any Chartist readers will remember where
they were the day Margaret Thatcher first came to power on
4th May 1979. I don’t because I wasn’t born.
For those of us who weren’t around then, the pre-Thatcher
era is the stuff of legend. It’s a time when the government
owned most of the economy and taxed the rich until ‘the
pips squeaked’. Trade unions were both legally permitted
and practically capable of both bringing the country to a
standstill or even bringing down the government and no male
left-wing politician would be seen dead without a generous
helping of facial hair. Rumour has it that some people even
thought comprehensive schools were a good thing.
While, from a historical point of view we know it happened,
it’s very difficult for my generation, even those of
us who are politically engaged, to get our heads round what
it must’ve been like.
Thatcher changed everything. Or so the legend goes. In reality,
Thatcher herself only changed some things. A more accurate
interpretation of events would be that the world changed
and Thatcher and her monetarist cronies did their bits to
make sure Britain felt those changes in a more brutal and
extreme way than many other countries in the world.
Some things would have happened even if Thatcher had lost
in 1979. Rightly or wrongly, the shift away from the social
democratic consensus was started under the 1974-1979 Labour
government. It was Tony Crosland who told local authorities
that ‘the party’s over’. It was Jim Callaghan
who said that you can’t spend your way out of recession.
Growing up in the 1980s it genuinely seemed that Thatcher
had been Prime Minister forever. The Conservative Party and ‘the
government’ were synonymous. A general election was
something that happened every for years and the result was
a Conservative victory.
As I was growing up in the socialist republic of Haringey,
which while run by the late Bernie Grant, may have considered
declaring independence if the geography had been more favourable,
all our mums and dads supported Labour, so it was slightly
surprising when an election came round and Labour lost.
I remember spending a sizeable part of my childhood chanting ‘Maggie,
Maggie, Maggie, Out, Out, Out’. Whether these chants
were directed at the TV screen or were part of a chorus of
disgruntled teachers at an NUT rally my dad had taken me
along to they helped to make me what I am today.
My classmates and I are Thatcher’s children but it
is important to remember that a significant number, if not
a majority, of Thatcher’s children grew up hating her.
In fact, at Junior school we hated Thatcher almost as much
as we hated Ms Aplin, the headteacher who hated boys so much
that she banned us from playing football in the playground.
And obviously politics was considerably less important than
playground football to us at the time but, on the rare occasions
when we thought about it, Thatcher was our Hitler, an all
encompassing hate figure who could be blamed for everything
from the fact that school toilets were falling to bits, to
somebody’s mum getting a terminal illness.
We can’t have been isolated cases. None of the Thatcher
governments secured anywhere near a majority of the votes
at a general election. And given the Iron Lady’s disproportionate
popularity with the elderly, a large majority of kids must
have grown up in anti-Thatcher households. Okay, some people
must have grown up with parents who supported the evil David
Owen but most of them have probably recovered by now.
But whether or not Thatcher was wanted, she was incontrovertibly
there, casting her diminutive shadow over more or less everything.
So for Thatcher’s Children, the politically conscious
ones at least, she was the benchmark both in terms of what
could be expected from government and what could be expected
The Thatcher style is the way that I expect politicians
to behave. As Thatcher staked her reputation on the disastrous
poll tax and continued to defend it, even as it took her
to her political grave, so Tony Blair with his policy on
the war in Iraq. It’s clearly a disaster, yet he keeps
on defending it and that doesn’t surprise me because
that’s what politicians do.
While in depth assessment of specific policies is best left
to Thatcher’s many biographers, it is safe to say that
with a neo-liberal wind at her sails, she redefined the terms
of the political debate.
On the issue of privatisation, for example, we have seen
one dogma exchanged for another. When Thatcher came to power
and for much of her time in office, privatisation of key
public services was, so the history books tell me, seen as
unthinkable. Now any solutions to the problems of public
services other than those offered by the private sector are
rejected out of hand.
The Major government is derided for its botched privatisation
of the railways but nothing like as much as should be, because
by the time Major assumed the controls, privatisation was
the prevailing orthodoxy.
