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It isn’t every day that a former Prime Minister dies – and even rarer that we witness the death of one who affected the UK in such a fundamental way as Baroness Thatcher.
As I write this, the outpouring of tributes and discussion of her achievements in the mass media are in full swing – mostly concentrating on what their editors would define as the ‘good’ she did for our country. Most of the TV channels and papers are run by right-wingers, of course – so you can expect them to be dripping with adulation.
However, as I commented on Facebook yesterday evening, street parties broke out in Brixton and Glasgow, celebrating her demise (I understand celebrations took place in Leeds and Liverpool, and possibly many other cities, towns and villages across the UK). They had bands, they have people handing out milk (remember, she was the ‘Milk Snatcher’ before she was PM), they were chanting “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie – dead, dead, dead” and popping champagne.
There was a humour – a sense of wit – about it, not only in what was going on (the milk, for example) but also the locations (there were riots in Brixton during her tenure, and Scotland was where the hated Poll Tax was piloted).
But I said it is also tragic “that a person should do so much harm in her life, and be so hated by the people she was elected to represent – more than 20 years after she left office – that her death is marked by spontaneous celebration and, literally, dancing in the streets”.
That comment thread has now been read by more than 15,000 people (usually I get one or two thousand through my Facebook door). A question I posted has received more than four times as many votes saying she harmed the country as say she improved it (47 – 11).
What DID she achieve?
According to Paul Krugman’s blog, it’s debatable whether she achieved anything, in terms of the economy.
“Thatcher came to power in 1979, and imposed a radical change in policy almost immediately,” he wrote. “But the big improvement in British performance doesn’t really show in the data until the mid-1990s. Does she get credit for a reward so long delayed?”
Good question. In fact, her two-and-a-half terms in office constituted an extremely rocky road for those of us who had to live through them (and I was one)! My opinion is that this is because she was not interested in improving Britain’s NATIONAL prosperity.
No – the Thatcher crusade was ideological. She wanted to thrust her form of Conservatism so far down everybody’s throat that it would take decades for any other way to be accepted – and she succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.
Let’s look at the policies that most clearly demonstrate this ideology.
She sold off Britain’s council houses. The cheap, rented social housing that accommodated those of us who earned the least were sold wholesale during her premiership – and not replaced. Mrs Thatcher is said to have had a dream to create a Britain full of homeowners. Sadly, this is not what happened. Instead, the majority of council houses were sold off to private landlords who then rented them out again – at higher cost. The lack of replacement council houses meant that the country’s poor had no alternative but to rent at the higher level, meaning they had less disposable income than before the sell-off. The rise of housing associations to fill the social housing gap has meant an extra layer of bureaucracy between the tenant and their elected representatives, who can now claim that any abuse of power by landlords is nothing to do with them.
She broke the unions. Some say this was vitally important, as the unions had become too powerful and were able to bring the country to its knees whenever they felt like it, calling strikes on a whim – and there is mileage in this. But it’s also possible to say that business bosses and members of the Thatcher government provoked confrontation in order to justify the erosion of union power – this is certainly true in the case of the mineworkers’ strike of 1984-5. There is an argument that National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor was paid millions of pounds to engineer the confrontation. The result was that the unions were stripped of many of their rights, meaning working people had nobody left to stand up for them in wage negotiations. It is a direct result of this that workers’ wages have risen by just 27 per cent over the last 30 years, while bosses’ salaries have multiplied by 800 per cent, and the gap between the country’s richest and poorest has grown, massively.
She stripped the UK of its manufacturing industries. What can be said about this? Thatcher saw much of Britain’s private industry as uneconomical, unprofitable. She oversaw a switch to service industries and finance – boosting this with bank deregulation. It is this move, which took place in the USA at around the same time, that led to the financial crisis of 2008 and the austerity measures which the current Coalition government is using to hammer the poorest in the modern UK.
