It is a human response to be sad when somebody dies. But many working class people will be celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher because of the absolutely destructive and long lasting effect she had on the lives of millions of working class and poor people.
She is seen by many as a kind of modern day Genghis Khan. Elected into office in 1979 she unleashed a ferocious assault on the living standards and democratic rights of working class people. Trade unions were attacked in order to clear the way for the destruction of publically owned industries and the driving down of wages and conditions.
The Socialist Party’s forerunner (in Britain) the Militant Tendency was at the forefront of fighting her rotten policies. We led the famous 1983-87 struggle in Liverpool as part of the Labour council that refused to implement cuts. That council mobilised a mass campaign of trade unionists and working class people in support of the council’s ‘needs’ budget. That campaign won £60 million from the government which was spent on building thousands of new council homes and new facilities for working class communities. One commentator lamented that Militant had given Thatcher a “bloody nose”.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s we led the struggle against the hated poll tax. This tax would have seen a duke paying the same as a dustman. We initiated the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Union which led the campaign that led to 18 million people not paying the tax. As a result the tax was revoked. Thatcher made it clear that she resigned as a result of the huge anti-poll tax demonstration on 31st March 1990, which was attended by 250,000.
Thatcher created a number of ‘mini Thatchers’ not just in the Tory party but also in New Labour as well. Tony Blair was her heir just as Cameron and Clegg are now. They are carrying out her work and are in fact going even further than even she dared to go in the savaging of public sector jobs and services. Her true legacy is clear to see today in the policies of the Con-Dem government. They are today’s standard bearers of her neoliberal ideas.
On the day Thatcher has died the rich are about to receive a tax cut and working class people face a new assault in the form of the bedroom tax. At the same time we are seeing an unprecedented assault on jobs and services.
Dave Nellist, Labour Party MP for Coventry South-East 1983-1992 and a Socialist Party spokesperson said:
The people I have sympathy for today are those working class people who’s lives have been blighted by her policies. The real tragedy is that while she may be dead herself her ideas are still alive and well in the form of the Con-Dem coalition and New Labour.
She was a determined fighter for her class, the 1% of very wealthy people at the top of society. The Socialist Party wants to build a movement that does the same for the 99%, working class people.
We want to build a mass movement that will take the wealth from the super-rich and that dismantles the project she embarked upon. We want to use that wealth to provide jobs, services and a future for working class people.
The following article by Socialist Party England & Wales general secretary Peter Taaffe was written in 2009, when the 30th anniversary of the coming to power of Margaret Thatcher was approaching. It was printed in the May 2009 issue of Socialism Today, the monthly journal of the Socialist Party.
Thatcher’s legacy: Brutal class warfare against the rights and the conditions of the working class
Thirty years ago, one of the most divisive figures in British political history became prime minister. For more than a decade, Margaret Thatcher presided over vicious attacks on the working class, wrecking the lives of millions.
She was resisted by mass, militant struggle by the miners and printers, and Liverpool city council, among others, before her downfall at the hands of 18 million poll tax non-payers, only for her mantle to be picked up by New Labour.
As the 30th anniversary of the coming to power of Margaret Thatcher – the most hated figure in Britain post-1945 – in May 1979 approaches, her record has been put under the media microscope. Predictably, it is the personality of Thatcher which has been the main subject of investigation by assorted capitalist newspapers – notably in the Observer and by Germaine Greer in the Guardian.
Most investigations of this character concentrate on her personal and psychological ‘disorders’, which reveal a deep and abiding hatred of Thatcher and everything that she stood for, even from middle-class media commentators but particularly by her victims, millions of British working-class people. The Observer Review, for instance, recalled the ‘appreciation’ of rock star Elvis Costello “singing live on BBC2’s The Late Show in 1988 about hoping he stayed alive long enough ‘to tramp the dirt down’ on her grave; ‘She has no soul,’ Costello claimed, ‘she will burn in hell.'” This evoked a postbag to that newspaper typified by one letter, appropriately from the former mining area of County Durham: “I would suggest as a memorial to Mrs Thatcher that instead of the usual headstone or statue, a dance floor should be erected over her grave.”
