As the economy is moving rapidly into the kind of situation we experienced in the 1980s with mass unemployment, the disappearance of numerous businesses and repossessions of houses, it is unsurprising that people's thoughts turn back to that era. Many, including myself hoped we would never experience anything like it again in my lifetime and until the middle of 2008 it seemed that possibly we never would. It is terrible that the greed of bankers has brought back this situation that causes so much misery to millions of people. Fortunately this time we seem to have governments in power who rather than saying that there is nothing they can do, or even worse, as was said in the UK by its government in the 1980s, this kind of suffering is somehow 'good' for us, they are now trying to rein in the reckless bankers and keep the economy stimulate rather than facing huge contraction.
Okay, so this is old news now. However, what brought it back to mind this weekend was the references to the anniversary of Margaret Thatcher coming to power 4th May 1979. She held office until 28th November 1990 so bracketing the 1980s and the evils of that decade will always be associated with her. I saw an article in 'The Guardian' about the anniversary and worried that it would begin to rehabilitate Thatcher (who unfortunately still lives, she was born 1925). I was heartened to see that it was written by Germaine Greer and that she has charged at Thatcher's record with full force. There are very accurate descriptions: she '... had scant regard for democracy and no scruples whatsoever.' Greer is right that Thatcher did not have a systematic plan to smash British society (though she had a very clear plan to smash trades unions especially the coalminers' NUM), but like Hitler she was an opportunist who took advantage of things like the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands Islands to advance her wrecking of UK society and industry. Unlike George W. Bush, she did not do this because she particularly favoured the very wealthy, though they clearly benefited from her policies, but because of the twisted ideology that she subscribed to, part based in a misunderstanding of Hayekian attitudes mixed in with New Right economic and social thinking from the USA and above all an incredible arrogance that what she did was right. Perhaps people can only become politicians if they have that focus, but Thatcher's was untempered by anything like reference to God or democracy and in fact was simply reinforced by her clear contempt for almost everyone she dealt with.
Though we did not know it at the time, increasing evidence has come to light about how corrupt she was, especially in arms deals which in particular benefited her son, the buffoon and attempted coup creator, Sir Mark Thatcher, Bart. He made £20 million from the arms deal his mother did with the Saudis in 1985. Thatcher tried to overthrow the government of Equiatorial Guinea in 2004 but as with many of this incompetent's projects it failed. Back to his mother. Like the US President with which she shared most affinity, Ronald Reagan (president 1981-9) she believed in supporting right-wing dictatorships across the world notably President Suharto of Indonesia (dictator 1967-98) and especially General Pinochet dictator of Chile 1974-90. With Reagan she adopted a harsh line towards the USSR and helped bring the world closer to nuclear war 1979-83 than it had been for almost two decades. I remember the terror of waking up to loud bangs in the early Eighties, thinking that the nuclear war that Thatcher so clearly wanted had come. Thatcher was harsh in personality and terribly patronising (and her use of the pronoun 'we' when referring to herself, something usually reserved for royalty), but worse than that, as many people observed to me at the time, she seem to revel in blood letting. This is most obvious when you saw coverage of her at the time of the Falklands Conflict, though she referred to the loss of British forces, it appears in her face as if she was energised by the recognition of those deaths. Perhaps she could not suppress the impact of the knowledge of how it would benefit her election campaign, perhaps she did simply enjoy conflicts; she seemed happiest atop a tank.
In the international sphere, Thatcher directly contributed to the deaths of thousands of people through permitting arms sales to dictators. However, a lot of this was oblivious to the British public. The more immediate suffering was how she wrecked the economy and thrust unemployment above 4 million (though never admitted this through using skewed statistics). Industry was changing in the UK as across the world. As early as 1974 service industry had outstripped manufacturing in terms of contribution to the economy and of course this was going to continue. However, there were many different ways to handle this change. Thatcher adopted the one which was to cause most misery to the most people in the UK (and I will throttle the next person who tells me 'well, of course we knew it was necessary', I wish I could send them back to 1983 and make them someone with a family, thrown out of their jobs, humiliated by being told they were a 'dole scrounger' and to 'get on their bike' to search for the work that was not there). She adhered to a strongly monetarist policies and shut down the coal industry and sold off the nationalised sector to greedy exploiters who have made millions in profits (and personal income) and left us with a fragmented far worse set of utility and transport companies (I will also punch the next person who tells me that the railway system, which they never use, must be better than it was when first privatised [I know that was under John Major but it was part of the flow of Thatcherite policy]), whose greed simply fuel the inflation Thatcher was so supposedly against. Of course, none of this mattered to Thatcher, she did not really believe society existed, she just saw 'families and individuals'. Thus, schools and hospitals were forced to make cut-backs from which many have still not really recovered. The privatisation of hospital cleaning under Thatcher has directly led to the various 'super-bugs' infections which infect thousands of people across the UK and kill many. Poor literacy and numeracy levels and still too high levels of people leaving school without qualifications goes back to Thatcher.