She privatised national utilities. The share sell-offs were, on the face of it, intended to make it possible for every British citizen to buy shares in the companies that provided power, telecommunications, water and so on. In practice, the poorest couldn’t afford it, and those on middle incomes saw the shares as a short-term investment, believing they would be able to sell their shares on for many times the amount they paid, a few months later. This has led to the vast majority of shares in the privatised utilities falling into the hands of – you guessed it – the very, very rich. Another publicised intention of the sell-off was that, as private companies, these organisations would deliver a better service at a lower price. This was a fantasy; it never materialised. Look at British Rail (which I admit was privatised after Mrs Thatcher left office, but is a great example of the trend): Not only do users pay much more for their tickets now than when it was publicly-owned, but the subsidy paid to the private rail companies by the government has multiplied massively as well. Result: Rich shareholders become very much richer. Poor users struggle to cope with rising prices.
Can you spot the trend here?
She changed taxation to make the poor pay more. I refer, of course, to the infamous Poll Tax. Mrs Thatcher claimed in 1989 that a flat-rate tax for local services – with everybody, rich or poor, paying the same amount – was fairer. The public – who had already been fooled by the council housing sell-off, the public utility sell-off and the breaking of the unions, and were therefore sick of being hoodwinked – claimed otherwise and refused to pay. The public won and Mrs Thatcher was consigned to the waste basket of politics soon after. The current Coalition government is working hard to ensure that this policy is carried out, with the so-called ‘Pickles Poll Tax’ – the council tax support scheme that ensures everybody pays council tax. Meanwhile, efforts to ensure the rich pay less are going ahead, with Corporation Tax cut by a quarter during the lifetime of this Parliament, and the ‘Millionaires’ Tax Break’ cutting the top rate of Income Tax from 50p in the pound to 45p.
She kept Britain out of the Euro (or more accurately, European Monetary Union). This was her one sensible policy, history has proved. There is much to be said in favour of a free-trading zone where countries can trade amongst themselves at favourable rates – but monetary union cannot be a workable part of that, when the countries involved are at hugely varying stages of development. Mrs Thatcher was right to oppose it and the fact that the UK is not mired in the current Eurozone crisis, except as a member of the EU with trading interests to protect, is to her credit.
By now, dear reader, you are probably wondering how Mrs Thatcher lasted so long, if her policies were all so divisive, and so clearly trained on impoverishing the lower classes. The answer is simple: She was excellent at public relations. The fact that she was the UK’s first-ever female Prime Minister was a huge publicity boost for her, and she built on it by nurturing an image of herself as ‘The Iron Lady’ – a Prime Minister of firm convictions who knew that what she was doing was absolutely right for Britain (“Right for the goolies of Britain,” as Graeme Garden joked on Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue at the time). The PR-reliance was clear from the start – the Conservative Party hired the Saatchi & Saatchi agency to run its 1979, 1983 and 1987 election campaigns. It is notable that this partnership dissolved during the 87 campaign and Thatcher’s premiership ran out of steam shortly afterwards.
To sum up, I’ll leave you with the comment I placed on the New York Times website, in response to that paper’s piece about Mrs Thatcher’s death:
“Having lived through the Thatcher years and the changes her government perpetrated on British society, allow me to assure you that there is little reason to heap praise upon her.
“The entire thrust of her thinking was to ensure that the rich and powerful became richer and more powerful, and the poor – especially those with intelligence and/or ability – would be denied any chance of prosperity or success.
“What’s the American Dream all about? Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness? Everybody created equal, with opportunity for each according to their ability or achievement, regardless of social class or circumstances of birth? The Thatcher government is a rejection of all those aspirations, as is the current Cameron government, which is its natural successor.
“The Thatcher government deprived people of their liberty by creating a large underclass of unemployed people and using the threat of unemployment to depress workers’ wages.
“As a result, they did not have the disposable funds to take advantage of the sell-offs of national utilities such as British Gas and British Telecom.
“She sold social housing but did not build any to replace it.
“She used the police as a tool of political repression, rather than as guardians of the law.
“She used taxation in a similar manner, crippling the poor with punitive measures such as the hated Poll Tax – a flat-rate charge, effectively a tax cut for the rich, but a huge tax hike for the poor.
“That was her fatal error, of course.”
Goodbye, Baroness Thatcher. Hopefully your passing will trigger a reassessment of your career, so that we can all move on from the political nightmare your policies created for the vast majority of middle- and working-class people whose only political mistake lay in entrusting their future to you.