Few things drive the right-wing press into self-righteous apoplexy more than Thatcher-hate. It was on display at the TUC conference last week, where T-shirts pledged that trade unionists would “dance on her grave”. On Saturday, it was reported that some Liverpool fans – finally vindicated over the sickening travesty of Hillsborough 23 years on – were chanting “we’re gonna have a party when Maggie Thatcher dies”. Several Facebook groups are dedicated to organising festivities for just that eventuality.
Personally, I dread Thatcher’s death. It will be a nightmarish blend of the hysteria that followed Princess Diana’s tragic accident and a month-long political broadcast for the Conservative Party. “She put the ‘great’ back in Great Britain,” our impartial media will lecture us; those who dissent will either be purged from the airwaves or demonised as spiteful lefties. Senior Labour politicians will feel obliged to join in the serenading of a PM who, in many cases, laid waste to the communities they represent. I hope she goes on and on.
But the right refuses to understand why, more than two decades after she was deposed, Thatcher is still despised by a large chunk of the population. As far as they are concerned, it is nothing more than spite from a hate-filled left, still furious at being comprehensively defeated. It speaks of the “sheer nastiness of a certain kind of leftie”, as the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan put it recently. “I remember the sense of despair, the conviction that Britain was finished” before Thatcher came to office, he added. Well, at least Britain is flourishing now.
A reasonable right-winger would accept that her 11-year rule opened up the greatest divisions Britain has experienced in modern times. Whether or not they regard that as unavoidable, they would realise that Thatcher-hate is just one manifestation of it. Perhaps if a Labour government had reduced the prosperous middle-classes of the Home Counties to mass unemployment and poverty, and stockbrokers desperate to save their livelihoods had been chased by police on horseback through the City of London, they would understand the bitterness. Thatcher hate is not kneejerk anti-Toryism: after all, there will be no champagne corks popping when John Major dies, and there was no bunting on display to celebrate the deaths of Ted Heath, Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Macmillan or Anthony Eden.
Thatcher is reviled by some not just because she crushed the left, the Labour movement and the post-war social democratic settlement. It is because she did it with such enthusiasm, and showed no regret for the terrible human cost. A war of sorts was fought in the 1980s, and the vanquished – as is often the case – were left with unquenchable bitterness: my own family among them.
The year I was born in Sheffield, unemployment had reached 15.5 per cent, or nearly four times higher than when Thatcher marched into Downing Street. My parents watched a flourishing city devastated, and at such speed. My mother recalls the once-thriving industrial suburb of Attercliffe, with its foundries with arc furnaces and the flicker of flames as you passed. Within 18 months, it was reduced to ruin: the buildings demolished, leaving deserted wasteland surrounded by weeds and fences. When Thatcher came to deliver a speech at Sheffield’s Cutlers’ Hall in 1983, my eldest brother was among those throwing eggs. During the miners’ strike, my father was at Orgreave days before the infamous Battle; with mounted police chasing miners across fields, it looked like a medieval battlefield. Heavily pregnant with my twin sister and I, my mother saw convoys of police vans heading to Orgreave, an army against the enemy within.
Britain’s industrial ruin was unavoidable, Thatcher’s apologists argue. Industry was inefficient and crippled by union bullyboys: Thatcher’s Chancellor Geoffrey Howe told me he “often questioned the suicide note of much of British industry”. But it was sabotage. First, the abolition of exchange controls allowed the City to thrive at the expense of other parts of the economy. Then they allowed the value of the pound to soar, with interest rates hiked to 17 per cent, making borrowing – crucial for manufacturing – prohibitively expensive.
Sir Alan Budd advised the Thatcher government and feared they “never believed for a moment that this was the correct way to bring down inflation”, but rather it was a highly effective means of increasing unemployment, “an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes”. Working-class communities were trashed – and, in some cases, never recovered – because of an ideological crusade.
Reflecting on the miners’ strike a few years ago, even Thatcher’s right-hand man Norman Tebbitt accepted that “the scale of the closures went too far”, with the result that “many of these communities were completely devastated”. As Jack Straw noted last week, Thatcher’s government needed “the police to be a partisan force” during such industrial upheaval, creating a “culture of impunity” in the police force. At Orgreave – with the support of the mainstream press – the miners were blamed for the Battle, until years later the police force was forced to cough up hundreds of thousands in compensation. And it was the same force – dubbed “Maggie’s Boot Boys” – that smeared those who had died because of their own incompetence and contempt for working-class people at Hillsborough.
According to Thatcher’s champions, she fixed our “broken economy” and unleashed an era of prosperity. Odd, then, that Britain’s most sustained period of growth and increasing living standards were the three decades after the war, with their high taxes on the rich, strong trade unions and state interventionism.
Since Thatcher unleashed the era of low taxes, weak unions and free markets, growth has been lower and less equally distributed, and we have had three dramatic recessions. Our current predicament has everything to do with New Labour’s failure to unpick the financial deregulation Thatcher pioneered. “You weren’t even alive then,” Thatcherite acolytes lecture a largely anti-Thatcher generation, the first since the Second World War to face a worse lot than their parents, with few prospects of getting an affordable home thanks to her mass sell-off of council housing. A new generation of leftists represents a backlash against the demoralisation of their routed parents.
But while Thatcher-hate is understandable, it is futile. Celebrating the prospect of her death has become an admittedly macabre substitute for the failure to defeat Thatcherism. The Iron Lady will die knowing her legacy is stronger than ever. It will only be worth celebrating when Thatcherism is finally purged from this country, and a Britain run in the interests of working people is built. Then we really can rejoice.
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