No sooner had the news broken of Margaret Thatcher’s death than the glorious tributes came flooding in, a veritable deluge of unreserved praise for the Britain’s first female Prime Minister. Cameron was so affected by the news of her passing that he cut short his trip to Europe to return home and extol Thatcher as a ‘great leader, a great prime minister, and a great Briton’ from the steps of 10 Downing Street. The media universally echoed this glowing assessment, combining to castigate as mean-spirited those who demurred from the propaganda being indulged in by political pundits. Even Labour was not to be outdone in professing their respect for Britain’s iron lady. Ed Miliband noted that whilst he disagreed with her on many issues this did not prevent him from feeling huge ‘respect (for) her extraordinary achievements and extraordinary personal strengths’, whilst former Prime Minister Tony Blair observed that ‘she was a towering global figure’ and would be ‘sadly missed.’
But the memory of her crimes is not so easily expunged, and the public has resisted the hypocritical entreaties of Blair and his ilk to maintain a respectful silence in the wake of her death. Recognising that Thatcher’s supporters have not seen fit to abide by this stricture, her victims have sought to counter the gushing appraisals that would otherwise hold unchallenged sway in the media. Across the country, people marked the news of her death by holding street parties, sending populist newspapers such as the Daily Mail into paroxysms of fury at the disrespect shown the ‘patriot’ prime minister by the British public. Whilst MPs hastily congregated in Westminster last Wednesday in a display of self-abasing, saccharine admiration for Thatcher, thousands were busily downloading ‘Ding, Dong the Witch is Dead’ in a bid to send the song to number 1 in the UK charts. As Cameron outlined plans for a public funeral costing 10 million pounds to the taxpayer, police were frantically scanning social networking sites to identify potential protestors and devising plans for a security lock-down along the route of the cortege.
The eulogistic assessments, so at variance with the popular mood, are not the only disconcerting feature of the mainstream reaction to her death. Even those public figures who admit to having no sympathy for her policies have hastened to assure us that her career is too complex, too ambiguous and multi-faceted, for us to lapse into the mistake of thinking it can be encapsulated in one summary judgement. They argue that the fact she exerted a seminal influence on politics is alone enough to command our unquestioning respect, regardless of whether that influence was wielded in the public interest or not. The word ‘transformational’, for instance, has been oft-used in connection with her policies, even though few of her nominal critics care to expand on precisely why she was transformational. Nick Clegg last week stated: ‘I am not someone who agreed with a lot of what Margaret Thatcher did. But that doesn’t mean you can’t acknowledge and pay tribute to what she was as a politician and to her significance as a prime minister.’ He condemned the street parties celebrating her death as ‘puerile.’ Likewise, Tony Blair commented: ‘Even if you disagree with someone very strongly you can still, particularly at the moment of their passing, show some respect.’
Yet which is more puerile: the emotional outpourings of public revulsion towards Thatcher taking place in cities across Britain, or the timorous response of the mainstream left, petrified of appearing overly critical towards a figure of right-wing devotion? The strange combination of impassivity and equivocation with which alleged political foes have treated Thatcher’s legacy suggests that they view politics as little more than a parlour game. The impact of political decisions on real people, the devastation wrought by Thatcher’s policies, arouses neither their disgust nor wholehearted approbation, because their conception of politics does not extend beyond the plush confines of Westminster. Indeed, there is something more disturbing about the passionless voice of Ed Miliband, droning on about how Thatcher ‘broke the mould’, than the effusive accolades we’ve come to expect from Conservative stalwarts. For politicians like Miliband, the economic travails of the masses are not something to be taken seriously, and so the idea that politics can evoke strong passions is foreign to their comprehension. The only thing likely to shake Miliband from his torpor is the prospect of being elected to power. His anodyne response to Thatcher’s death provides a telling insight into his political immaturity.