This theme of dancing on Thatcher’s grave is also evoked in current plays in London such as Ed Waugh’s ‘Maggie’s End’. Ed Waugh, formerly a member and full-time worker for Militant, now the Socialist Party, was it seems provoked into writing this play because of the scandalous suggestion that Gordon Brown was considering a £3m state funeral for Thatcher after her death. This is something that only a select few prime ministers, usually ‘war leaders’ like Churchill, received in the past.
But Thatcher was not cut from the same cloth as those representatives of British capitalism who preceded her at the head of the Tory party. Post-1945 Tory prime ministers in the main, such as Harold Macmillan, presided over a ‘post-war consensus’, which prescribed that the government and the ruling class would seek to avoid a head-on confrontation with the organised labour movement.
Following in the so-called ‘Whig tradition’, Tory ‘grandees’ developed the special art of British ‘statecraft’, by bending with the class and social winds. This served them well during the post-1945 boom, in accommodating to the tops of the labour movement – in particular, in ‘sharing out’ a growing ‘cake’. But the ‘slow inglorious decay’ of Britain was masked during the boom. When the boom ran out of steam it inevitably culminated in a collision between the classes. This collision took shape in the 1960s but intensified in the tumultuous 1970s and 1980s.
Heath loses to miners
The Heath government came to power in 1970, following the dismal failure of the Labour government of Harold Wilson between 1964 and 1970. Heath set out to correct the decline of British capitalism, naturally at the expense of the working class. Edward Heath, although not himself a grandee – he was a ‘grammar school boy’ – was in the same political tradition as his Tory forebearers. He nevertheless threatened the labour movement, with the intention of provoking a ‘general strike’ which the government would ‘defeat’. However, when his government confronted the miners in 1972 and 1974, it lost both times. The latter strike led to the three-day week and the defeat of the Heath government in the February 1974 election.
These events – particularly the unprecedented event, for Britain, of an industrial dispute provoking a general election and the defeat of the Tories – exercised a profound effect on the strategists of British capitalism. Heath gambled on an election whose theme was ‘Who rules – us or the miners?’ – and he lost. The whole of the labour movement stood behind the miners and it was the first election in which Militant (now the Socialist Party) played a key role, particularly our supporters in the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) in key marginal electoral seats. In Bristol South-East, for instance, the seat held by Tony Benn, “over 400 Labour Party Young Socialists poured in to Bristol” [Militant]. This helped to ensure his victory and subsequently earned the praise of Benn. Harold Wilson, leader of a minority government after the February election, was forced to go for a second general election that year in October, which gave Labour a slight majority.
Ruling class prepares revenge on Labour movement
The ruling class began to prepare for the future when it could take revenge on the labour movement. Heath was unceremoniously thrown overboard and replaced by Thatcher in early 1975. Formerly a minor figure in the Heath government, as Minister of Education, she had already earned an anti-working class mantle as ‘Thatcher, milk snatcher’ for removing free school milk for primary school children. But her ascent to the Tory leadership was no accident. Friedrich Engels, alongside Karl Marx, the originators of the ideas of scientific socialism, commented that each era calls for personalities required by objective circumstances. But if they do not exist in a rounded-out form, it ‘invents’ them. Thatcher, without any of the scruples or hesitation of the aristocratic Tory grandees, was the brutal face of British capitalism required by the situation. She not only polarised society but the Tory party itself.
The divisions between the Thatcherite ‘dries’ or ‘hards’ and the Heathite ‘wets’ were found not in any ‘personality’ clashes but in the methods chosen to confront the labour movement following the latter’s triumph over the Heath government. The ‘wets’ correctly feared that Thatcher and her government would lead to a class confrontation which would bring into question the very basis of capitalism. They remained unreconciled to Thatcher for almost all of her reign but did largely accommodate themselves to her government when it appeared to score ‘successes’, much as the Republican establishment in the US acquiesced to Bush over the Iraq war despite their original misgivings, particularly when it had appeared initially to achieve its objectives.
