Friday, 12 April 2013

Thatcher then and now

As I discuss in the book (pp.108-109), it’s impossible to understand contemporary organizations without knowing something about neo-liberalism and, within the history of neo-liberalism Margaret Thatcher and the UK governments in the 1980s  occupy a pivotal place. So it is not surprising that Thatcher’s death this week has provoked a massive debate and attracted attention not just in the UK but around the world.

In the few days since her death, so much has been written about her legacy that it seems almost pointless to say more. The leitmotif of the coverage has been to highlight has she was and still is a ‘divisive’ figure, yet even that statement has proved divisive, with Thatcher’s supporters saying that to describe her in this way is to denigrate her. The Right seems to want to claim Thatcher as a kind of national icon and hero, but for many British people she will never be that, and attempts to pretend otherwise are nakedly ideological.

For me, as for many, Thatcher was a hate-figure in the 1980s and, at the time, I would have imagined that when she died I would be celebrating in the way that some in Britain have. In the event, I don’t feel like doing so and I think this is because it is really Thatcherism which I loathe and that is far from being dead. In retrospect, as with all political phenomena, the role of individuals looks smaller than it did at the time. Thatcher rode a particular tide that developed from the 1970s and which occurred not just in the UK. She may have inflected it in particular ways, she may have symbolised it, but she did not create it and, had she never been born, I suspect that similar things would have happened under someone else’s leadership. That said, even now I feel sickened by the recollection of her description of striking miners and trade unionists in general as “the enemy within”, a term connoting those who sympathised with and collaborated with the Nazis.

What is clear is that in the UK and elsewhere we continue to live with the effects of Thatcherism. The British Left has never recovered from it and continues, at least in the Labour Party, to accept the broad terms of her analysis of the primacy of markets, in particular. The ‘New’ in New Labour meant exactly this, and the New Labour governments of 1997-2010 enthusiastically followed through on her analysis with the wide scale subcontracting of public services to private providers, a process not continuing under the Coalition government.

More broadly, it is now clear that the global financial crisis and consequent economic crisis since 2007 is rooted in the policy decisions of the 1980s and here the Thatcherite deregulation of financial markets was of huge significance not just for the UK but for the world. Whilst the political right is justified in saying that Thatcherism was transformational, what they do not yet recognize is that it failed. It failed in more particular ways, too. Thatcher’s vision of the future was rooted in her ideas about the past, seeking a return to what she called the ‘Victorian Values’ of thrift, hard work and enterprise. It was a highly romanticised and partial view of Victorianism, of course, but the irony is that what she actually created, particularly through financial deregulation, was the opposite. The economy she left was predicated upon massive indebtedness as a credit-fuelled, hedonistic consumer boom ran out of control.

In some basic way, Thatcher failed to understand how capitalist economies actually work, and especially the role of the state within them. Both de-industrialization and industrial renewal requite state management and investment. That could have been achieved in Britain in the 1980s when massive North Sea oil revenues could have been used to manage a transition from the old industries to the new. Instead, they were squandered on tax cuts and paying for the mass unemployment that Thatcherism created. Her belief – still held by current Tories – that the private sector would spontaneously regenerate the economy proved quite illusory. That is not surprising as, outside of the pages of an introductory economics textbook, the state and private capital are symbiotic. Thatcher simply saw the state as parasitic. That, coupled with her messianic hatred of trade unionism, laid waste to large parts of Britain outside the South-East of England.

Beyond its economic legacy, Thatcherism did a pervasive damage to almost all forms of collective solidarity, both as an idea and in terms of institutions. Although part of the ideological narrative of Thatcherism was and is that it rescued a failing country from its 1970s decline, there is actually plenty of evidence that Britain was more prosperous, more cohesive and happier then than now. Moreover, as Ken Loach’s recent film The Spirit of 45 suggests, Thatcherism eviscerated much of the collective solidarity than re-built post-war Britain.

Anyway, it would be possible to write endlessly on this. And that is perhaps the most important point: all of this still matters, because it is about what is happening now, not just or even mainly about what happened then. Next week there will be a huge ceremonial funeral, ostensibly carrying a message that Thatcher was a great national figure who stands above ideology. But the final irony would be to imagine that the funeral of this most ideologically motivated figure is, or could be, anything but ideological. The funeral will be part of the political right’s ongoing attempt to insist that, in one of Thatcher’s most famous phrases, ‘there is no alternative’. She, and they, are wrong.