Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Thatcher: the cant and the reality

As in life, so in death.  For those of us whose political formations are a direct response to the Thatcher years, the ambiguities and the legacy are sufficient to make the hagiography and censorship practised by the Tory lickspittles as, if not more, contemptible than the celebrations of the ultra-left.

Anyone's death is sad, but an inevitable consequence of the human condition.  The attempted canonisation of Thatcher demonstrates that it should really be reserved for the self-imposed elite - a similar and hysterical response was shown by Blair and his maven chorus around the death of the Princess of Wales.  Thatcher was 87, her personal decline and political withdrawal means that her death  is principally a private matter - thankfully the boy Mark is not incarcerated for inciting African coups.

From Cameron's crocodile sycophancy, you would consider that the world has lost a leader of immense stature.  There were undoubtedly worse Prime Ministers in the UK during the 20th century - Bonar Law, Douglas-Home and Lord Salisbury spring to mind - but there were equally great leaders in the form of Asquith, Attlee, Lloyd George and even, arguably, Baldwin and Macmillan.  None of these people were given the full funereal works that she is to be bestowed with (and ironically, paid for mostly by the state that she despised so much).

Then there are the myths peddled about her unique achievements.  When she took office in 1979, there was sufficient goodwill for actions to arrest the perceived decline of the previous decade, much of which had been precipitated by a combination of inept government under Heath and Wilson and the impact of external economic shocks.  Some of the changes implemented in the first Thatcher administration, for example, improving trade union democracy, have stood the test of time - but it should not be forgotten that many of the more sensible policies would have been introduced by a much less divisive government.

Thatcher was in thrall to a particularly toxic brand of economic and social determinism.  Her devotion to a misreading and a misappropriation of Hayek, filtered through Keith Joseph and the Institute of Economic Affairs, meant that whatever positive changes were implemented were achieved against a background of human and communal tragedies - mass unemployment and the deification of the "market" led to riots and the expansion of the economically-excluded.  The irony is that one of the 1980s Tory mendacities, the shifting of social security from unemployment to disability payments (massaging the headline statistics downward) is now being cited by Duncan Smith as a drain on the state - her death occurred on the day when the privatised benefits system further reduces citizens' expectations from the state.

This neo-conservative, pro-American positioning has defined British politics ever since - hardly surprising when she regarded Blair as her most successful legacy.  There is now very little room for discourse that does not accept the pro-market, anti-state position as being the default, and the exclusion of socially-based, communal politics is probably one of the reasons why there have been at least some street parties to celebrate her demise.  Exclude people and their reaction is inevitably both ugly and unacceptable to the mavens of Tory decency.

There are too many uncomfortable facts about the gap between the Thatcherite rhetoric and reality for much rational consideration to be taking place at the moment.  Despite disposing of capital assets for short-term capital injection (the late 1980s privatisation programme remains one of criminal irresponsibility) the share of national income accounted for by the state increased in all bar two years of the Thatcher government.  Britain's economic performance, despite supply-side reforms, lagged behind other countries - and, instead of using the windfall of North Sea Oil tax revenues to create a sovereign wealth fund as other oil exporters managed it was used to bankroll mass unemployment while keeping the exchange rate at such a level that the manufacturing base was severely reduced.

Perhaps history will judge the first administration better than the next two.  Her apologists try to put forward the hypothesis that she won three landslide victories.  The working majority of 1979 was a far greater achievement in terms of votes than the obscene distortions of democracy that occurred in 1983 and 1987 when Tory votes and share declined but majorities increased - an inspiration to Blair and the creation of the democratic deficit that we labour under today.  By 1983, and the purge of the remaining Tory "wets" it was clear that this was neither a necessary correction to the UK's relative decline nor a genuine attempt to shift the grounds of debate.  Instead, social and economic policy can best be encapsulated as authoritarian snoutage.

The destruction of social capital and coherence that commenced in the 1970s with the impact of inflation and the end of economic growth was stoked and accelerated in the 1980s.  The mettropolitan elites and the moneyed classes were, as now, largely immune from the impacts - but the legacy lies on in the deindustrialised, deskilled regions that used to be the engines of the economy but are now dismissed by Tory scribblers as the periphery - encapsulating both hopelessness and resentment at the contempt demonstrated by the current administration.  It was short-sighted and criminal under the Thatcher administration, it remains so today.  The Tories emasculated local government and then introduced the Poll Tax - hardly an inspiring legacy and one that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

To argue that all Thatcherism was necessary is amoral and lazy.  Supply-side changes could have been implemented in the framework of a managed transition and a growth strategy, rather than assuming that the market god would gimmick the balanced and sustainable social and economic fabric that the state should promote.  Some policies, even some privatisation, such as the telecommunications sector, were right, but this was more by luck than principle.  Pragmatism and common sense were jettisoned in favour of ideological monetarism, whose central tenets were soon found wanting in practice, but which inspires the current incompetent at the Exchequer to new depths of folly.

Thatcher's legacy has been the toxification of politics.  Her willingness to take sole responsibility for the idiocies means that the obituaries are reflective of this rampant egomania, which now hides the Tory complicity within the process.  The regicide in 1990, when her direct influence was curtailed, has been airbrushed out by the toadies whose enthusiasm for her views in death has been reinforced.  She was taken down by her own side, which speaks volumes about the continued ability of the right to consume each other.  Major, Blair, Osborne, Cameron, Clegg and countless others are obvious children of the Thatcherite period - all people without the imagination or the confidence to deny the legacy.

This personalisation of politics will also damage her reputation in retrospect - the celebrity Prime Minister (introduced by Wilson's attempt to cover himself in glory with the Beatles and England's footballers) is subject to the vagaries of current and retrospective taste.  The correspondence with Jimmy Savile (revealed under the 30-year rule) is not as evil as the collaboration and apologism for Pinochet, but revealed persistent lack of judgement.  As an aside, it was interesting to note that her successor as Tory MP for Finchley, Mike Freer, was equally vociferous in sticking up for dictators' rights, in this case Gadaffi's property.  A true Thatcherite never lets morality get in the way of capitalism.

In the end, it must be remembered that she did not act alone, and therefore an active celebration of her demise is in questionable taste and ineffective.  The removal of the lodestone of neo-con idiocy and immorality will be far more effectively used if there is a real challenge to the orthodoxy under which we exist today.  Thatcherism is an insidious and irrelevant sideshow in the modern world, and the issues for tomorrow are much more complex and less deterministic.  The last Stalinist has gone.

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