Mark Steel and Bruce Anderson clash on Thatcher’s legacy: where there is discord, could there be harmony?

Two noted political voices, socialist Mark Steel and Thatcherite Bruce Anderson, go head to head on the question of Thatcher's impact

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BRUCE ANDERSON Margaret Thatcher saved this country. In 1979, Britain was in a shambles. We had chronic inflation, and lawless trade unions, and we were pre-emptively consuming the resources of the future to support the industries of the past. A lot of young people were depressed and talking about leaving. And a lot of senior people – not just to the left, a lot of people in the Tory party – thought nothing much could be done about this and that the best that could be hoped for was the orderly management of decline. She regarded that as virtual treason. She felt that Britain deserved much better than that and she provided it. She saved the country.

MARK STEEL Well. If this woman saved the country, how can it be that there were so many people who despised her to the extent that has been shown this week? I’m not talking about people who’ve been dancing about at parties; that’s only a handful. I’m talking about the many more people who very quietly have just sat there and had a little whisky to themselves and thought: this dreadful, dreadful woman is finally gone. That’s how much they despised her. And they despised her not because they disagreed with her policies but because what she did helped to ruin their lives. A very few people became rich because of Margaret Thatcher, and then they gloated over it. It wasn’t just that there were three million unemployed – it was that if you were one of them, it was your own fault.

BA Even without Margaret Thatcher, the British steel industry and the British shipbuilding industry would have suffered terribly because of globalisation. As for the gloating – she was not Harry Enfield. I think you’re right to this extent: that Margaret Thatcher had no insight into the condition of people who couldn’t help themselves. If there had been 20 million unemployed, she’d have had a job, and so I think if you put her on the psychiatrist’s couch and said to her, people are unemployed, do you think it’s their own fault, she’d have said yes.

ARCHIE BLAND Mark, however brutal the upheaval felt, is there a case that she was a necessary prime minister?

MS Bruce began by saying that Britain was a shambles in 1979. Well, Thatcher’s ideas have now been dominant for a long time; we’ve had 33 years of this. And look at Britain now. The idea that she saved us – there are millions of people unemployed; there are fewer prospects now; owning a house seems further away to my teenage kids than it did when I was 16. So the idea that she’s transformed Britain from a crackpot to make it marvellous now is utterly absurd. There is one thing that she has clearly achieved, which is that for the 1 per cent of people at the very top of society, they have become immeasurably richer at the expense of everybody else.

BA Well, a lot of the 99 per cent have become richer too. To me, if anything, she wasn’t radical enough. If we were going to lose metal-bashing industries, smoke-stack industries, which I think we had to, we had to go upmarket. And that means an educated workforce. And that was one of her real failures. I don’t think the average child in a state school got a better education in 1990 than they did in 1979 and that’s because she wasn’t Thatcherite enough.

Mark, you’re a socialist. I remember a conversation with Tony Benn back then that it didn’t matter what happened to the Callaghan government because socialism was inevitable. But she took socialism off the agenda. And I suspect people like you can’t forgive her for that.

MS I’m not in that camp. I think there’s a bit of a myth about Margaret Thatcher – her as the turning point in our history, the end of the post-war consensus. If you weren’t around then and you listened to the way people talked about it, you would assume that the rich were poorer than the poor back then. The rich were still enormously rich. There was already an enormous gulf. When I was growing up, it seemed like if everyone worked hard, you would collectively get a little bit better off. We lived on a bloody marvellous council estate, really well looked after. And that all changed in the mid-1970s. Labour responded to the economic crisis by attacking the living standards of the poor, and Thatcher just accelerated it.

BA But the Labour government just ran out of money. Denis Healey used to talk about getting rid of the IMF. I don’t think he thought it would be a permanent change. Besides, do you want the life of the council estate for everyone? It would be a bit like a superior version of East Germany.

MS Well, hardly! Because the council estate provided a minimum. It’s not the most that was on offer. Under her, a number of people bought council houses and believed it would propel them into a completely different world. They bought the shares that were on offer when the utilities were privatised and so on. By 1990, the number of people who felt that had transformed their lives for the better was not sufficient to win her an election – it’s why they had to dump her.

BA She was never popular.

AB How did she keep winning?

BA She was very lucky because the left split. And Foot was a great help and so was Kinnock. I tried to persuade my Labour friends after Footy lost his first election – I said, you’ve not seen the best of him yet, keep him going! So don’t be too dazzled by the Thatcher myth. She only once got more of the vote than Alec Home when he lost in 1964. If she gained some groups, she lost other groups. The electoral system helped her turn pluralities into majorities. I’m delighted she was an elected dictator.

MS We’ve found a point of agreement, that there is a myth about her mass popularity. Even the consensus as much as it was that she built up between 1978 and 1988, say, that was much more fragile that it is imagined to be.