Now, as the consequences of Thatcher’s rule are laid bare by the present world and British economic and financial disaster, a by-product of her rule, they cannot but ‘regret’ her period in power. This has left so much devastation, not least in the enfeebled industrial base of British capitalism through the policies of this modern Genghis Khan. Buttressed by ill-digested ideas from the ultra-right Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek and the messianic monetarism of her ‘mad monk’ Sir Keith Joseph, Thatcher capitalised on the retreats and ineptitude of the Callaghan Labour government. This government was more set on confronting the legitimate demands of trade unionists than the dire economic situation which was developing, culminating in the so-called ‘winter of discontent’. The strikes of the most lowly-paid workers were vilified by the capitalist press, the Tories and even by the Labour government, as the ‘dirty jobs’ strike. Callaghan subsequently blamed his defeat on ‘disloyal’ and greedy unions. Even Germaine Greer criticises the “power of the elite trade unions” as a factor in the downfall of Callaghan and the triumph of Thatcher.
‘Winter of discontent’
But the unions involved in this so-called ‘winter of discontent’ were anything but ‘elite’, representing as they did the most exploited, downtrodden layer. Militant warned in October 1978: “Sooner or later… the strategists of capital will conclude that the Labour government has served its purpose as far as they are concerned. In any case, if the government continues its present policies into next year, especially if it takes on more and more sections of workers fighting for decent living standards, it will virtually ensure a defeat for Labour.” These prophetic words were, unfortunately, borne out in the May 1979 general election.
Militant also warned that Thatcher “would eventually be forced to launch an offensive against the working class and its organisations. [Tory shadow cabinet minister Nicholas] Ridley indicates this. ”Ridley had prepared a blueprint for confronting the unions. ”He had written: ‘In the first or second year after the Tories’ election, there might be a major challenge from a trade union, either over a wage claim or redundancies.’ ”Ridley thought that this would come in the mines and therefore proposed: ”A: build-up of maximum coal stocks, particularly at power stations; B: make contingency plans to import coal; C: encourage the recruitment of non-union lorry drivers by haulage companies to help move coal where necessary; D: introduce dual coal/oil firing in all power stations as quickly as possible. ”Right-wing Tory MP Ronald Bell, again indicating the future role of the Tories, stated: “Strike-breaking must become the most honourable profession of all.”
The winter of discontent generated all the class spite which was to become the hallmark of the Thatcher years. At Reading Hospital, for instance, patients who turned up for treatment were asked whether they were trade unionists. Those who answered yes were refused treatment by a consultant surgeon. We pointed out in Militant at the time: “The demand for a living wage is seen as treachery by the capitalists.” However, the Callaghan government had run out of steam and was incapable of imposing the will of the capitalists on an almost insurgent labour movement. Noises began to be made about splitting the Labour Party – which at that stage was still a workers’ party at the bottom, although with an increasingly pro-capitalist leadership – and the formation of a national government. A left-wing Labour MP of the time, the late Stan Thorne, revealed that some right-wing Labour MPs had been involved in secret talks with the Liberals and Tories on the issue of splitting Labour and forming a new National Government, as a previous Labour leader, Ramsay Macdonald, had done in 1931.
This proposal has resurfaced in the capitalist press in relation to the Brown government. So dire is the present situation that there is despair that any government – let alone a David Cameron-led Tory cabinet – could ignite a social explosion if it tried to solve the crisis with draconian pro-capitalist measures. Therefore, why not a ‘government of all the talents’? This is probably a non-runner before an election but if there is a ‘hung parliament’ with no party in overall control, then it could resurface. A coalition government is, however, as the 1930s showed, just a Tory government in disguise.