This orthodoxy also includes the belief that ‘choice’ is
axiomatically a good thing and that ‘tax and spend’ is
a bad thing, or at best is very risky. The idea that taxing
the rich more, with the stated aim of making the poor richer
and therefore delivering a happier, more cohesive society
is for many political commentators, even those on the ‘centre-left’ not
too far away from David Icke’s suggestion that the
world is run by lizards.
It could well be argued that, while they’d embraced
Keynes for pragmatic reasons in the post-war era, many Tories
were always instinctive neo-liberals. If this is true then
Thatcher’s crowning glory may be, as she has reportedly
said herself, the creation of the beast that is new Labour.
During recent discussion of the Thatcher legacy, on Radio
4’s Westminster Hour, former Labour leader, now European
Commissioner, Neil Kinnock, gave his verdict on the woman
he faced across the despatch box for seven years.
Kinnock defiantly claimed that he didn’t see any positive
effects of the Thatcher years and that the Iron Lady had
been responsible for falling investment, increased poverty
and the destruction of manufacturing.
While it’s a relief that at least one Labour figure
from the 1980s still remembers what he was fighting against,
Kinnock would be hard pressed to refute claims that a major
part of the Thatcher legacy was the ‘new’ Labour
party that he was instrumental in fashioning.
Speaking as part of the same feature, the academic John
Gray pointed to the irony that, while Thatcher had changed
everything (or at least enabled everything to change) the
society that Thatcherism has created is probably very different
to the society that Thatcher herself would choose to live
Gray believes that Thatcher, personally at least, never
lost her belief in the staid, socially conservative society
of the 1950s, with its traditional family values and its
hanging and flogging.
There’s definitely some evidence for the belief that
neo-liberal Britain was a runaway train that the Conservative
neo-liberals started but had no idea how to control. John
Major’s back to basics yearning for warm beer and cricket
on the village green was hilariously anachronistic.
Thatcherite economic policy, continued by Major, with its ‘no
more jobs for life’ and supply-side obsessions has
created a fragmented, individualistic society. The Tories
weakening of the state (in terms of its economic role) by
necessity has made Britain less powerful and important and
given priority to the global marketplace.
In this context, the Tories, with their old-fashioned stuffiness
and obsession with ‘national sovereignty’ particularly
with regard to Europe, were probably never going to be the
right people to provide technocratic administration in Thatcher’s
What was needed was a new political project that would embrace
neo-liberal economics and swallow the new orthodoxies but
would also be able to feel at ease in the society that the
orthodoxies had created. A society where, to an extent the
fact that you happened to be gay, Asian or married with kids
can happily be ignored as long as you’re rich. A political
project that put equality of opportunity at the top of its
agenda and seemed like it meant it.
New Labour is the continuation, perhaps even the natural
consolidation of Thatcherism. That’s not to say that
a new Labour government is necessarily worse than a Conservative
one but that their fundamental worldviews are essentially
the same. The same could perhaps be said of Conservative
and Labour governments of the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Either way if New Labour, in its present form, remains the
dominant voice on the British centre-left then Thatcher will
have won. But there are plenty of signs that this might not
be the case for too long. Ken Livingstone’s return
to the Labour Party suggests that Blair, against his better
judgement, has realised that dissenting voices can’t
simply be silenced. And the widespread anger within the party
over measures such as foundation hospitals and tuition fees
is another hint that the leader cannot continue to simply
impose right-wing policy from above.
But while rejecting unpopular right-wing policies may be
a good thing, it is vital that the left, both inside and
outside the Labour party actually begins to build and promote
viable alternatives. Thatcher’s children may not be
able to understand what life was like before the Iron Lady
came to power but one thing that we know for sure is that
we can’t go back there.
While opposing Thatcherism was right and opposing most of
Blairism is equally right, it is vitally important that the
modern left engages with the world we’ve got, rather
than the world older comrades would ideally have created
had Thatcherism not happened. And that’s the difficult