The worst legacy of Thatcher's regime is the myth of getting rich quick. 'Everyone can be a millionaire so everyone has to try' was how the The sung it in 1986. The implication was that it was only the lazy who were unemployed and if you worked hard you would always succeed in Thatcher's Britain and yet it was a lie right from the start. Those people who were seen being successful, notably the City of London financiers and stockbrokers were in most cases privileged to start with. People bought into the myth, partly as a way to escape the gloom and yet in fact they just got into debt through over consumption to try to buy the glamorous 1980s lifestyle and in particular to try to buy their council house many of which were to be repossessed 1990-3 as the bubble burst and people had to count the cost. As unemployment figures of the 1960s showed, there are some people who cannot work, probably 50,000 in the UK population. However, the bulk of the population is keen to have a job. No-one should feel guilty at being thrown out by an employer who sees cutting labour costs as the easy option and less personally painful that cutting their salary or bonuses. It is this culture established and lauded under Thatcher that has led us into a repeat of the unpleasant days of the 1980s once again.
Thatcher fuelled an attitude that divided British society against itself. British communities have probably never been as strong or amenable as people have believed, but they certainly were not as hostile and vigilante focused as they became following Thatcher's policies. The division of the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' is one we are still haunted by and so many people can be dumped into the 'undeserving' category notably asylum seekers, immigrants, students, people from other regions. There has always been North-South tension in the UK, but it was sharpened by the Thatcher years and it seems only now that it has began to reduce, but perhaps the recession will make it worse. Thatcher spoke of the 'enemy within' referring to anyone with left-wing or trade union connections and she gave a free rein to the police and security service in a way that has never been recaptured. She established a sound foundation for the steps we continue to take towards authoritarianism in the UK even today. That 'enemy within' mentality of course extends into communities especially since it received the jolt of anti-Islamic propaganda in the 2000s. However, without Thatcher's legacy such tendencies would not have fallen on such fertile ground.
The perverse attitude of Thatcher which has done so much harm to the UK (and its spread was her greatest success) was the 'community charge', better known as the poll tax, which was charged at the same rate on people no matter what their income was. Some of the poorest got reductions, but a millionaire would pay the same as someone earning less than the average wage (and of course in those pre-minimum wage days, low wages were ridiculously low, the figures mean nothing now but on the eve of the introduction of the minimum wage in 1999 at £3.60 per hour for people over 21, I knew people working at £1.90-2.00 per hour, which shows how much the jump was). This was Thatcherite 'equality' and how perverse this was led to the poll tax riots of 1990. Of course, you can tell the severity of the regime by how often there was rioting under Thatcher. The UK is not a country particularly known for forceful political protest, but the 1980s saw a lot of it. Even riots sparked by local tensions such as the St. Paul's (Bristol) Riot of 1980 and the Brixton Riot of 1981 were in part caused by the police feeling they had Thatcher's backing to using harsh and often racist measures. If you think of the Handsworth riots (1981 and 1985), riots in Leeds, Liverpool (Toxteth), Broadwater Farm in 1985 (at which a policeman was beheaded) and riots connected with the Miners' Strike 1984-5 only apartheid South Africa and Sri Lanka experiencing a civil war faced anything similar at the time. The level of fury at what was being done to the people of Britain was immense. This in a country in which such protest has always been less common than elsewhere in Europe, except during the Thatcher years.
Thatcher was anti-intellectual. Again, education needed reform, but she thrust universities back into the elitist system and fostered the hostility to students that I see very visibly in my own neighbourhood even today. No other country in Europe has such hostility to learning as the UK. Somehow it is seen as a 'luxury' and again students are condemned as 'lazy'. In other countries people are proud not only to see their own children go to university, but proud to see other children in the same street, district, town go. Through the 1980s studying was dismissed as taking you away from the getting rich quick which was your duty; all successful entrepreneurs bragged that they 'went to the university of life' not noticing how the UK was slipping further and further behind rivals where even waiters are trained. The UK has only kept its head above water by importing intelligent, skilled, qualified people from across the world, notably Asia. If every doctor of Asian background (and I mean immediate background, not children of Asians who had settled in the UK in previous decades) was suddenly removed from the UK then the health service would collapse immediately. Look at successful businesses in the UK and you will find a huge number are led by 'outsiders' because too few indigenous British people, no matter what their race, has been encouraged to study or had the funding to continue to the levels needed to make a successful business and intellectual country.
Some people will regret that Margaret Thatcher was not killed in the bombing of the Grand Hotel where she was staying in October 1984. I will look at the implications of that incident in a counter-factual soon. However much I wish Margaret Thatcher had been eliminated from the UK I know that the response would have effectively made the UK a police state immediately and democracy (which Thatcher was no fan of, she disliked even working with ministerial colleagues, she was Gaullist, almost dictatorial, in wanting to dominate all aspects of politics) would have been suspended. I wish her corrupt arms dealings could have brought her and the Thatcherites of the time down and humiliated them for a generation in the way Nixon was removed from office and shunned because of his corrupt actions. Margaret Thatcher damaged the UK in so many different ways, some that were immediately obvious, some that we are only now seeing the consequences of. There are very few politicians that you cannot find one good thing that they have done for the country they dominated, but Thatcher is certainly one of them and the UK would have been a far better place if she had never been born.