The plans in the 1970s came to nothing because the government that the capitalists expected would follow the next general election would be firmly under their control. Moreover, it would be determined, as we pointed out in Militant, to confront the working class: “A Thatcher government will be even worse than the hated Heath government which was kicked out by the trade unions in the economic chaos of the three-day week…The Tories want the state to interfere with the unions – outlawing ‘flying pickets’, breaking the unity of closed shops and imposing rules on union elections as a condition of unions being ‘certified’ by the government, similar to the ‘registration’ under the notorious Industrial Relations Act.”
Militant outlined Thatcher programme in advance
Militant, in other words, outlined in advance exactly the programme on which Thatcher was elected in 1979 and explained how she and her cabinet were likely to act once in power. However, prior to the election, while ruthlessly preparing behind the scenes, Thatcher took pains to disguise her real intentions. Unbelievable as it sounds today, and in view of the havoc over which her government presided, Thatcher quoted St Francis of Assisi on the need to end ‘discord’ as she entered 10 Downing Street! In her very first budget, however, paltry tax concessions were given to average wage earners, which would be wiped out by inflation in a few months while Value Added Tax was increased to 15% and the Tories gave notice of further savage attacks on the living standards of working people.
The right wing of the Labour Party had prepared the basis for Thatcher by both failing to tackle the problems of the working class but, at the same time, seeking to aim blows against the left and particularly against Militant. Two Labour prime ministers – Harold Wilson, who had resigned in 1976, and James Callaghan, who took over from Wilson – had scathingly attacked Militant in a dress rehearsal for what was unleashed by the later Labour leader Neil Kinnock and his allies in the 1980s. Callaghan stated on TV: “We [that is the Labour Party leaders] neglected education. We have allowed it all to fall into the hands of the Militant group. They do more education than anybody else.”
The Labour right wing, however, wished to ‘educate’ young people and the working class by teaching them to accept cuts in living standards as a ‘fact of life’, much as Gordon Brown and the Chancellor Alistair Darling do today. The right-wing Labour ‘Manifesto Group’, on the eve of the 1979 general election, had declared the “Labour Party must be the party of a permanent incomes policy”. This was code for holding down wages while the rich got richer. In fact, the right began an almost permanent war against the left, with their main figures, such as David Owen and Roy Jenkins, threatening a split, which subsequently took place with the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). This eventually collapsed into a merger with the Liberals, becoming the Liberal Democrats, but they were the praetorian guard of the capitalists’ attempt to purge the left from the Labour Party. In January 1980, The Times, then the house-journal of British capitalism, under the headline ‘Time for a Purge’, called for action to be taken against Militant.
At the same time, the predicted offensive against the working class, both by the government and the employers, together with the rise in unemployment, provoked a mighty working-class resistance to the Thatcher government. This was demonstrated by the 140,000-strong TUC demonstration through London in March 1980. Significant in this demonstration was the participation of Militant supporters and particularly the LPYS, who were “applauded as they entered Trafalgar Square singing the Internationale”. The Times, at this stage, was speaking about the “irreversible decline” of British capitalism.
The mood began to grow for the TUC to call a one-day general strike, which was eventually watered down into a ‘day of action’. Nevertheless, 14 May 1980 was still a massive demonstration of working-class opposition to the Tory government. This was followed in November 1980 with an historic Labour Party demonstration of 150,000 against unemployment in Liverpool. Massive demonstrations followed in Glasgow, Cardiff, Birmingham and London. For the first time in generations, the Labour Party had actually taken the initiative in mobilising working-class people in action. These regional demonstrations were due to the proposals of the LPYS, under a Militant leadership.
Such was the relationship of forces that the Thatcher government was compelled to step back temporarily from its plans for a head-on confrontation with the labour movement. This was shown in the mining industry in early 1981. The threat to begin a programme of mass pit closures was met with the threat of immediate strike action in South Wales. This resulted in panic within the government. Thatcher, for the first time since she had come to power, was forced into a humiliating retreat. But Militant warned: “The miners showed what could be done by bold and determined action, but if the Tories were allowed to do it they will come back later with further attacks on workers’ rights and living standards.” This was what had happened in 1925, when the capitalists, facing resistance from the miners, bided their time to prepare for the 1926 general strike. Unfortunately, the tops of the trade unions complacently accepted the situation in 1981 without any serious preparation for future battles. The miners were to pay a very heavy price later, as Thatcher and her boot boy, Nicholas Ridley, built up coal stocks, beefed up the police and prepared new laws in order to try and smash the miners.
