.  No wonder the petite-bourgeoise grocer’s daughter found these men, their women and their way of life alien and threatening to her selfish cult of the individual. No wonder she resorted to every kind of lie, black propaganda and trick in the book to justify her reckless campaign to wreck what they had, regardless of the cost to the country – aided of course by the ever-biddable British press. And clearly supported by Mr Crawford above, whose hackneyed indictment of ‘organised labour’ with ‘ sporadic violence’ and ‘ intimidation’ seems as slickly automatic as it is baseless. I wonder if Mr Crawford knows, for example, that in the notorious BBC reportage of the pitched battle at the Orgreave coking plant on June 18th 1984, the real order of events was reversed! The BBC film actually showed the police on horseback charging and clubbing the miners who had previously been seen hurling missiles at them. The corporation later apologised – and showed the events in the correct sequence : the police brutality had come first! How  could such a ‘mistake’ possibly have been made….. Interestingly enough THE most notorious single photograph of that whole confrontation came to be the one of the mounted policemen leaning over on his horse, his club raised to strike a protester who was trying desperately to protect herself. Yes! Herself. The victim was a woman – who I met and spoke to at a documentary film festival of these and similar events at the National Film Theatre in 2009. She said she had not been badly hurt. )
    So Mrs Thatcher, aided by the money and machinery of the state, eventually ground down the NUM and their heroic year -long resistance – which they sustained despite extreme poverty and hunger, the taunts of Met police officers holding £20 notes to the windows of their buses, and their homes being broken into by police ‘with information about weapons’ who then walked out triumphantly taking away children’s cricket bats, hockey sticks, etc.  All this effectively destroyed the mining industry and sucked the lifeblood out of hundreds of communities like Betteshanger’s Mill Hill village, all the way from Kent to Scotland. But why would Margaret Thatcher care about communities and ways of life – choirs, evening classes in French, gym, dance, cookery, etc – when her relentless goal had always been to break the NUM, the linchpin of the trade union movement, which she hated with a will?
    The result of Thatcher’s ‘victory’ and of the consequent further devastation of our coal industry in the early years of this century was that in 2012 we produced only 16.8 mil tonnes of coal and had to import 44.8 mil of our total consumption of 64.1 mil tonnes. So now we pay Australia, Poland and other countries for coal we could not only still be producing ourselves, but which activity would also have conserved the ways of life and the social fabric of areas which have never recovered from the devastation of Thatcherism. (Cue  black propaganda about the ‘poor quality’ of UK coal and the ‘inefficiency’ of the mines. Untrue, all of it. But the anti-NUM machinery was well-oiled. Paul Foot knew and told the truth.)
    Mrs Thatcher’s personalised antagonism towards miners and their social cohesion was, for me, the most unforgivable trait in a supposed national leader. But almost equally damaging socially was her sale of council houses. Admittedly some Labour councils had sold them to some extent  before her own big drive. But by 1987 she had encouraged the sale of over a million – and at ludicrous prices, such as the £8,000 charged in 1980 for the house in Romford, her first ‘ popular sale’, remembered in a press photograph this week. The sale price was estimated to be about a third of the original building cost, and a much smaller fraction of the cost of building a replacement – except that there were to be no replacements! Thus Margaret Thatcher created a little class of house- owners, many if not most of whom began to vote Tory out of gratitude – or from the mistaken belief that they had an obligation to do so. I knew a family who firmly believed that – and did so, after a lifetime of voting Labour! With the ban on using the money from house sales to build replacements, available housing stocks soon fell sharply, to the extent that today we see former council houses selling at little under the price of private ones, with the young people who need them – as my parents did – having no realistic hope of getting one by the time they might want to start a family. But why would Mrs T care? She had recruited her new band of ‘property-owning’ Tories by means of the most outlandish bribery – allowing councils to sell what was not really theirs at prices she had no right to set as low as she did.
    No surprise, then, when she did exactly the same with the public utilities, creating the myth in the minds of the thousands who bought the purposely undervalued shares that they were now stakeholders in society – i.e. quasi-Tories. The fact that most of them soon gleefully made a few hundred pounds by selling out to the real shareholders – who now hold us all to ransom – is irrelevant. The lure of petit-bourgeois status and a tenuous association with Mrs Thatcher’s ‘bright new Britain’ had worked with a lot of people.
    Margaret Thatcher thought she was clever, pragmatic and that whatever she did was best for everybody.  She just didn’t understand how small-minded, tunnel-visioned and ultimately anti-social she really was. Did she actually say “There’s no such thing as society!”? I’ve heard it disputed, though she might well have done. And why does the BBC never replay her interrogation by the lady headteacher who clearly bested her about the Belgrano being an illegal target since it was sailing away from possible conflict?
    I thought Ken Loach put it best in the Independent of April 10th: “They should privatise her funeral, put it out to tender, and accept the cheapest bid. That’s what she would have wanted.”
    Brian writes: Thank you for this moving contribution, Bob. I am responding in a separate comment.  