By any objective reckoning, people have good reason to revile the legacy of economic ruin bequeathed by Thatcher. During her premiership, the nation’s collective wealth was mercilessly plundered. Mines were closed and nationalised industries privatised; financial markets were deregulated and gamblers in the city given free rein; unions were hamstrung and rendered ineffectual by restrictive legislation. Unemployment soared as Britain’s manufacturing industries were ruthlessly dismantled on the spurious grounds that they had become uncompetitive, all to make way for a burgeoning financial sector that was eventually to propel us to the brink of bankruptcy. Tax cuts on income were introduced but only by raising the rate of VAT and thereby increasing taxes for the poor. Mining communities were laid waste as the government set about neutralising the most formidable threat to its free market policies in the form of the NUM. As a result of Thatcher’s malicious attack on working people, both unemployment and under-employment have now become endemic and generally accepted features of British society, whereas previously governments prided themselves on a policy of ensuring work for all. With service sector jobs predominating, many people who might have received training in skilled, industrial occupations are forced into precarious, low paid work in cafes and supermarkets. Most importantly, the evisceration of our industry has linked our economic fortunes with the actions of reckless financiers who have now plunged us into the worst recession of the last 80 years.
Yet for all the suffering, all the unemployment, all the ‘necessary’ pain endured by millions of people in the effort to attain ‘efficiency’, the record of economic growth produced by Thatcher’s policies was singularly unimpressive and failed to match that of her more socialist predecessors. In the thirty years since Thacher’s accession to power, GDP has in fact grown by less than in the thirty year period following World War 2. Conservative politicians, including those who served under Thatcher, have been at pains to disclaim responsibility for the wanton deregulation that brought about the collapse of the banks, implausibly suggesting that the financial crash arose purely from Labour’s stewardship over the economy. But this is one thing for which they cannot deny responsibility. Despite their claim to have rescued Britain from the stultifying embrace of Keynesianism, the terrible human toll of their policies was not paralleled by higher rates of growth and greater prosperity for the many. What, at the end of the day, was it all for?
You will not discover the answer to that question from listening to the puerile ramblings of mainstream politicians and BBC newscasters, eager to obfuscate the issue by harping on the need to refrain from criticism out of respect for the memory of the dead. Those celebrating Thatcher’s demise are perfectly aware of the considerable effort being invested to sanitise her reputation for posterity, and need no instruction in matters of taste from the Controller of BBC Radio 1, who condemned ‘Ding, Dong the Witch is Dead’ (rated at number 2 in the UK Charts) as a ‘personal attack’ on a woman not yet buried and refused to broadcast the song in full lest it offend her grieving family. Consideration for the victims of her policies will unfortunately not prevent the BBC from airing Thatcher’s publicly funded funeral on Wednesday, which will be attended by dignitaries from across the world in a show of reverence for the dead Prime Minister.
For those whose critical faculties have not been dulled by the torrent of adulatory coverage, the Thatcher years will be seen as an extended paean to the cult of greed and a sustained onslaught against the working classes from which we have never fully recovered. The anguish and woe of those years lingers on in broken communities across Britain, and in the plight of those now forced to bear the heavy price – the young, the disabled, the unemployed – for the calamitous prioritising of finance over manufacturing. No doubt the 1% has good reason to hail Thatcher as a great leader, but the vast majority of people should not be deceived as to the odiousness of her legacy.
In 1948, the Labour minister Aneurin Bevan, reflecting on the hardships of his youth as an unemployed miner in South Wales, had this to say in response to Tory attacks on the welfare state: ‘no amount of cajolery can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory party that inflicted those experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin. They condemned millions of first-class people to semi-starvation.’ His remarks were immediately seized on by the press, unused to such impassioned displays from a government minister, and decried as inflammatory. He was portrayed as a crazed fomenter of class hatred, afflicted by a ‘mental disease’, and influenced by these depictions Tory supporters began appearing at his public meetings wearing placards inscribed: ‘lower than vermin.’ Bevan, however, was simply giving sincere expression to the human cost of policies formulated in Westminster. To have maintained a decorous facade and suppressed the memory of those evils would have been to imply that he considered politics essentially a trite affair, devoid of fateful consequences for millions of people, or at least consequences that should preoccupy the minds of ministers. In the wake of Thatcher’s death, we should not permit a patronising media to rule on the propriety of expressing anger towards a woman who left a trail of devastated lives in her wake, especially as that media is assiduously engaged in an effort to sacralise her memory. To remain silent, maintaining a respectful reticence in the face of such propaganda, would be to demonstrate a strange lack of moral concern for Thatcher’s victims.