Britain politically convulsed
Britain was politically convulsed at this time with the very existence of the government in peril. Riots erupted in Bristol, Liverpool, London and other inner city areas, class polarisation developed on an unprecedented scale and, as a by-product of this, the ideas of Marxism, signified by the dramatic growth of Militant, became more popular. The Thatcher government, however, relentlessly pursued its mad policies of ‘monetarism’ – squeezing inflation out of the system and cutting down the money supply – which resulted in the wholesale closure of factories. This enormously aggravated the economic crisis developing at this time both in Britain and internationally.
It was this period that ushered in the catastrophic economic devastation of British industry, which was in decline but was furthered by Thatcher. So terrified was she and British capitalism of the industrial working class, signified by the defeat of Heath and Thatcher’s step back in 1981, that she was prepared to contemplate and even half-welcome the de-industrialisation of Britain. Manufacturing industry collapsed on an unprecedented scale: manufacturing output dropped 30% from its 1978 level by 1983 and unemployment reached a figure of 3.6 million. This reduced British capitalism to a minor player in manufacturing production and competition on the world markets. The current economic crisis has furthered this process and engenders a sense of despair from capitalist economists about the weakened industrial base of Britain and what this will mean for the future. We consistently warned at the time and since that the substitution of a ‘casino economy’ of the ‘candy floss’ industries of finance, banking, etc, in place of production of industries producing real value would ultimately result in a catastrophe for British capitalism and the British people.
A combination of factors saved Thatcher’s skin during her first government. The most overwhelming reason was the cowardice of the right-wing leadership of the trade unions, who refused to take decisive action, for instance when the most brutal anti-working class, anti-trade union legislation in the advanced industrial world was introduced. Weakness invites aggression; prevarication, hesitation and outright cowardice were the hallmarks of the right wing of the trade unions both then and today, which emboldened the Tories. Thatcher was also saved by the Falklands War. Napoleon wished for ‘lucky generals’. Thatcher herself came very close to military disaster in this war but her ‘luck’ held out and she managed to defeat the even more unpopular and decrepit Argentine dictatorship of General Galtieri in 1982. This allowed her the full backing of the patriotic press of Britain, with the Sun in the vanguard, conjuring up Britain’s past imperial ‘glory’.
Miners and Liverpool City struggles
This “Falklands Factor” in turn, laid the basis for Thatcher to go into another general election in 1983. Her hand was strengthened by the pusillanimity of Labour, this time led by the hapless ‘left’ Michael Foot, who presided over the expulsion of the five members of the Militant newspaper Editorial Board. Also, the recuperation economically from the crisis of 1979-81 furthered the Tories’ cause with the promise of ‘economic glory’ to follow what had been achieved in the South Atlantic. This, in turn, laid the basis for Thatcher to once more recommence her war against the miners. We have carried extensive accounts on the Socialist Party website of the miners’ strike, so it is not necessary to go over them here. But Arthur Scargill was undoubtedly correct when he recently wrote in the Guardian that the outcome of the strike was not at all predetermined, as some have argued. In fact, the Thatcher government was about to capitulate just a short time before the end of the strike.
A decisive and pernicious role in the defeat of the miners was undoubtedly played by the right within the trade unions and the equal, if not greater treachery of Neil Kinnock, the then Labour leader. With the rest of his family, Kinnock has become a multimillionaire due to his sojourn in British politics and the European gravy train; while the miners and their families, villages and communities were ruined. The miners’ strike is one of the most glorious pages in the history of the British working-class movement, demonstrating, at the same time, however, the perfidious character of the right-wing trade union and labour leaders.
