Thatcher and Thatcherism – Don’t let them re-write history

Dave Kellaway reflects on Thatcher’s death.


If we need yet another argument about why we must put our political energies into building a fighting alternative to One Nation Labour then compare and contrast these statements on the death of Margaret Thatcher:

Ed Miliband MP, Leader of the Opposition, said: “I send my deep condolences to Lady Thatcher’s family, in particular Mark and Carol Thatcher.

“She will be remembered as a unique figure. She reshaped the politics of a whole generation. She was Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. She moved the centre ground of British politics and was a huge figure on the world stage.

“The Labour Party disagreed with much of what she did and she will always remain a controversial figure. But we can disagree and also greatly respect her political achievements and her personal strength.

“She also defined the politics of the 1980s. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and I all grew up in a politics shaped by Lady Thatcher. We took different paths but with her as the crucial figure of that era.

“She coped with her final, difficult years with dignity and courage. Critics and supporters will remember her in her prime.”

Ken Loach, promoter of new Left Unity movement stated:

Margaret Thatcher was the most divisive and destructive Prime Minister of modern times. Mass Unemployment, factory closures, communities destroyed – this is her legacy. She was a fighter and her enemy was the British working class. Her victories were aided by the politically corrupt leaders of the Labour Party and of many Trades Unions. It is because of policies begun by her that we are in this mess today.Other prime ministers have followed her path, notably Tony Blair. She was the organ grinder, he was the monkey. Remember she called Mandela a terrorist and took tea with the torturer and murderer Pinochet. How should we honour her? Let’s privatise her funeral. Put it out to competitive tender and accept the cheapest bid. It’s what she would have wanted.

Here we have one leader who is participating with minor, unvoiced criticisms, in the mystification of history that contributes to preventing working people knowing the truth about the past and how it has created the present. Then there is another who in a few straightforward sentences explains the role Thatcher played as a leader of her class and how the Labour leadership, particularly Tony Blair, collaborated in embedding Thatcherite neo-liberalism as the ‘common sense’ of British political life.

It is strangely appropriate that the successful impact of Ken’s film, the Spirit of ’45, has taken place at the very time of Thatcher’s demise. The importance of the social gains of the workers’ movement is re-asserted while everyone is talking about the person most responsible for leading the ruling class offensive to reverse those gains now deemed too costly for the profit-making of the capitalist system. Furthermore the current welfare debate, with the obscene manipulation of the Philpott domestic violence case to justify further cuts, fits entirely within the continuity of that offensive. It is no surprise that Cameron, abetted by most of the press and TV, will milk the whole event to repeatedly present a version of history that identifies even social democratic gains, embodied in state social welfare or collective provision, as a barrier to economic growth, individual opportunity and freedom.

Unsurprisingly the Daily Mail is collating all the ‘hateful’ comments against Thatcher including news of people publicly partying. Tory MPs are denouncing anyone ‘celebrating’ as drunken louts and even Tom Watson, the Labour MP and hammer of Murdoch, has warned off the left from criticising. If Cameron and the political class had for one moment dealt with the passing of Thatcher as a private matter and gave simple condolences there might be some sort of justification for a temporary political truce. However from the start Cameron referred to Thatcher dealing with the trade union barons and being a great defender of freedom.

Every so-called documentary history of her life, endlessly repeated on TV, assumes a narrative that is intensely ideological. For example we are always told about the chaos of the winter of discontent (1978/9) caused by the unions who supposedly ruled the land and the lack of competitiveness of British industry. No trade unionists from the time are ever interviewed to explain why they were in struggle you just get images of undug graves and blokes huddled around braziers. No links are ever systematically made between the current recession where the weight of the financial sector in the British economy, as Will Hutton in the Observer is always pointing out, actually further exacerbates it. Thatcher was the first to deregulate the financial sector and let any temporary lossmaking industry go to the wall. What the media does not explain is that Thatcher was extremely useful for the ruling class because she understood better than some of its more patrician representatives such as Ted Heath, what the class struggle was all about.

