As with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, everyone of a certain age remembers where they were the morning after Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister thirty years ago. I was a university research student on loan to the BBC and scheduled to join an occupation of the site of the proposed Torness nuclear power plant in East Lothian – an appropriately lost cause for the day that marked the Left’s greatest post war defeat.
Demonstrators and journalists swapped gallows humour – “Chile this morning, isn’t it” – sensing that, with the election of the right-wing housewife superstar, things really had changed. None of us realised quite how much. Margaret Thatcher was far more of a revolutionary than any of the anti-capitalists at Torness. She changed Britain, and the world, and altered the way we think about politics and society. Love her or loathe her, we are all Thatcher’s children.
There was an inevitability about the Tory victory in 1979. Nothing was working. The country had just emerged from the Winter of Discontent, as the tabloids dubbed the great public sector strikes when “the dead lay unburied and rubbish uncollected in the streeets” – allegedly. What was certainly true was that the Labour prime minister, James Callaghan had made a disastrous decision in delaying a general election which he would probably have won in autumn 1978. By April 1979 Labour was forced to fight a campaign in the teeth of rising unemployment and industrial strife largely caused by Callaghan’s own public sector cuts. Curiously, Gordon Brown seems to have opted for much the same electoral strategy today.
The Tories deployed the most succesful advertising campaign in election history: “Labour Isn’t Working”. The dole queue in the Saatchi and Saatchi poster was in fact a photoshopped line of Hendon Young Conservatives – not many people know that. Nor did people know that under Margaret Thatcher, unemployment was about to rise to levels not seen in Britain since the 1930s, as Britain plunged into the deepest manufacturing recession since the war. Unemployment rose over three million and devastated Scotland’s industrial communities. “Bathgate no more, Linwood no more…” sang The Proclaimers, as Scotland experienced the kind of social chaos that was to hit Russia in the 1990s. We’re still living with the legacy today in the high rates of heart disease, depression and alcoholism in West Central Scotland.
But Scotland was never high on Margaret Thatcher’s priority list. Her horizons were and as wide as the world as deep as history. She wanted to “abolish socialism” at home and defeat communism abroad. Incredibly, she arguably did both, and at the same time gave her name to a new “ism”: Thatcherism – a political phiosophy founded on deregulated financial markets, privatisation of state assets, sales of council homes and dismantling of the welfare state. Thatcherism wasn’t just an economic policy, however, it was a social psychology based on possessive individualism. It was about getting as much as possible for yourself and your family and then letting the rest of the world go hang. “There’s no such thing as society” she said in her most magisterial soundbite, and while she insists that she didn’t mean it literally, actually she did. And she largely succeeded, too, in destroying collectivism, a form of social solidarity that had endured in large parts of Britain since the Second World War.
Thatcher sensed intuitively that the key to breaking communitarian ties was home ownership. Before 1979, the sale of council houses had been regarded as a fantasy of the looney right. But she went right ahead and did it, and by ushering in the age of mass home ownership – “the property owning democracy” – she turned Britain into a nation of property speculators. Homes, once just places to live, became assets to be traded, used as a private fortress of personal wealth – and ultimately served as vehicles of speculation by the banks. In 1979, when Thatcher came to power, fewer people in Scotland owned their own homes than in Communist Poland. Now, nearly seventy percent of us are owner-occupiers. Ask long serving trades unionists why workers are so reluctant to go on strike these days and they will often say: mortgages.
Thatcher realised that to destroy socialism she had to destroy the political power of the industrial working class. She was more of a Marxist than most people on the far Left, which had fragmented into a litter of splinter groups arguing about obscure points of dogma. Few people in the media believed that Thatcher could possibly succeed with her scorched earth policy of destroying the unions through high interest rates, industrial closures and mass unemployment. “She’ll end up like Heath”, we snorted, “doing a U-turn and resorting to incomes policy, states subsidies and inflation”. But “the lady wasn’t for turning” and she broke the unions, and Labour, on the wheel of joblessness, and paid the bills using Scottish oil revenues. She wisely left the miners to last, confronting them on her own terms in 1984.
Everyone underestimated Thatcher’s resolve to deregulate and break the power of the state. Like council house sales, privatisation had been a preserve of right wing think tanks like the Adam Smith Institute. Most economists beleived that a modern economy required significant state ownership to regulate the free market. Not Thatcher. Starting with BT and British Gas, she launched a firesale of nationalised industries, getting the British public to buy companies they already owned. “Tell Sid” said the advert alerting the nation to the new opportunities of “popular capitalism”. Businessmen like Richard Branson became celebrities.