A similar treacherous and cowardly role was played by Kinnock and other Labour leaders in the Liverpool struggle between 1983 and 1987. A socialist Labour council in Liverpool had begun to transform the lives of the people of the city and, moreover, had achieved something that neither Galtieri nor Kinnock had managed, that is to defeat Thatcher in 1984. This excited the most vicious hostility from Kinnock and his entourage.
In the recent shameful distribution of character assassinating emails from Gordon Brown’s own private office is once more revealed the degeneration of Labour from a pro-workers’ party at the bottom, albeit with a pro-capitalist leadership, into one no different in its politics and ‘morals’, or lack of them, than the other capitalist parties in Britain.
One of those denouncing the unspeakable Derek Draper and Damian McBride – the two held responsible for the emails – is none other than former Blair cabinet minister Charles Clarke! It was this latter individual who advised Kinnock on how to destroy Militant in Liverpool. On one famous occasion on Wigan station, he was present when Kinnock declared: “I have got them now” in reference to Militant, the Liverpool City Council and the labour movement on Merseyside. Kinnock’s statement was provoked by the announcement of ‘redundancy notices’, a tactic suggested by self-sacrificing Liverpool Labour councillors in order to gain time to manage the resources of the beleaguered city in 1985. There was absolutely no intention to make a single council worker redundant and yet Kinnock vehemently argued that this was the intention in his notorious 1985 Labour Party conference speech.
In other words, Kinnock and Clarke connived in an outright lie to destroy Militant, as they saw it, and sabotage a city council that had begun to really alter the lives and conditions of thousands of workers in Liverpool. Notwithstanding this, Kinnock’s sidekick Roy Hattersley, without a shred of evidence, subsequently denounced “literal corruption” without suggesting any names or back up information. The same Hattersley and Kinnock remain silent on the gross spectacle of “Labour MPs, yes Labour MPs” with their snouts in the pig trough of ‘parliamentary expenses’ and ‘second homes’.
At the same time, Thatcher undoubtedly found some political succour in the economic changes being wrought, both in Britain and worldwide, at this time. The neo-liberal economy, characterised by the development of new technology, was beginning to take shape. Thatcher, using the limitations of the past so-called ‘mixed economy’ under Tory and Labour governments, almost stumbled on the idea of ‘privatisation’, of which she was a “late convert”, as Germaine Greer points out, to begin her ‘revolution’, in effect a counter-revolution. In passing, we should note that despite the widespread discrediting of the Thatcherite idea of privatisation, Brown and Darling are seeking to carry through the same policies today. Royal Mail, which cabinet minister Peter Mandelson still wants to sell off, has been joined by the Atomic Energy Authority (the government’s nuclear clean-up business), the Royal Mint and an additional “29 state businesses”, which are proposed for further privatisations!
Ideologically, the labour movement, under right-wing domination, was unprepared for Thatcher’s offensive. The halfway house of the ‘mixed economy’, with a bureaucratically-run ‘state capitalist’ sector in the hands of the government and its appointees, and the majority of the economy in the hands of private capitalists, had reached a dead end. Thatcher and the right-wing ideologues that bolstered her, such as Milton Friedman, seemed to offer a ‘new’, exciting departure from the discredited quasi-‘managed’ Keynesian model. The sale of council housing, combined with the selling off, of profitable sections of state industry (what former Tory leader Macmillan termed the ‘family silver’) followed. This received hosannas alongside the soaring of the stock exchange, not just from British but world capitalism, which hailed Thatcher’s ‘experiment’ as the prototype for a new capitalist eldorado. And it certainly was for a few, as profits and the capitalists’ incomes soared and the City of London, in a new orgy of ‘financialisation’, benefited.
