Like most other people on the left, Margaret Thatcher is my biggest political influence. Because of her ruthlessness and determination, and the inept, divided opposition she was up against, her governments transformed British society beyond recognition. My politics were forged in opposition to everything she achieved – and God, she achieved a lot.
Thatcher managed what only Clement Attlee’s government had pulled off in the 20th century: she established a new political consensus, forcing her opponents to accept the key tenets of her political programme. Weak trade unions, low taxes on the rich and big business, the dominance of the market in every sphere of life: New Labour ended up embracing (but tweaking) all of the pillars of Thatcherism, just as the patrician Tories of the 1950s had no choice but to accept Attlee’s welfare capitalism settlement.
“The real triumph was to have transformed not just one party, but two,” as her former deputy, Geoffrey Howe, put it.
Thatcherism was probably the most audacious attempt at social engineering in Britain since the Puritans ruled over three hundred years earlier. Thatcher made clear she wanted to create a new Briton: “We have to move this country in a new direction, to change the way we look at things, to create a wholly new attitude of mind.”
The Thatcherite project rebalanced British society in favour of the wealthy and big business at the expense of working people. It was achieved at terrible cost. Up to four million were thrown out of work as industries collapsed, particularly in the north. The number of homeless Britons soared by 38% between 1984 and 1989 alone.
It was springtime for the wealthy: in 1996, the richest 10% of families with three children were over £21,000 a year richer than when Thatcher had entered in Downing Street. But a family with three children in the bottom 10% of the population was £625 a year poorer in 1996 than in 1979.
I grew up hating Thatcher before I even knew what Thatcherism was. She was like an evil mythical creature that existed to scare kids before they went to bed. I was born in Sheffield – hit particularly badly by Thatcherism – and brought up by passionately left-wing parents. Much of the north felt as thought it was languishing under foreign occupation: after all, it suffered most from a government that it repeatedly rejected at the polls.
When I recently visited Ashington – once the biggest mining village in the world, now a community still ravaged by the pit’s closure in 1985 – I encountered a still raw hatred of Thatcher and everything she stood for. “Maggie Thatcher put the knife in and they just left us to bleed to death,” said one woman with tears in her eye. Former mining communities remain shattered: secure jobs are few and poverty is widespread, providing fertile ground for hard drugs.
I doubt any Prime Minister has ever polarised this country as much as Thatcher. The right idolise her like no other, believing ‘the Lady’ rescued a declining Britain from creeping socialism in the 1970s. But a pretty significant chunk of the country hate her so much that her death will, undoubtedly, be celebrated. Over the weekend, rumours flew around Twitter that she is on her deathbed: unlikely, but her departure from this world is probably not that far away. Facebook events encouraging street parties to mark her death have been live for years and have thousands of excited members.
Let me be honest: I will not weep when Thatcher dies. Her governments ruined entire communities, and many of them still lie in pieces. People have lost lives as a result of her policies: whether it be the Argentine soldiers on the Belgrano, or miners who committed suicide in despair as their futures were taken away from them.
But I won’t celebrate either. For a start, there’s a universal principle at stake: I don’t wish death on any figure, whether they be Thatcher or Osama bin Laden. I think they should be held accountable for their actions, and I don’t think their death solves anything.
In a sense I actually dread Thatcher’s death. It will be like Diana’s death mixed with a 8 week long Conservative Party political broadcast from the 1980s. The media will rejoice in her “achievements” and her opponents will be silenced: not unlike her rule, then. Drunk, ecstatic revellers will become copy for the right-wing press, used to damn the left as tasteless, vindictive and macabre.
But the main reason I will not rejoice is that I don’t think there will be anything to celebrate. We are as dominated by Thatcherism as we ever were. Thatcher’s victory remains almost absolute. The labour movement remains crushed. The political left – as it was traditionally understood – is virtually non-existent as a political force. Ensconced in Number 10 is a government “making cuts that Margaret Thatcher, back in the 1980s, could only have dreamed of,” as Tory minister Greg Barker put it.
The sorry truth is that celebrations of Thatcher’s death will be poor compensation for the fact we – the left – were beaten.
Instead of celebrating, I think the left should make as much noise as possible about what Thatcher did to this country. We need to provide a powerful counterbalance to the dominant “she put the great back into Great Britain” narrative.
It should be a time of reflection, too: to remember the victims of her rule, and the damage she did to our communities.
But we should also use it as an opportunity to plan how we erase her legacy, and bring the whole edifice of Thatcherism crashing down. The current economic crisis was caused by Thatcherite policies, but has ironically ended up entrenching them. We will need to redouble our efforts to win Labour – and the country – to a programme based on progressive taxation, workers’ rights and opposition to rampant market economics.
If we do that, we will slay Thatcherism. Then we really will have something to celebrate.