She also ignited the “Big Bang” in the City of London – a wave of deregulation which opened the way to the ‘anything goes’ era of financial buccaneering. The great misselling scandals – endowment mortgages, personal pensions, ‘;with profits’ insurance bonds – all had their origins in the 1980s. Commission-driven “independent” financial advisers developed ever-more ingenious “financial products”. One of Thatcher’s earliest acts was to break the link between the state pension and average earnings. In future they would rise with inflation. This apparently technical move ensured that the value of the state pension would wither to next to nothing, forcing people to seek security in private pension provision.
Her ultimate objective was to privatise health and education, but she never managed to achieve that, leaving it to her successor. When Lady Thatcher was asked recently what her greatest legacy was, she said: Tony Bliar. Apocryphal it may be, but it is a compliment he is willing to reciprocate. New Labour was built on the foundations laid by Thatcherism. Blair promoted wealth as a virtue and subjected public services to market disciplines. Local authority bureaucrats started awarding themselves mega salaries; Chancellor Gordon Brown endlessly praised the City of London; MPs turned their political offices into a source of personal enrichment.
While Thatcher destroyed socialism at home by making Tony Blair inevitable, abroad she stiffened the resolve of Ronald Reagan – the hawkish US Republican President – to confront communism by placing a new generation of nuclear weapons in Europe. Cruise and Pershing 11 missiles ensured that any tank-led invasion by the Warsaw Pact would lead immediately to nuclear war. It was an extraordinary escalation of the arms race, and led to a revival of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain. It is hard for people under he age of 45 to appreciate quite what life was like under the Cold War. Nuclear annihilation was a very real threat in hte 80’s which coloured many peoples’ lives and inspired the savage humour of cartoonists like Steve Bell.
In the end, of course, it wasn’t missiles but consumerism and that killed communism. It was the visible economic success of the West in the 80’s, and its libertarian youth culture. that rotted the authoritarian regimes of Eastern Europe and led their citizens to tear down Berlin Wall. However, it is an inconvenient truth for the Left that many anti-communist radicals were genuinely inspired by Margaret Thatcher. From the Gdansk shipyard worker Lech Walensa in Poland to the Czech president/playwrite, Vaclav Havel – who presented the “Iron Lady” with an award for her role in bringing down the Iron Curtain – Margaret Thatcher was a beacon of freedom.
Perhaps it is only now, at the twilight of Thatcherism that we can begin to understand her true historical significance. There’s an epic quality to everything about the Thatcher story. She was the last British prime minister to launch a shooting war against a foreign power – 8,000 miles away in the South Atlantic over the Falklands Islands. Who dares wins, and she did – though it was close. She woudl have declared war too on the European Union if her party had let her.
And there is a Wagnerian quality, now to the collapse of Thatcherism and the fall of its Gods. The origins of the greatest economic depression in a hundred years lay in May 1979 when she became prime minister. The economic engine she created, based on the unrestrained accumulation of wealth and deregulated financial markets, turned into an uncontrollable global juggernaut which has just careered over a cliff. Almost everything that has gone wrong with the neoliberal model – the housing bubble, the bonus culture, fraudulent derivatives, tax havens, financial speculation, the collapse of manufacturing – all had their origins in the Thatcher revolution thirty years ago. When Cameron Tories today talk of the “broken society” what they are really talking about is the society of rampant individualism and moral anarchy created by their own former leader.
Sir Fred Goodwin is the ultimate Thatherite – a sociophathic individualist who values personal enrichment even above self-respect; who is so dedicated to financial gain that he is willing to be cast as a pariah, loathed for his destructive greed. But then the truth is that we all became just a little infected with Thatcherism during the “me generation”. We privately gloried in the apparently ever-rising value of our homes; got vicarious enjoyment from the fantasy capitalism of “The Apprentice”; laughed at the antics of anti-social petrolheads like Jeremy Clarkson. The devil had all the best tunes during the Thatcher era – but unfortunately he was still the devil. And now that we face an era of social and economic chaos, against a background of runaway climate change, we will all have time to repent at leisure for our flirtation with Grantham’s most famous daughter.