We warned that this would end in tears, not just for the working class but for capitalism itself. Thatcher was answered ideologically by us but crushingly in life by the development of the economic current crisis. According to Thatcher, the combination of Britain’s North Sea Oil receipts and the ‘expertise’ of the service sector, led by the banks and finance houses of the City, was the answer to the ‘discredited’ theory of a manufacturing base. But it is impossible to open any newspaper today without seeing a devastating rebuttal, either indirectly or directly, of Thatcher’s ideology, and with it that of the overwhelming majority of the capitalists in Britain. The aristocrats of Wall Street paid themselves $39 billion in bonuses in 2007; little wonder only one third of the British people in an opinion poll supported “state aid for banks”. Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, declared in February, this year, that banking losses now “lie anywhere between a very large number and an unthinkable one” (Financial Times, 14 February 2009). In other words, the stewards of this system are like a referee in a football match when the crowd shouts “You don’t know what you’re doing”!
It is even worse in the US. In the summer of 2007, when this crisis was not even fully under way, the first estimate of losses from the credit crisis was one twentieth of what the international Monetary Fund now believes to be a minimum of $2.2 trillion. And these are the people – ‘Thatcher’s children’ – who are going to take us back to the economic Promised Land. Every single platform of Thatcherism has been reduced to dust. The famous ‘property-owning democracy’ lies in ruins as homelessness, shanty towns, repossessions and negative equity become the norm for millions. House building is at its lowest level since 1924 and five million people in Britain would now like to live in decent ‘social housing’.
Thatcher defeated over poll tax
Thatcher was defeated, not on the issue of Europe, as countless commentators have claimed, but on the poll tax. And it remains an incontestable historical fact that it was the Marxists around Militant who played the decisive role in this battle. On this issue, Thatcher herself had no doubt: “The eventual abandonment of the charge represented one of the greatest victories for these people [the organisers of the anti-poll tax demonstrations on 31 March 1990] ever conceded by a Conservative government.” [Margaret Thatcher, ‘The Downing Street Years’, p661.] We predicted from the outset that Thatcher would be defeated on this issue. We wrote in Militant soon after the 1987 general election about the recently-announced poll tax proposal: “We just don’t want concessions or amendments, we want this legislation chucked out.” Absolutely decisive in this battle was the campaign for non-payment, initiated by Militant comrades in Scotland and taken up on a mass scale one year later in the rest of Britain. Eighteen million non-payers of the poll tax finished it off and in the process reduced the ‘iron lady’ to iron filings.
Compared to the determined, ‘steadfast’ image portrayed by Thatcher, Cameron – despite his seemingly unassailable lead in the opinion polls – appears like a quivering blancmange. This is determined by the much worse situation today from the point of view of capitalism. He has upset the right in his party by seeking to ‘detox’ the Tory brand – code for Thatcherism. In a backhanded ‘compliment’ to Cameron, the Financial Times, in effect, indicated the threadbare proposals for a government led by him: “It is a cliché to say that Britain’s Conservative party has no policies. It is also untrue; the Tories have views on issues as diverse as why a bottlenose whale starved to death in the Thames and the rate at which British museums buy new pieces for their collections… The problem is that the Tory party still lacks overarching strategies – especially when it comes to tackling the global economic crisis.”
A new Tory government?
But, Cameron protests, he and his entourage are ‘compassionate Conservatives’ not ‘hatchet-faced accountants’. When he gets down to the detail, in reality, Cameron resorts to the same old Thatcherite slash-and-burn policies. Osborne, his shadow chancellor, openly threatened to ‘unpick’ the 2005 agreements on pensions in the civil service, for teachers and other public-sector employees. The five million public-sector workers have faced a massive attack: “Public-sector pay is high enough.” [Financial Times] Say that to the poverty-stricken members of the civil service union, the PCS, on £12,000 or £15,000 a year. MPs complain they cannot live on £64,000 a year, three times the average national wage in Britain! What hope then for poverty-stricken public-sector workers in Britain? The hue and cry that has met the demand for a 10% wage rise for teachers – merely to compensate for what they lost in previous deals – is completely hypocritical. In fact, by pressing for higher wages, surely this will increase ‘demand’ – teachers will have, for instance, 10% more to spend – which Brown, Darling and the high priests of the Confederation of British Industry are demanding.