  4. Tim Weakley says:

    To Bob’s graphic and moving words, I would just add: as nasty an aspect as any of the whole disgraceful business was the well-attested use of agents provocateurs, which  I’m sure she knew was happening.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Tim. Of course she knew — and either expressly authorised it, or deliberately refrained from stopping it.

  5. Brian says:

    I am grateful for Bob’s long, moving and cogent indictment of Margaret Thatcher above (or below, depending on the way you are viewing these comments).  One or two additional points which reinforce Bob’s charge sheet:  

    Mrs Thatcher’s nakedly political abuse of the police forces of the area in order to crush one of Britain’s principal trade unions, the National Union of Mineworkers, not only violated the basic principle that the police must never be deployed for party political purposes:  it also gave a most unhealthy push in the direction of treating what are meant to be regional and largely autonomous police forces under local, not national, control and supervision, as if they were merely subordinate parts of a single national police force, which we should never allow to exist if we value our democracy.  It was and remains worrying that this abuse of police power and the regional autonomy of the police forces involved apparently met no resistance from Chief Constables or police authorities such as the old Watch Committees — although if there had been, Mrs Thatcher would no doubt have crushed it as she relished crushing all forms of resistance to her iron will.  (Remember the LCC and the GLC?) 

    Secondly, it was a tragedy for Britain and for the miners that Arthur Scargill’s leadership of the NUM (he was president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) from 1982 to 2002) was so badly flawed that many decent people in Britain found it impossible to give the miners the unreserved support that they needed;  and those who did support the miners found their support tainted by the Scargill factor. 

    On a different aspect of the Thatcher era, I want to re-emphasise the point in my post above that it was Mrs Thatcher who not only started to reverse the principle underlying the Attlee-Bevan welfare state that those who fell victim to ill health, disability or unemployment, or a combination of all of them, were entitled as of right to be looked after by the whole community, most of them having paid their National Insurance contributions and taxes in better times (and there were not many UK citizens who had never paid purchase tax or, later, VAT, even if they weren’t prosperous enough to pay income tax).  It was Mrs Thatcher more than any other leader who fostered the reactionary and heartless idea that recipients of welfare state benefits were failures and scroungers, who preferred dependence on charitable donations by “hard-working families” (are social security benefits not also funded by lazy layabouts living off their incomes from inherited property, as well as by these legendary hard-working families?) to getting a job and working their butts off for the benefit of their employers’ shareholders and directors.  It’s that harsh and unforgiving attitude to society’s (and capitalism’s) victims, fostered by Margaret Thatcher, that has made possible, generally acceptable, and even popular the present government’s violent attack on the living standards of the most vulnerable and helpless people in our society, an attack hypocritically excused by the asserted need to reduce the budget deficit by cutting public expenditure, but in reality quite blatantly driven by primitive ideology.

