It’s time to bury not just Thatcher – but Thatcherism
By Seumas Milne, Tuesday 16 April 2013 17.20 EDT
They have only themselves to blame. Protests were always likely at any official sendoff for the most socially destructive prime minister in modern British history. But by turning Margaret Thatcher’s funeral into a state-funded Tory jamboree, puffed up with pomp and bombast, David Cameron and his acolytes have made them a certainty – and fuelled a political backlash into the bargain.
As the bishop of Grantham, Thatcher’s home town, put it, spending £10m of public money to “glorify” her legacy in the month benefits are slashed and tax cuts handed to the rich is “asking for trouble”. What’s planned today isn’t a national commemoration, but a military-backed party spectacle.
It’s a state funeral in all but name, laid on for none of the last seven prime ministers. Nothing of the kind has been seen since the death of Winston Churchill, who really did unite the country for a time against the mortal threat from Nazi Germany. Thatcher did the opposite, of course, though every effort will be made today to milk her short but bloody colonial conflict in the south Atlantic for all its jingoistic worth.
It’s hardly a surprise that 60% of the population oppose the public subsidy, or that Buckingham Palace is alarmed at the funeral’s regal dimensions. Now the decision to silence Big Ben has tipped the whole saga into the realm of offensive absurdity.
There’s been much talk about a need for dignity and respect. But the prospect of the leader of a class war government being treated like a respected head of state is itself an insult to the half of Britain that recoils from her memory and the millions of people whose communities were devastated by her policies.
From the moment the former prime minister died there has been a determined drive by the Tories and their media allies to rewrite history and rehabilitate a deeply damaged brand. For a few days of fawning wall-to-wall coverage it seemed like that might be working, as happened in the US after Ronald Reagan’s death in 2004.
But a week on, it’s clear the revisionists have overplayed their hand. Anger and revulsion keep bursting into the open. Simply raising her record reminds people of the price paid for unrelenting deregulation, privatisation and tax handouts to the rich; why she was so unpopular across Britain when she was in power; and the striking similarity with what’s being done by today’s Tory-led coalition.
So there’s been no polling bounce for Cameron, even as he claimed that Thatcher “saved our country”. And while people recognise her strength, polls show clear opposition to many of her flagship policies, including privatisation (only a quarter think it’s delivered a better service). Most don’t believe she “put the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain” at all, her economic policies are seen to have done “more harm than good”, and her legacy is regarded as one of division and inequality.
Which is what the facts show. Far from saving Britain, Thatcher’s government delivered rampant inequality, social breakdown, disastrous financial deregulation, pulverising deindustrialisation and mass unemployment. A North Sea oil bonanza was frittered away on tax cuts for the wealthy and a swollen benefits bill as public services were run down, child poverty escalated and social mobility ground to a halt.
But for all that, her apologists insist, Thatcher did what was necessary to turn Britain’s economy round. But she didn’t. Growth during the 1980s, at 2.4%, was exactly the same as during the turbulent 1970s and lower again in the post-Thatcher 1990s, at 2.2% — while in the corporatist 1960s it averaged over 3%.
And despite claims of a Thatcher “productivity miracle”, productivity growth was also higher in the 60s (and it’s gone into reverse under Cameron). What her government did do was redistribute growth from the poor to the rich, driving up profits and slashing employees’ share of national income through her assault on trade unions. That’s why it felt like a boom in better-off Britain, as the top rate of tax was more than halved, while real incomes fell by 40% for the poorest in her first decade in power.
You only have to rehearse what Thatcher’s government unleashed a generation ago to recognise the continuity with what’s been happening ever since: first under John Major, then under New Labour, and now under Cameron: privatisation, liberalisation, low taxes for the wealthy and rising inequality. Thatcher was Britain’s first woman prime minister, but her policies hit women hardest, just as Cameron’s are doing today, while Tony Blair says he saw his job as “to build on some of the things she had done rather than reverse them”.
But Thatcherism was only an early variant (following her friend General Pinochet, the Chilean dictator) of what became the neoliberal capitalism adopted or imposed across the world for the next generation. And it’s that model which imploded in the crash of 2008. As even the free-market Economist conceded last week, while demanding “more Thatcherism, not less”, her reforms could be said to have “sowed the seeds” of the current crisis.
Like other true believers, the magazine’s editors fret that the pendulum is now swinging away from the neoliberal model. So does Blair, who remains locked in the politics of the boom years and whose comfort zone remains attacking his own party. So he’s launched a coded assault on Labour’s leader, Ed Miliband, for supposedly thinking a crisis caused by under-regulated markets will lead to a shift to the left.
There’s certainly no automatic basis for such a shift. As history shows, the right can also take advantage of economic breakdowns – and often has. But more than 20 years after Thatcher was forced out of office, the evidence is that most British people remain stubbornly resistant to her individualistic small-state philosophy, believing for example that it’s the government’s job to redistribute income across the spectrum and guarantee a decent minimum income for all.
And crucially, the economic model that underpinned the policies of Thatcher and her successors is broken. As the Labour frontbencher Jon Trickett argued this week, we need a “rupture” with the “existing economic settlement” – the Thatcher settlement. That’s the challenge of the politics of our time, not only in Britain. As we remember blighted lives and communities today, it’s time not just to bury Thatcher, but Thatcherism itself.