The death of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher on the day Britain’s Tory-led government introduced major changes to disability benefits which, according to charities, would eventually lead to as many as six hundred thousand disabled people losing state support may be dismissed as a mere coincidence. But they both signify a singular phenomenon of social transformation which has been extremely costly and painful, and which continues more than two decades after Thatcher was forced out of office in 1990. Her funeral with great pomp and ceremony, at an estimated cost of ten million pounds, is in sharp contrast to the effects of her policies to date.
Precisely for this reason, Margaret Thatcher has secured her place in history as one of the most controversial and divisive British prime ministers in living memory. For while destroying her enemies within and without, she dismantled the nation’s industrial base and withdrew the state’s role from the lives of vulnerable members of society, rendering many working class communities beyond recovery. Few were able to buck the trend. The yawning gap between rich and poor in British society today is the result of a particular version of free-market ideology which has come to be known as Thatcherism, and will remain in the political lexicon for a long time. Whether one is her admirer or adversary, it is very hard to deny the significance of Margaret Thatcher.
She was much more a politician of radical free-market ideas instead of a politician of the people. She enjoyed the image of a hard-faced woman with masculinity which placed her above her peers. Admirers who had worked with her sometimes spoke of her warmth in private, but it was to be expected from close associates who owed their positions to her. Since her years as prime minister after the 1979 victory over Labour, Margaret Thatcher’s name stirred strong passions. Following her death, Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party would not stop singing her praise. It was as if Cameron, mindful of his own controversial policies and criticisms from his right-wing MPs for not being radical enough, wanted to use the event to reposition himself suitably.
A special session of parliament was called to “debate” Thatcher’s legacy, just a few days before a session was due in any case, making each MP in attendance about 3,750 pounds richer for a few hours of “work.” On one hand, the governing benches were packed with young, admiring Tory MPs, children of the Thatcher era. On the other, not even half of Labour and other opposition MPs turned up, and many stayed and worked in their constituencies. Labour veteran Michael Meacher, ex-environment minister, persisted amid jeers from the Tory benches: “Too many industries, too many working class communities across the north were laid waste during those years without any alternative and better future to replace what had been lost.”
Another ex-minister Glenda Jackson commented that “Thatcher wreaked the most heinous, social, economic and spiritual damage upon this country,” adding: “a woman? Not on my terms.” Dianne Abbot, a member of the shadow cabinet, spoke of people’s dismay at Thatcher’s insistence on calling the African National Congress a terrorist organization, and about the way the striking miners were crushed and communities devastated. In Glasgow, Bristol and London’s Brixton district, where riots had taken place in the early 1980s, small crowds celebrated Thatcher’s demise. There were further protests in London and elsewhere as the day of her funeral drew closer. However, as immediate surveys indicate, many Britons remain ambivalent, more than twenty years after Thatcher was toppled in a party coup. As for the performance of Conservative MPs, a headline in the Independent newspaper said: “ They came, they gushed, they left no cliché unturned.”
Thatcherism was a phenomenon caused and sustained by a number of factors. She became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975, winning the 1979 general election at the end of a decade of international and domestic crises. The oil embargo and fourfold rise in energy prices had hit the British economy hard. At home, the Labour government of Prime Minister James Callaghan was barely functioning with the Liberal Party’s support in parliament. Outside, Callaghan was battling the trade unions, angry at his policy of income restraint amid high inflation, and the Left in his own party. What came to be known as the “winter of discontent” finally prompted the withdrawal of Liberal support, bringing down the Labour government followed by defeat in the 1979 general election.
Margaret Thatcher also had a piece of luck, twice, when she was in deep trouble. In 1982, the Argentine military junta, committing a huge miscalculation, invaded the disputed territory of the Falkland Islands (Argentina calls them the Malvinas) with a population of around 1,500 people in the South Atlantic. It is said that not one of Britain’s military commanders thought that Britain could win the Falklands back. Thatcher sent a naval armada and, with support of the United States under President Ronald Reagan and Chile under General Augusto Pinochet, defeated the Argentine forces against odds. Information that has emerged since tells us what a close run thing the Falklands War of 1982 was. Then in 1984-1985 came the miners’ strike at home.
Arthur Scargill, the National Union of Miners leader who took on Thatcher, was the “enemy within,” just as General Leopoldo Galtieri, leader of Argentina’s military junta, was the “enemy without.” Scargill also miscalculated, determined to go ahead with the walkout despite misgivings among other union leaders about the government’s preparedness, and the union’s lack thereof. A trade union leader with an authoritarian and impetuous instinct on the political Left, Scargill represented the other extreme. There could only be one strong-willed figure left standing. After one of the most bitter industrial disputes in living memory, the victory was Thatcher’s. It was the beginning of the end of the coal mining, steel, shipbuilding and car industries and workers’ unions.
There were under one and a half million unemployed in Britain before Thatcher became prime minister in 1979. The number of jobless rose up to three and a quarter million in five years, and a new era of large-scale privatization had begun. In 2013, unemployment is two and a half million, and many in work have only part-time jobs. The Labour Party’s postwar vision of “full employment” has been buried in the past, overtaken by ever-widening wealth gap between rich and poor.
As miners and steel workers began to lose their livelihoods in their hundreds of thousands, their rural communities were devastated, their homes repossessed and sold for a fraction of their previous worth. Margaret Thatcher, at the same time, orchestrated a drive to sell local council houses, originally built for poor, many of which had become derelict for lack of proper investment in maintenance. A vast proportion of other state assets were also sold on the cheap. The policy earned Thatcher immediate popularity, contributing to her election victories twice in the 1980s. But the same policy eventually played a significant part in creating the property boom in subsequent years of both Conservative and “New Labour” governments, and a housing crisis for the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.
Deregulation and a rampant free-market system were to continue without forethought, prompting former Conservative prime minister of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Harold Macmillan, to liken Thatcher’s privatization to “selling the family silver.” Today, some publicly admire Margaret Thatcher; others openly celebrate her death; many seem emotionally indifferent; and there are few signs of genuine national mourning. It is those in office in Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party, ruling the country in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who have most to gain, as they drive Thatcher’s policies to a new destination.