Baroness Thatcher: There was no alternative
The death of Baroness Thatcher (Prime Minister 1979-1990) has been announced today (8 April 2013). It will inevitably provoke much discussion and debate.
Those of us who did not personally know her need to remember that she was a wife and mother before she was an MP. Those who privately grieve her passing will have to do so in the midst of a media storm.
The media storm is going over the top. I notice that the BBC News Broadcasters have changed into “full mourning” garb (black suits, black ties), and there is talk of her having a funeral “on a par with that of the Queen Mother” (BBC One O’clock News 8 April 2013). (“Ceremonial with full military honours” – ITN News 1:30 8 April 2013.) This coverage is to be regretted as it could provoke an unseemly backlash from those who struggle to mourn the politician whilst knowing they should permit the mourning of the person. I think this says as much about the media as the person.
The media now has huge resources in terms of “stock footage”, online documentation, the means to quickly collate vast amounts of information and the bandwidth to broadcast a vast volume of coverage. They are like children in a sweet-shop – they will gorge themselves and the result is rather sickly. ITN News at 1:30 gave about 17 minutes lead coverage – when I switched back to the BBC (BBC1 – which had started at 1:00) it was still going strong under the banner “Breaking News”. The BBC1 schedules are being changed. Yet we now (nearly) all have (post digital switch-over) the BBC News Channel, BBC Red Button, and BBC Parliament (The Commons is not sitting so its schedules are less cluttered) available for a full “media dump”. I think such sheer volume is unseemly – no matter who has died, no matter how great the person, no matter how unified “the people” are in mourning the individual.
She was divisive and possibly even her admirers would not seek to deny that aspect of her character. The divisiveness was a corollary of her determination combined with the times in which she served.
That determination was undoubtedly responsible for this country daring to try to recover the Falklands. (We still look back on the Falklands War with almost universal pride – witness the reception that the recent documentary on the Vulcan bombing raid has received).
Her determination was also visible just hours after the Brighton bomb; “We will not be defeated by terrorism” and this probably summed up the spirit of (almost all) the country.
In those respects “cometh the hour, cometh the women” applies. It also applies (unfortunately in the eyes of some/many) to other crises where her determination took the country to new ground. But is it reasonable to heap all the blame on her for those changes?
In February 1974, Edward Heath went to the country on the question “who rules the country? Government or Unions”. The popular vote actually said “the government”, but the way the votes fell meant the result of the election was “Not you Ted”). By fumbling this decision (albeit aided by a stupid electoral system) we got a Labour government that did not grasp the nettle and this lead inevitably to the election of a Conservative Government lead by someone more determined and more radical that Edward Heath. And five years later the problems were arguably much worse.
We then saw reforms that
- Castrated the unions and through requiring ballots reduced wildcat strikes. Without this we would not have had the surge in agency working, zero-hours contracts, and other reductions in job security and the British flexible labour market that is so attractive to outside investors
- Introduced the Poll Tax – the idea that all “being in it together” means that the duke and the dustman should pay the same local taxes and that direct action on the streets can bring about change.
- Sold off council houses – clearing a lot of local authority debt. This has led, if not to a property-owning democracy, to a property aspirational (Fixated?) society. It may also have led to the current crisis in social housing – which may yet explode in the face of the current Conservative Prime Minister.
- Reduced debt by selling off the quasi-monopoly “network” utilities: electricity, gas, water, railways (finalised by Major), telecommunications etc. giving modest gains to some small shareholders (most of whom just stagged the share issues) and opening the way for a few big companies to have the ability to dominate the spending of many consumers whilst offering opportunities for their directors to gain remuneration in line with or even in excess of directors in companies that really did operate in a genuine open competitive market.
- Reformed the banking and finance sector overseeing the “Big Bang”, encouraging the demutualisation of the Building Societies and building an economy on Financial Services where a few could become very very rich and enable a small part of their riches to trickle down and benefit us all.
- Cleared out the manufacturing sector – employer of so many trade unionists – leaving our foreign competitors to build genuine value through making things that others genuinely required.
- Devastated many communities that were not sustainable creating in some of Thatcher’s children a dependency culture.
- “Took on Europe” and saw the British “Market approach” to the European Community isolated so that the Mediterranean “Social approach” would permit the fudging of the launch of the Euro.
We may collectively have wanted some of the reforms, but many of us did not want the consequences that were the inevitable result. I suspect that she would have had contempt for such “muddled thinking”.
A full ceremonial funeral for such a person (on a par with that of the Queen Mother), is I think over the top – “She was no Queen Mother”. The latter was a unifying force, the former a divisive one. Our elected politicians need to remember that they were put there by our votes (no matter how bad the system), and that when they are out of office they revert to being one of us. How much more seemly it would be for us to learn that an ex Prime Minister had had a quiet funeral and is now buried in the corner of a quiet churchyard? Her family, friends and colleagues can then have a public memorial service.
Giving an ex-politician a funeral with “full military honours” – when they were never the sovereign and commander-in-chief (nor even served in the military) is in my view wrong. The military owe allegiance to our head of state not our head of government. She may have been the latter but was never (actually) the former. To break this rule (as was done with Churchill) has to have very wide support; many have to be able to answer in the affirmative “was [the person concerned] one of us“? The support may have been there with Churchill (as a war leader he had a few major critics – but was a unifying force) and was there (republicans apart) in respect of the Queen Mother – a unifying figurehead and the consort of our wartime Commander-in-Chief.
But we have to remember that she was a wife, a mother and she became a grandmother.