Our hate figures and heroes are mere surfers on the tide of history

From Thatcher to Mandela - history is not one grand soap opera, in which the characters at the top pull huge levers that dictate the fate of millions

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The Independent Online

“Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out!” they yelled in the 1980s. “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, dead, dead, dead!” the assembled crowd of ex-miners and unrepentant anti-Thatcherites chanted in a drenched Trafalgar Square on Saturday. For large swathes of the left, Baroness Thatcher remains an almost demonic figure, who smashed them with such relish and with such human cost. It is an enmity I remember from my earliest days alive, having been born in battered Sheffield to a socialist family who took in Chilean refugees fleeing  Lady Thatcher’s favourite tyrant, General Pinochet: though I inherited a sort of fear – rather than loathing – of her that remains to this day.

For the triumphalist right, this Iron Lady was the saviour of a Britain facing terminal decline, who put the great back into Great Britain. “They say ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’,” eulogised David Cameron, “well, in 1979 came the hour and came the Lady.” These two cults of personality even battled each other in the nation’s music charts: Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead takes on I’m In Love With Margaret Thatcher. Though some of the deceased Prime Minister’s ardent supporters didn’t quite grasp the latter song is a satire, the intended sentiment is clear.

But while the vilification and beautification of Lady Thatcher serve important political purposes, they don’t tell us what really happened in the 1980s. History is not one grand soap-opera, in which Great Men (and they are – unlike Lady Thatcher – mostly deemed to be men) at the top pull huge levers that dictate the fate of millions. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances already given and transmitted from the past,” Karl Marx wrote over 160 years ago. “ The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

What the Old Man meant was that we all have free will; we are not simply puppets executing unspoken orders as we are unthinkingly swept along by inevitable great tides of history. We are all capable of making decisions one way or the other, whether we’re the US President or a bin-collector. But we face whopping big constraints; our room for manoeuvre is limited by grand social forces that are out of our control. Even apparently all-powerful dictators are, in part, prisoners of circumstances that even they cannot dictate.

Our room for manoeuvre is limited by grand social forces that are out of our control

The all-out assault launched by Lady Thatcher’s governments were a product of their time: they simply would not have been possible a decade earlier. That is not simply counter-factual history. Before the then-Tory leader Ted Heath unexpectedly won the 1970 general election, he and his Shadow Cabinet met at Selsdon Park to draw up a blueprint for a free-market counter-revolution. In an attempt to dismiss them as knuckle-dragging reactionaries, Labour’s Harold Wilson coined the term “Selsdon Man”.

But though victorious at the ballot box, Heath was overwhelmed by reality. “After a reforming start, Ted Heath’s Government... proposed and almost implemented the most radical form of socialism ever contemplated by an elected British Government,” Lady Thatcher would later claim. Hyperbole on her part, but Heath’s government certainly became one giant U-turn, and the miners helped see him off – something the Tories could hardly forget. The potential for what we now call Thatcherism only came when Britain’s economy was convulsed by the collapse of the global Bretton Woods system, the oil shock of 1973, the wave of inflation that swept the Western world, and ever falling rates of profit. Right-wing think-tanks and intellectuals had patiently prepared the ground for decades. Much of the left understood that the consensus was dissolving, and tried to push in a different direction: there were times when it seemed they might even end up the victors. But Thatcherism was a perfectly plausible – and yes, disastrous – consequence of a crisis that had to be resolved on somebody’s terms. It was not the personal crusade of a doggedly determined woman.

The same goes with other consequential figures, both villains and saints. Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on an Alabaman bus in 1955 helped spark the mass civil rights’ movement; but other African-Americans had done this before her, too, when the foundations for this historic struggle were not there.

It was the involvement of millions in sometimes violent struggles that ensured victory

“We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution,” declared Vladimir Lenin in January 1917; a month later, the Russian Tsar was deposed, and by the end of the year the Bolshevik leader would be ruling revolutionary Russia. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand may have been the immediate trigger for the First World War; but a Europe divided into two hostile camps was a tinderbox that was always going to explode. Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela became the figureheads of the Indian and South African causes of freedom; but it was the involvement of millions in sometimes violent struggles that ensured victory.

None of this is to absolve individuals of responsibility, of course. Take Iraq, consumed in blood and chaos after a US-led invasion a decade ago. British involvement was hardly a shock: successive governments calculated that advancing British interests meant subordination to US strategic goals. That doesn’t mean that Tony Blair should not be held to account for the catastrophe that ensued.

It’s comforting for both sides to build hate figures and saints. All of the bitterness and rage of the social devastation unleashed in the 1980s can be concentrated in one easily hatable individual. For Tories – who, after all, have not won a general election for over twenty years – there is the obvious appeal of a new crusading Thatcher-figure to lead them to victory again. But history is not made by a few individuals at the top, however formidable they may be. And for those who want to change the world – in whatever direction – it’s a lesson that has to be learned.