Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Reflections in a dark pool

We have had media saturation covering Thatcher’s funeral (17 April 2013) and some provocative comments about her legacy and importance.  A number have claimed that she was a unifying force.

Be-suited fan on the procession route:

This is the right when they get together. This is the decent minded part of this country.

Falklands Veteran on the procession route:

She beat Communism, she beat the Unions, she made us prosperous again.

Charles Moore, when interviewed about the funeral, claiming she brought unity:

In 1979 29m days were lost to strikes; in 1990 fewer than 2m

David Cameron, Current Prime Minister on BBC Radio 4:

In a sense we are all Thatcherites now

Sun / You Gov Poll:

Greatest postwar leader: Thatcher 28%, Churchill 24%, Blair 10%

I fear we live in different worlds. I am not of the right, but then neither am I “from the left”: I find the distinction unhelpful.  The “Tribe”, true blue of the darkest navy, reactionary, traditional and ironically fearful of change, sincerely believe that everyone (or at least all “right thinking” people) think that Thatcher was the greatest post-war Prime Minister – a unifying force – like Churchill.

But as one protester said:

Winston brought unity when we needed it, Thatcher just brought division.

A ComRes Poll for the Independent on Sunday and the Sunday Mirror shows voters disagree with David Cameron’s description of Margaret Thatcher as “the greatest British peacetime prime minister” by 41 per cent to 33 per cent.

But I don’t think the Tribe see it that way.  The unfortunate conclusion that I have to come to is that we are truly two nations and attitudes to Thatcher are a good means of defining the division.

Some individuals became very prosperous under Thatcher, some communities were devastated.  The reduction in days lost to strikes might be a sign of unity (if unity is synonymous with lack of strife).  It might however be merely a reflection in the change of balance of power (from organised labour to capital and government).

Nick Robinson interpreted Cameron’s remarks saying:

… the prime minister was making a rather different point to the one some think he is making. Yes, he was asserting that Lady Thatcher had, like Labour’s Clement Attlee before her, forged a new political consensus.

Where after the war Attlee established the case for the NHS, state education and a welfare state, Thatcher, after the industrial wars of the 70s and the Cold War, won the arguments for a market-based economy, the private ownership of key industries and services, limits on trade union power and a strong defence policy based on the Atlantic Alliance.

Very few violently disagreed with the establishment of the NHS, State Education and the Welfare state (particularly two decades on) and it is probably legitimate to claim that there was a post war consensus.  But can we claim that what we have now is a consensus?

Consensus Noun: a generally accepted opinion or decision among a group of people Cambridge Dictionaries Online

Well, you have to fairly tightly define your “group of people” to claim a consensus for Thatcherism.

  • The market-based economy has been shown to have serious short-comings and an increasing number are asking “does capitalism work (for us)?”.
  • The private ownership of key industries and services has seen oligopolies (particularly in utilities) which seem self-serving.
  • Limits on Trade Union power have seen the introduction of zero-hours contracts, and the creation of a gang-master culture in some areas which ignores the welfare of (often migrant) workers who are not paid the minimum wage.  There are now signs of a back-lash which could bring back strife.
  • The strong defence policy based on the Atlantic Alliance has seen us support the United States in a war or wars that are decidedly questionable under international law, resulting in a reluctance to get involved in supporting the oppressed in violent dictatorships.

The country still bears scars from the 1980s. But resentments have been sharpened by a sense that Mrs Thatcher’s legacy, which only a few years ago had seemed redemptive of Britain’s fortunes, now appears rather less so. Deregulating the City, though well done, is harder to celebrate in the wake of the financial crisis. The callousness with which miners were consigned to the dole queues, though probably necessary, is harder to gloss after five years of on-off recession. Restoring Britain’s global influence, through the special relationship with America in which Mrs Thatcher took such pride, seems a temporary affair in the wake of the bungled wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bagehot The Economist 20 April 2013

Some even in Labour circles are accepting that she made changes that had to happen.  They question whether others may have made the change – albeit delayed.  Barbara Castle probably had the right idea, so possibly did Ted Heath.  Either of them would have made the changes with more of a sense of community and compassion.  The Tribe however would probably counter that “if it is not hurting, it is not working” – but then they were not hurting.  I think they also had little idea of communities which had relied on a single source of employment for generations – if that was the case we perhaps have to forgive them their ignorance.  But to remain blind to the social effects of what they did (I remember in particular a documentary by Granada about the impact of pit closures on the social fabric) is harder if not impossible to forgive.

Without forgiveness we can never be one.  But why should we forgive when the Tribe is back up to its old tricks?  For instance, the changes to benefits will have a devastating effect on some families and some regions.  In the 1980’s the Tories removed employment from those working in inefficient industries (and put little in its place); now in the 2010’s we see the government removing the remaining support from individuals – often the children of those thrown out of work by Thatcher.  In the 1980s the Conservatives “only” had to overcome Union opposition; now it is individuals against the government.

An audit commissioned by the FT revealed:

Cuts to welfare payments will hit the local economies of northern towns and cities as much as five times as hard as the Conservative heartland southern counties, according to research commissioned by the Financial Times into the impact of austerity.  …

The seaside town [of Blackpool] will be hardest hit overall, losing £914 per working age adult, nearly 5% of disposable income.  …

Limiting child benefit for wealthier households is one change that will hit affluent areas. St. Albans will lose £102  per working age adult.

If you hit the already poor harder (in absolute and relative terms) than the already rich then do not look for forgiveness from those whose parents’ working lives were blighted by the initial dose of Thatcherism.  Again the Tribe argues “change is necessary”, again the pain is focused on one group – but another group sees the “benefits”.  Perhaps the South really is “Another Country”.

Dr Victoria Honeyman (Lecturer in British politics at Leeds University):

If you push this ideology to its logical outcome then the north was losing out and the south was gaining. That’s not to say that she deliberately declared war on the north: she was just looking to create a profitable economy and a more powerful country.

But the result was the closing of industries in areas that were then not replaced by anything. In former mining towns and villages in Yorkshire, Newcastle, Durham, Wales and Scotland, communities have died. There isn’t really any employment. The service industries that grew up since the 1980s have not reached them. You had generation after generation going into work in the old industries, but now you have generation after generation living in poverty.

There is no doubt that inequality grew and poverty increased under Thatcher. Her response to that, I guess, would be “it’s all about the individual. You have to go out there and make things happen if you want them.” That sounds very good on paper, but for some people that simply didn’t materialise. BBC News Website 18 April 2013

Ian Dale (Conservative Home):

Any politician with convictions is going to be divisive Daily Politics 18 April 2013

Perhaps the right should drop the “unifying force” argument and try to make her divisiveness a virtuous part of her legacy.  For them to at least recognise divisiveness as part of the legacy would be a start.

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