The fact that higher wages produce problems for the capitalists is their concern. If they cannot give a decent wage and other basic living conditions, their system does not deserve to continue. Cameron and Osborne have brutally demanded ‘austerity’, which means a colossal worsening of conditions, not just of the working class but for the middle class too. Unbelievably, their mouthpiece, the Financial Times, claims that there is “an appetite for austerity… shared by the middle classes. The Tories could axe family tax credits to the relatively well off, as Mr Cameron suggested”. A Cameron government would be a re-run for the working class of the experience of Thatcher herself, only probably much worse because the economic situation is dramatically worse than during her reign. It would provoke a massive social confrontation, probably even forcing the conservative officialdom of the TUC to move into action. A one-day general strike could come quickly onto the agenda. Experience of the Sarkozy government in France, with the uprisings in January and March, is an indication of what could happen in Britain if, as seems increasingly likely, Cameron replaces Brown in Number Ten.
‘Laissez-faire’ capitalism defeated
Thatcher represented primitive, brutal, class warfare against the rights and the conditions of the working class. The lesson of Thatcherism is that capitalism under whatever guise is incapable of ultimately delivering the goods for the working class, either in Britain or on a world scale. She helped to enshrine for an era the ideas of neo-liberalism. Ideologically, they were countered by the very small force of genuine Marxism, while the majority of intellectuals and leaders of the labour and trade union movement adhered to the ‘Washington Consensus’, that is Thatcherism on a world scale. Militant first of all, and now the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers’ international (CWI), stood out. But the reality is that the pro-capitalist parties in Britain have not completely abandoned the economic heritage of Thatcher. Yes, the most ‘dangerous’ aspects for them have been relegated to history – unregulated, unrestrained financialisation of capitalism – but the same intentions are still there. Their mantra is that the working class must pay for this crisis. Our answer is at one with those workers and youth demonstrating in Italy, in Germany and elsewhere earlier this year, who marched under the slogan: “This is not our crisis!”
Larry Summers, the main economic adviser to President Obama, desperately tries to separate this crisis from capitalism itself: “There are those who just as in the 1930s tried to learn the lesson that capitalism did not work and needed to be replaced with an entirely different model. I don’t think that’s right.” The problem for Summers is that a growing number do not agree with him. For instance, in March an online poll for a German TV talk show answered the question: “Which economic system is better for you?” Capitalism: 46%, socialism: 54%.
No poll can fully portray what the mass consciousness is. But one thing is clear: ‘laissez-faire’ capitalism has been defeated; the state has been forced to step in to rescue the system. The capitalists do not like this because state intervention raises the idea of not just rescuing the banks but also the majority of other industries which are on their backs. Not only the Tories oppose this. So do the Liberal Democrats, with the allegedly ‘radical’ Vince Cable coming out against long-term state intervention – ‘dirigisme’ – and also demonstrated hostility to further state rescues for firms like Visteon by the government. The consequence of this ‘hands off’ policy will be an inexorable rise in unemployment and a growing discontent, which is laying the basis for a massive radical movement in Britain and worldwide.
Thatcher has been pictured as a ‘towering presence’ during her lifetime. Yet even before she has departed this world a ferocious controversy rages over her heritage, with mass indignation at the idea of state recognition for her and her role. She was an important but now a diminishing factor in British politics. There is nothing for the most politically developed workers to learn from Thatcher, from the era that she represented, other than that no matter who represents this system they will attempt to pin the blame and the burdens of capitalism on the backs of the working class. Whether it is the face of Thatcher or the seemingly more ‘acceptable’ visage of Cameron, implacable opposition to them and their system, combined with intransigent criticism of those at the summits of the labour movement who are not prepared to oppose them, root and branch, as the miners, Liverpool and the poll tax protesters did, must be the cardinal principle of a revitalised labour movement.