For the many, many people on the wrong end of Margaret Thatcher’s ideological blitzkrieg, her death feels like the end of a nightmare. The catharsis is palpable and genuine. However, if we take a step back from the raw emotion, it is simply an elderly person dying naturally. Sad, inevitable, normal, universal.
What we should look forward to celebrating is the death of Thatcherism as a political force. See Owen Jones’s piece. By contrast, this isn’t inevitable. The narrative of Thatcherism was shouted long and loud. Sometimes it seemed to make sense. It was certainly impossible to ignore. it has taken root sufficiently to outlast the political career of its founder and it will have no trouble carrying on now she’s dead. Unless we do something about it. And the first step to defeating it is to understand it.
Like much of politics, the story of Thatcherism is rife with contorted meaning. On the global stage, Maggie was widely seen, along with Ronnie, as a bastion against Communism and tyranny. A quick look back shows that she was in fact rather selective about which tyrants she opposed and which liberties she supported. Now, such ethic-free “pragmatism” is sadly not uncommon in international politics but it needs to be highlighted when a person is in danger of being institutionally beatified.
The idea that private ownership is intrinsically better than public ownership is at the very core of Thatcherism. We’re told sometimes that this is simply an English tendency, even that it’s what makes us better than the French where they’re all into communes and stuff. It certainly struck a chord with the council house right-to-buy scheme. Many people felt it gave them the opportunity to better themselves and move from the working class to the middle class. But with hindsight, much of the eagerness was just naked profiteering. Substantial numbers of council houses were sold relatively soon after purchase as people spotted a chance to move up the ladder, taking advantage of the massive equity given them by the subsidised sell-off. It has now emerged that there’s been a considerable concentration of former council property in the hands of private landlords, taking advantage of surging private sector rents, subsidised by in-work housing benefits. What’s most shameful about the boot-sale disposal of nationally-owned property is that we were promised the proceeds would be ploughed back into council house building but this just never happened. Against a backdrop of right-to-buy propaganda, social housing was seen as a very low priority by councils and was allowed to wither. This leads us to the current situation of endless waiting lists and the mad folly of the bedroom tax which somehow tries to blame tenants for the house they’ve been allocated out of the meagre stock. All told, it is hardly radical thinking to posit that the right-to-buy scheme was a collosal vote buying racket. At the time, tenants had a tendency to vote Labour while the Conservatives were seen as the party of property owners. You can see what the Tories were hoping would happen.
Because the Thatcherite mindset saw every resource as a commodity it also made perfect sense to extend the Cash-In-The-Attic mentality into areas such as utilities, raw materials and national industries. The raft of privatisations in the mid-80s were touted as an opportunity for everyone to own a piece of businesses such as BT, BP and British Gas. This was doublespeak at its most mendacious. We already owned them. Privatisation didn’t confer ownership to the public, it stole the asset from the public and then sold it back to those who could afford to buy. Again, profiteering was the base motive for many and after a short while a large number of shareholders had cashed in their chips for a quick buck and ownership was largely in the hands of a few big financial institutions. Any sense of accountability to the public had been almost entirely removed and the new PLCs were subject to the profoundly non-democratic whims of the (newly-deregulated) markets. As a result, we now have water companies controlled by Chinese corporations, French-owned power stations and a rail network that relies on sky-high ticket prices and massive subsidies to plump up its profits whilst still not running any more punctually. All of this was sold out from under us and yet the country doesn’t seem better off for it. Just more expensive. See here for a fuller explanation.
Of course there were winners in the great privatisation bunfight. An allegation often thrown around by critics of the public sector is that wages are too high, pensions are too generous and the folks at the top are creaming off whopping salaries. Well, that’s as maybe but its all small beer compared to what goes on in the private sector where already fat contracts get further inflated by share options, bonuses and hefty pension pots. Somehow it’s OK because these remunerations are subject, apparently, to market forces and are therefore inherently realistic. Naturally, in private companies which have been vigorously de-unionised (another pillar of Thatcherism), the fat cats can be funded by squeezing the wages of the low earners. This is described as being “competitive” and “flexible” and anyone who suggests that appalling pay and atomisation of the workforce might be hurting productivity is lampooned by Thatcherites as some kind of 70s throwback who would doubtless have us all wearing tank tops and living on Angel Delight. We shouldn’t rail against high earning executives, they say, because they are the wealth creators and the money that they make gets recycled into the national economy through a combination of taxes paid and money spent on goods and services. Sadly, this is bollocks. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that trickle-down just doesn’t work. Firstly, the wealthiest have become expert at reducing their tax bills, often to levels well below what the lowest earners are contributing. Also, they are highly mobile, flitting around the globe to wherever they can get the best value. Of course they spend some money in Britain, but not broadly enough to shore up the national economy. Since the banking crisis even the usual food chain of company profits being ploughed back into investment and, god forbid, wage rises has been subverted as corporations, worried by the turbulent economic situation, hoard cash rather than putting it to work. Yet still the Government subsidies flow into company coffers. As a country, we spend much more on our rail network now than we did when we actually owned it. In-work benefits have mushroomed and allow companies to hold down pay and accrue an extra profit layer at the tax-payer’s expense. Money is being funnelled from the many via the public purse to the very few in company boardrooms and frequently then out of the country altogether into offshore accounts. It is trickle-up economics with no public benefit and it is the result of the deluded ideology of Thatcherism.
I could go on about how the mantra “There’s no such thing as Society” has led to the fatuous newspeak of the “Big Society”. I could tell you what you already know about market dogma wrecking the NHS and preparing the ground for privatisation. I could talk about the politically motivated folly of destroying the UK’s coal industry at a time when it was producing the safest and cheapest coal in the world. But I know that if you havent understood yet then you’re possibly immune to reason and I’d just be wasting my time.
I also hope that no one will be too sad that I haven’t filled this piece with links to stats, tables and graphs. Again, I’m trying to save time. If you want to look stuff up, I’m sure you’ll find it. Also, I’ve never noticed Thatcher’s tub-thumpers concentrating too hard on facts and analysis so in some ways it’s their fault.