AB Do you think her time in office led to a permanent change? Will the pendulum ever go back the other way?

BA No is the short answer. It won’t. The whole atmosphere is so different. Before 1979 there were things like exchange controls – you weren’t supposed to take more than £50 out of the country. So much of what has gone into a museum of political archaeology was taken for granted 30-odd years ago.

MS No, I don’t think it’s changed for ever. Britain in the 1870s would have seemed as if it was going to go along a road of the free market, industrialists being able to do pretty much what they wanted. In the 1880s, there was an enormous explosion of resistance and modern trade unions were formed, and the world changed in every way. Similarly in the 1930s, it would have seemed inconceivable that there would have been anything like the 1945 government. I do believe that at some point there will be an explosion again of people at the bottom of society realising their own power, if you like. But I don’t believe it’s going to happen soon.

AB This week it’s been argued that she’s not a partisan figure but a national one. Do you think that’s true?

BA She wouldn’t have worn that. She wanted to be a national figure in that she wanted everyone to do what she told them. But her idea was not consensus; it was unconditional surrender. But I do think she did almost transcend that. I found this week tremendously moving – I found my eyes glistening, and I thought back to memories of her. The world does seem different now that she’s gone. Her departure does mark the end of an era.

MS I found myself being moved, but in a different way. One of the things that moved me was the story in The Independent about the ex‑miner and his son who said for years that when Thatcher dies we’ll come to the welfare club and we’ll have a pint. The father died last year. And his son had travelled miles to the welfare club, and he had one for himself, one for his dad. I found that very moving. I won’t pretend that is the national mood, of course not, but it is the mood of millions. I do think very much that, phew, this is someone who has dominated my life.

AB What have you made of the reaction in general?

MS I had imagined for some time that when this day came, is it going to be as Owen Jones said, a month-long party political broadcast for the right wing of the Conservative Party. And I think the people opposed to her views have been strident enough that even the most pro-Thatcher organs have had to acknowledge them. And then the anger, the anger! Not from Bruce, but from the Mail, say, which is dominated by vitriol and rage against people who are not mourning with due reverence. And it’s not just the Mail. I don’t think I’ve put anything on Twitter, for example that has been particularly scurrilous, but the filth and venom in response are unbelievable. You’ve had it your way for 30 years – it hasn’t made you any happier, has it?

AB But you did tweet, for example, a reference to “tramp the dirt down”.

MS I said, maybe this is a time to listen to the Elvis Costello song. Come on, I think we can do better than “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead”. This is Elvis Costello!

AB Bruce, do you feel any anger at reactions of that sort?

BA More disdain than anger. I think Labour MPs who turned up and made dignified speeches saying they disagreed with her and so on, no objection to that – she would have found consensus very boring. The response from the Mail and so on is not one I share.

AB It’s not a state funeral, but it doesn’t feel a million miles away from one. How will it go, and do you think it’s the right approach?

BA Oh, I do think it’s the right approach. We’re very good at ceremonies; I think it’ll go magnificently. I think if the opposition is sensible, it might have a counter-meeting somewhere. I don’t think anyone should disrupt a funeral ever.

MS Worryingly, I agree with Bruce there. I think a counter-meeting or rally in defence of the welfare state in as many areas as possible – I think that would be a splendid thing.

BA I think Gladstone was horrified about Disraeli’s funeral, but he didn’t want to say anything because he didn’t feel it was appropriate to say so. I think people should approach it in that spirit.

MS But you’re not going to approach it in that spirit, Bruce, if you are someone who for example has seen their community left in ruins by Thatcherism. Would you not feel, if not sympathetic, understanding of someone like that miner’s son’s reaction?

BA Of course I can understand that it would be asking a lot of him to feel any differently. I’m glad that Scargill was defeated, but more should then have been done, perhaps, to reach out – in victory, magnanimity, as Churchill would have said: we don’t want these pit villages to be festering with unemployment and resentment for years.

AB Has there been anything in the past few days that has surprised you, or that’s made you think again about how you consider her legacy?

BA Frank answer: no. I think by next Wednesday there will be a desire to move on. The papers have, if anything, overdone it. I’d have gone for less but bigger. It’ll be interesting to see how that carries on. I think the momentum’s hard to sustain. This could only have happened for a truly remarkable figure.

MS Maybe I was less prescient than you, Bruce, but I have been pleasantly surprised. What is so important about that is that it has made clear that there is opposition, and it hasn’t just laid down and been defeated. It may seem like it sometimes, but it’s a bit like that Jimmy Stewart film, It’s a Wonderful Life: you don’t see the world as it would have been if you’d never done anything. Imagine Britain today if no one had protested. The country would be immeasurably more appalling. We still live in a society that has a far greater level of protection than if we had just laid down and surrendered.

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