The influence of Mrs Margaret Thatcher on British economic and cultural life is shown now, at her death, by the pages and pages and pages of newsprint devoted to her in every British newspaper, all day every day since her death. Even the Gruaniard has joined in the chorus, although sometimes singing from the hymnal of another denomination, but still with pages and pages of text and images. It is like the mass media psychosis that hit Britain the week after the death of Princess Diana in 1997.
The praise heaped on Saint Margaret has stretched credulity to the limit. Like some modern-day Bolivar, she apparently single-handedly liberated Eastern Europe from Communism, which if true would surely be news to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR (1989 membership), the Central Committee of the CzechoSlovak Communist Party (April 1968 membership), the Central Committee of the United Workers Party of Poland (1956 and 1989 memberships), and the millions of brave citizens of Berlin, Leipzig, Budapest, Gdansk, Prague, Warsaw, Bucharest, Moscow, and throughout the region, who actually did, through argument and protest and strike and resistance, liberate their countries from tyranny. Part of the justification given for her role in the freedom of Eastern Europe is the fact of her early meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, before his elevation to the General Secretary-ship of the CPSU, after which meeting she proclaimed that she could do business with him. But why would this endorsement have helped him rise? Surely such a public statement from one of the nation’s nuclear-armed enemies potentially lost him votes in the race to be General Secretary.
And, by a certain class of people, she was then, and still is, seen as the Simon Bolivar of Britain. Yes, like all politicians, she represented a particular economic class and indeed she represented their interests very effectively. (It was not, by the way, the class of her parents or of her upbringing, but it was the class of her husband.) But statesmanship requires a politician to decide in the national interest, not in the interests of a particular class. With just one possible exception, I cannot think of a single major decision she took in which she decided in favour of the nation against the interests of her own sectional base. The one exception was the decision to defend the Falkland Islands following invasion by the Argentinian military junta in 1982.
One could – and she did – defend such sectional decision-making on ideological grounds, for example, using the so-called theories of trickle-down economics, of metaphysical entities (eg, invisible hands), and of magical thinking and psychokinesis (eg, frictionless adjustment to free trade) that constitute the parallel, reality-free, universe that is neoclassical economics. In other words, she argued that although the decisions she took seemed to favour one group over another, in reality all would benefit, although perhaps not all would benefit immediately. But all economic policies have both winners and losers. Mrs Thatcher rarely evinced any public sympathy for the losers of her policies, and her contempt for those who lost was always obvious.
Her last major enacted policy – towards the end of her 11 years in power – was the Poll Tax, which punished society’s losers with a most unfair and regressive tax, at the same time as giving manifest and immediate benefit to her sectional base. This was not a policy of someone governing in the national interest. This was not a policy of someone having personal compassion for the downtrodden, the ill, the unlucky, the old, and the unfortunate in our society. This was not policy – and her dogged insistence on maintaining it against all evidence that it was not working epideictically reinforces this – that showed her approaching the challenges of governing in a reasoned or pragmatic way, with an open and rational mind, intent on balancing competing interests, or of finding the best solution for the country as a whole.
Norm is correct to castigate those who have publicly rejoiced at her death. Such rejoicing is quite understandable, even though wrong. Mrs Thatcher’s condescension, contempt, and antipathy for those who suffered from her policies or from life in general was evident to everyone, all along. She herself said there was no such thing as society. She herself said that anyone using public transport over the age of 35 was a failure in life. It is no wonder that the worst riots in Britain in the 20th century happened under Mrs Thatcher. It is no wonder that her party has no longer any support to speak of in Scotland (ground zero for the Poll Tax), and no wonder that support for Scottish independence is now so strong. It is no wonder that punk and reggae developed in overt opposition to her. Linton Kwesi Johnson named his famous song for her, conflating her with Inglan. It is no wonder that people are organizing street parties in the cities of Britain to celebrate her departure.
In contrast to most of the reporting engulfing us now, here are two responses to show the historians of the future that not all of us alive at this moment welcome the sudden attempt at canonization. The first is from a Guardian editorial on Tuesday 9 April 2013:
In the last analysis, though, her stock in trade was division. By instinct, inclination and effect she was a polariser. She glorified both individualism and the nation state, but lacked much feeling for the communities and bonds that knit them together. When she spoke, as she often did, about “our people”, she did not mean the people of Britain; she meant people who thought like her and shared her prejudices. She abhorred disorder, decadence and bad behaviour but she was the empress ruler of a process of social and cultural atomism that has fostered all of them, and still does.”
The second is an impassioned speech from Glenda Jackson MP, given in the House of Commons yesterday, about the pain Mrs Thatcher’s policies wrought. The speech was given against and over the top of much noise and shouting from the Yahoo Henrys who still, apparently, sit on the Conservative Party Benches. I say thee, Yay, Ms. Jackson, Yay!
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