Imbibing the theories of Hayek and others she knew that while union barons were clearly not running the country the basic level of working class resistance on a day to day basis had become an obstacle to re-establishing a higher rate of profit. She knew that capital had to re-organise itself by destroying some of its industries which had too low a rate of profit. Above all she knew that all this was not a technical operation but required political will and an iron fist. Hence she organised the police in a new way to effectively fight the miners. She knew something about the relationship of class forces that was missing from the mindset of the whole reformist labour or trade union leadership (apart from the honourable exception of Scargill who perhaps had other failings). The latter certainly was correct when he said that the working class needed the sort of vigorous leadership that Thatcher gave to her class.

Thankfully the degree of her attacks, the changed economic context and the continuity of a radical left tradition does mean that the TV/Tory/Labourist picture is not going unchallenged. Interviews with miners like Pete Mansell from the Rotheram mining area cut through the Miliband/Harman niceties with crystal-clear analysis:

“It was class war, the people above us didn’t want us to win. The people with money didn’t want ust to win. If we had won, they wouldn’t be able to get away with what they are doing now, cutting benefits for disabled people and things like that. The unions would have stopped them. But we lost.”

If working people’s reaction includes a bit of tasteless ‘celebration’ which can be a bit unpolitical then so be it. Don’t ever think she was a tasteful, caring human being who gave a toss about what political enemies thought of her. If only some of our so-called leaders had had some of the same steel during key events like the miners’ strike. Remember Kinnock used Scargill’s tactics as an excuse and cover to refuse any real official support from Labour for the miners. Not a small matter since the whole Thatcher legacy hangs much more on the defeat of the miners than anything else such as the Falklands war or privatisations. Blairism was solidly based on those defeats and his selling of a plausible ‘modernising’ ideology – ditching clause IV which on paper still committed Labour to nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy.

Despite her condemnation of feminism as ‘poison’ and her refusal to support any demands furthering women’s liberation or equality the objective fact that she was the first woman prime minister undeniably objectively shifted ideology about the role women could play in politics or public life. Just as Obama, despite his murderous drone policies internationally, his failure to really reform health provision and the relatively unchanged position of African Americans, has changed the way black people see themselves and white people see Black people in politics. History and politics develop in a messy, paradoxical way sometimes.

During the time running up to the £8 million quasi-state funeral the left should continue to participate in all the discussions on the Thatcher legacy and most important focus on Thatcherism rather than the person alone. There are breaches in the hagiography – there is a rumour that the Telegraph or Mail had to close down the comments on one of their articles because of the abuse it was received. The Twittersphere and the web has thousands of people refusing to share the official view. The legacy is still active and is seen in the continued rule of the banks and the further dismantling of the post-war settlement. Opposition to Thatcher can be linked to campaigning against the Bedroom tax or building support for re-appropriating the best of the Spirit of 45 in initiatives like the June 22nd Peoples Assembly. Building Left Unity (, alongside Ken Loach and 7000 others as a new non-sectarian focus for the radical class struggle left, is another useful way forward.

Those of us who lived through Thatcher’s premiership have a responsibility to counter the travesty of the historical record being presented by the pundits and politicians on the TV, Press and Radio. Personally I will never forget how long the miners struggled and the strength of the support groups up and down the country. It is the human connection and its memory that can resist the vicissitudes of history and keep the flame burning for new generations.

  1. Good article. At a Billy Bragg concert last night, he commented on the fact that “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” was climbing on the British music charts. Bragg played that song from the soundtrack of the Wizard of Oz to open his show
    The ruling class can’t rewrite history if popular and working class cultures reproduce in its many forms the real meaning and meaness of Thatcher. Best line on her death: “Iron Lady? Rust in pieces.”

