Thatcherism was a national catastrophe that still poisons us

We are in the midst of the third great economic collapse since the Second World War: all three have taken place since Thatcherism launched its great crusade

Share

In the war led by Margaret Thatcher’s governments – against the left, the trade unions, the post-war consensus – her side was crushingly, devastatingly, humiliatingly victorious.

In the coming days, some on the right will attempt to snuff out criticism of her legacy, arguing that it is somehow disrespectful, spiteful or ghoulish. Absurd, of course: she was a politician – the most divisive in modern British history – and what she represented must of course be debated. They will use the moment of her passing to batter Thatcherism into the national psyche: that she somehow saved Britain from ruin, put the “great” back into “Great Britain”, and so forth. Those who grew up in the Britain that Thatcher built will be patronised: you were still learning how to walk at the height of her power. And that is why it is crucial to separate Thatcherism from the woman who spearheaded it.

Thatcherism was a national catastrophe, and we remain trapped by its consequences. As her former Chancellor Geoffrey Howe put it: “Her real triumph was to have transformed not just one party but two, so that when Labour did eventually return, the great bulk of Thatcherism was accepted as irreversible.”

We are in the midst of the third great economic collapse since the Second World War: all three have taken place since Thatcherism launched its great crusade. This current crisis has roots in the Thatcherite free market experiment, which wiped out much of the country’s industrial base in favour of a deregulated financial sector.

A poisoned “debate” about social security rages in Cameron’s Britain. It focuses on the idea that there are large numbers of people stuck on benefits. It is certainly true that there were more people languishing in long-term unemployment last year than there were in all forms of unemployment 40 years ago. In large part, this is a consequence of Thatcherism’s emptying communities of millions of secure, skilled industrial jobs. Large swathes of Britain – mining villages, steel towns and so on – were devastated, and never really recovered. Even when Britain was supposedly booming, the old industrial heartlands had high levels of what is rather clinically described as “economic inactivity”.

Five million people now languish on social housing waiting lists, while billions of pounds of housing benefit line the pockets of private landlords charging rip-off rents. The scarcity of housing turns communities against each other, as immigrants or anyone deemed less deserving are scapegoated. But the guilt really lies with the Thatcherite policy of right-to-buy and failure to replace the stock that was sold off.

Champions of Thatcherism hail the crippling of the trade unions, which were battered by anti-union laws, mass unemployment, and crushing defeats of strikes, not least after the rout of the iconic miners. This has not only left workers at the mercy of their bosses, but has made them poorer, too. Four years before the crisis began, the income of the bottom half was stagnating, while for the bottom third it actually began to decline – even as corporations were posting record profits. With no unions to stand their corner, workers’ living standards have long been squeezed – driving large numbers to cheap credit.

We could go on. Britain was one of the most equal Western European countries before the Thatcherite project began, and is now one of the most unequal.  Thatcherism is not just alive and well: it courses through the veins of British political life. The current government goes where Thatcherism did not dare in its privatisation of the NHS and sledgehammering of the welfare state.

The challenge ahead is the same as it was yesterday: to tear down the whole edifice of Thatcherism, heal Britain of the damage done, and build a country run in the interests of working people. It’s a fight we must all fight. The champagne is on ice until we win it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness