Thatcher is dead, Thatcherism persists

From the new May-June 2013 issue of News & Letters:

Thatcher is dead, Thatcherism persists

London, England–They gathered openly, in the streets, in the hundreds. They shouted. They cheered. Flags were waved, music was played. Yet this was not just another Belfast parade in the name of Republican pride. Far from death being a solemn occasion, the demise of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the so-called “Iron Lady,” was a cause for celebration.

Some may, with good reason, find the celebration of any death to be in bad taste. As a self-proclaimed man of the “centre left,” former Prime Minister Tony Blair lashed out against such celebrations, as did the current leader of the Labour Party opposition, Ed Miliband. And yet what prompted people to come cheering out into the streets in places as distant as Glasgow, Brixton, Belfast and Bristol warrants attention.

Plenty of others have gone into great detail on the full catalogue of Thatcher’s crimes, from the crushing of the National Union of Mineworkers to her cozying up with dictators of all stripes, even supporting the vile, racist regime of South African apartheid. On this score alone, it seems inevitable that Thatcher’s death would hardly be mourned by a great many people.

THE PERSONIFICATION OF CAPITAL

But what is vitally important is to see these abhorrent policies for what they are–not the product of a deranged personality now gone, but the product of a political and economic system in its own right.

Thatcher is said to have had conviction. Granted, she had a certain determination as to be able to identify enemies and go after them. Whether that was trade unionists, ethnic minorities, Argentinean soldiers or even leftists suffering and dying in the prisons of Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, Thatcher certainly made her mark. Unfortunately for those looking to elevate her to sainthood, the experience, as any impartial observer would agree, was entirely negative.

And yet successive governments, even ones formed by the allegedly pro-worker Labour Party, not only have seen fit to fall into line in paying their respects to the now departed “leader,” but have retained many of her policies for their own benefit.

Take the infamous anti-trade union laws. The attempts to settle scores with the British trade union movement, which in 1972 humiliated the Conservative Party and played a part in the 1974 electoral defeat of Prime Minister Ted Heath, led to an attempt to bind so-called out of control unions to the state. The backdrop to such a move culminated in the famous Miners’ strike of 1984-85, when pit closures and sackings were met by mass strike action from Scotland to South Wales.

The miners, despite heroic resistance, were ultimately defeated, in part via massed ranks of riot police–some now reputed to have actually been soldiers drafted in and draped in police uniform–in brutal confrontations such as the now infamous Battle of Orgreave. Such locales to this day are hotbeds of anti-Thatcherite sentiment, and yet the anti-union laws that followed remain in force, in the process binding British trade unions to an assortment of confused and bureaucratic measures, outlawing secondary picketing and even threatening unions with the seizure of strike funds should they fail to comply.

BLAIR CONTINUES THATCHERISM

Just prior to gaining the Prime Minister’s office in 1997, Tony Blair, as an alleged man of labour, worked hard to reassure all concerned that such anti-union practices were here to stay. The soon-to-be Prime Minister, who now stands as one of the most hated men ever to come out of the Labour Party, wrote in Rupert Murdoch’s The Timesthat even after “the changes we do propose, British laws on trade unions will remain the most restrictive in the western world.”

Jump ahead and we have yet another Conservative administration hell-bent on enforcing the kind of “free market,” finance-friendly and big business policies Thatcher upheld. In foreign policy, the days of making alliances of convenience with human rights abusers, so ably demonstrated in the case of Thatcher and Pinochet–whom she credited following his 1998 arrest for human rights abuses as having “brought democracy to Chile”–have been continued.

Indeed, Britain maintains strong relations with a number of states well known for violating international human rights law, from the current governments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Indonesia to the autocratic House of Saud; the latter pair being favored customers for the UK arms industry. Additionally, in 2011 former Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his capacity as an “advisor” allegedly on how to win the Nobel Peace Prize, picked up a paycheck of 13 million pounds from President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, a nation that journalist and author Nick Cohen describes as an “oil-rich dictatorship, which shoots strikers, burns the offices of opposition parties and kills their leaders.”

In this sense it’s difficult to find a point where “Thatcherism” ceased to exist as a political practice, whether the Iron Lady herself was in or out of office. Now that she has ceased to be, celebrations may seem premature, assuming of course we are not merely celebrating the death of an individual, but the end of a form of politics that brought misery and suffering to millions.

–Dan Read

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