  2. I like the comments on the “Winter of Discontent” and the statement that the right-wing interpretation of that has now become “fact”. It’s interesting to note that, in an era when ecological breakdown due to climate change is creeping up on us, while all around are promoting capitalist “growth” as the “cure” for the financial meltdown, it has been calculated that the late 1970’s were the period when “welfare” of the population in a whole series of western capitalist countries was at its highest (see ISEW at the Friends of the Earth web site). Of course, the measure used is still arbitrary, but it has more validity than GDP as a measure of “well being” of the masses. The massive growth of economic inequality is the most obvious change, but also the decline of the trades unions has also had a serious effect on working-class control over working conditions, which has a major impact, including on mental and physical health.

    Secondly, I’m not sure I agree that “the whole Thatcher legacy hangs much more on the defeat of the miners than anything else such as the Falklands war or privatisations”. I think that equally important was her international impact, or at least that of the policies she represented. That can be gauged by the “tributes” of old reactionary imperialists like Kissinger, Weinberger, as well as Gorbachev, of course. The first sign of that impact was her victory in the Malvinas war in June 1982, handed to her on a plate by Foot and the Labour Party. This emboldened the programme of imperialist intervention world-wide, rolling back the “Vietnam syndrome” and making it less hazardous politically for Reagan to invade Grenada, use terrorism to undermine the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and provide covert support for the mujaheddin in Afghanistan. The latter, of course, had a major impact, helping to bring down the USSR and restore capitalism in its former territories.

    A “counterfactual” account of what might have occurred had Labour reacted to the Malvinas the way they did to Suez, would be very informative.

    Finally, I can’t help quoting this little bit from today’s Guardian, just to show the lovely “ironic” sense of humour of the ruling class:

    “By last year, Lady Thatcher had become too ill to visit the Powells’ sprawling villa near Rome, but she visited every summer for several years before that.

    “Lord Powell would take her to pick cherries from the trees on their land. It became a standing joke between the two that he would pay her the Italian minimum wage for the time she put in, but that she had to give him back an amount sufficient to cover her social security contribution.”


  3. Good point about commonsense notions of growth. A gap in the article was about her international role and impact, I was more focussed on the debate taking place in Britain which has tended to be more on national issues. I still think the Miners defeat was crucial and more important than the Malvinas/Falklands one because it fundamentally changed the relationship of forces between the classes. A miners’ victory could well have led to Thatcher’s resignation/tory party removal or electoral defeat. Unions may then have resisted the privatisations and anti-trade union laws changed. Who knows? Also I don’t think the US needs any examples from the UK to help justify their intervention – the US had already been fomenting armed opposition in Nicaragua for some time.
    What is interesting since the article was written is the way Thatcher’s death has produced a little mobilisation of the left/ progressives, even if it is only in terms of debates and discussions at workplaces or socially. The numbers of Labour MPs who shunned the debate, the Ding Dong song, Glenda Jackson’s intervention and the 3000 strong Trafalgar square rally with Miners participation are all positive. It will be interesting to see the size of crowds on Wednesday. We have seen no huge floral tributes or mass signing remembrance books. The Football authorities have prudently decided not to have a minutes silence which would have been breached in most places. Finally a professional polling organisation found 60% of the public against paying for the funeral out of tory funds. As much of the more intelligent mainstream press has noted Cameron’s bigging up of Thatcher means in some ways he loses on both sides – the Tory right compare her decisive class leadership with his own U-turning style and the other modernising tories fear it is making the tory brand more toxic again. We are not in the era of flogging council house or nationalised shares cheap today. People are seeing a link with Maggie’s pro-market policies and the banking/austerity crisis. Possibly explains why the Labour lead is slightly increasing. At the same time Miliband’s clear approval of many of her economic policies have clarified some labour activist’s mines of any illusions they may have left in his more-left-than-Blair positioning. It has been exposed that Miliband could have blocked with Bercow, the speaker, to prevent the expensive recall of parliament last Monday.

  4. correction – it should read in my last comment ‘paying for the funeral out of taxpayers funds ‘ (not Tory funds – although they are treating our money as tory funds here!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.