    Mrs Thatcher (later Baroness, by which time the harm had been done) was also largely responsible for the steady process, tragically perpetuated in many respects by New Labour, of transferring valuable public property — which belonged to the state, not to the Conservative party — into private hands in order further to enrich the wealthiest 10 per cent of the population at the expense of the other 90 per cent of ordinary people.  This has always been the plain objective of privatisation.  There were many other and preferable ways of reforming the great nationalised industries without selling them off at knock-down prices to Mrs Thatcher’s rich friends, the paymasters of the Tory party:  parts could have been mutualised or put under local municipal control, with a healthy element of competition introduced to stimulate greater efficiency and responsiveness to people’s needs, while keeping them firmly in the public sector and subject to ministerial or municipal accountability.  But all those options were recklessly thrown away in the rush to sell off what a more humane and enlightened former Tory prime minister described as the family silver.  This was not only a prime case of robbing the poor to pay the rich, contrary to the most elementary principles of justice: combined with the willful destruction of the unions, it accentuated the natural propensity of capitalism to impoverish ordinary working people (“hard-working families”) while enriching the managerial and property-owning classes.  This process has persistently eroded the incomes of the majority of UK households, forcing them into mounting debt in order to try to maintain their living standards, never mind actually improving them from year to year as the nation has become more and more prosperous;  and this erosion of incomes has led to the collapse of aggregate demand in the economy which has in turn destroyed business confidence, leading to a sharp reduction in investment activity (why risk spending or borrowing to invest if there’s no purchasing power to buy the goods or services you invest to produce?), and thence to higher unemployment, lower profits, higher government spending on benefits, a bigger budget deficit, and an unsustainable level of private debt financed by reckless bank lending that was always destined to lead to the disaster which haunts us still.  You don’t have to have read your Keynes to recognise the remorseless logic of what has happened;  or to realise that it was Margaret Thatcher who more than anyone else was personally responsible for setting in motion the processes that have got us where we are today, even if Messrs Cameron and Osborne bear the principal responsibility for now pursuing illiterate and counter-productive policies that make an already bad situation a great deal worse.

    I have just one small quibble with Bob’s essay.  In my reluctant view, the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands war was fully justified.  A powerfully armed warship belonging to a belligerent country can change direction at any time, just as even the most vigilant submarine of its adversary can lose it at any time, or else itself be sunk.  Argentina had committed an act of unprovoked aggression that was an unmistakeable declaration of war:  it could hardly expect to enjoy immunity from attack for a warship with the capacity to destroy the ability of a task force far from home to recapture the territory that had been invaded and occupied.  It was an unmitigated tragedy for the seamen who were drowned, as it was for those killed in the main conflict on both sides.  The war would never have happened if Mrs Thatcher and her ministers had acted much more quickly on the warnings from their own officials at home and in Buenos Aires that an Argentine attack on the Falklands was increasingly likely unless Britain took urgent action to pre-empt it.  Another costly failure by Mrs Thatcher, I’m afraid.


  6. john miles says:

    I should be very grateful to Mrs Thatcher for paying for both our children’s education under her assisted places scheme.
    She might be disappointed to learn that neither has morphed into a merchant banker, s commodities trader or even a lawyer. 
    Would Mrs Thatcher really have wanted her funeral to be paid for by society?
    Wouldn’t she have wanted it to be privatised, with the contract awarded to the cheapest bidder?
    Mrs Thatcher enjoyed two hefty sslices of luck
    First, the revenue from North Sea oil kept the pound strong and the economy healthy throughout her reign.
    This money was mostly frittered away to reduce tax for her supporters, with the pious hope that some of it would “trickle down” and  benefit us plebs
    Second, as the Falklands task force went out with no airborne radar cover our ships had no defence against low level air strikes.
    Luckily for us the Argentinian armourers set most of the fuses as if their bombs were to be dropped from altitude.
    Consequently thirteen bombs hit our ships without going off.
    Lord Craig, the retired Marshal of the Royal Air Force, is said to have remarked, “Six better fuses and we would have lost.”] 

  7. john miles says:

    Who actually authorised Mrs T’s society-funded funeral?
    The cabinet? The speaker? The queen? Gordon Brown? Boris?
    Or was it the Sun?
    People sometimes go on a bit about how graciouv and considerate her ladyship was to her inferiors.
    I wonder if Geoffrey Howe would agree.
    I wonder if eoffrey Howe woulod agree.

  8. john miles says:

    Sorry, Brian, for the mess.
    Been using an unfamiliar laptop which insists on trying to be helpful.
    Please tidy it up or, if you prefer, wipe it out and I’ll try again! 

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, John. Am in hospital for a few more days following major op and unable to respond to or edit comments for some time.

  9. Brian says:

    Am in hospital for a few more days following major op and unable to respond to or edit comments or (most) emails for some time. But shall read them!

  10. john miles says:

    Thank you Brian.
    Hope you’re reasonably comfortable and get well soon.