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Godmother of Blairism

25 years after she came to power, the Iron lady casts a dark shadow over British politics says David Floyd

Many 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 from politicians.

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 in.

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 promised land.

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 bit.