The sudden, but not unexpected, death of Baroness Thatcher, one of the most dynamic if divisive of Britain’s post-war political leaders, and her grand ceremonial funeral have marked a staging point in the continuing story of Britain. Those who remember her elevation in to the Edward Heath cabinet as education secretary, when she gained notoriety as ‘Thatcher, Thatcher, the milk snatcher’ and then made the sudden jump to takeover of the Tory party then led it to government in May 1979, might have missed out some of the most important signals of her political drift to the right.
For me, 1979 was a time to remember: it was when Ken Livingstone carried out a post Greater London Council election coup to take control of the Labour-led authority; the exciting launch of Root magazine at Regine’s, later the Roof Garden. It was an exciting time. For Britain’s embattled black community, it was also a threatening time. Thatcher’s ideological guru, Sir Keith Joseph, then social security secretary, had developed a Social Darwinian view of single parents, the poor and those who some now call the underclass. It did not take very much imagination to figure out that the black community, no matter what, were part of this problem section of society; and, like now, the key debate was about immigration. In fact, Thatcher had given a television interview in February 1978 in which she talked about being ‘swamped’ with immigrants. Although Enoch Powell had made his well-publicised speech ten years earlier in April 1968, the debate about race and immigration had not moved from the public agenda and, to a large extent, Thatcher’s television interview set the tone for the next decade.
While Thatcher and her ministers were dominating the national stage, backed by a number of extreme rightwingers working as consultants, and aides, at local level a number of bright, left-leaning young men and women, mostly educated in the new polytechnics, had taken control of a number of local authorities up and down the country. In London, Lambeth, Southwark, Camden, Haringey and Brent were in the forefront of this development, with many of the new councillors employed by a neighbouring Labour-controlled council and given maximum time off to work effectively as a councillor in another.
Outside London, David Blunkett in Sheffield, Derek Hatton in Liverpool stood out, but there were others such as Edinburgh, which were not as radical in their policies, but were unconventionally Labour in outlook. The rightwing press, and in particular the Daily Mail, took this development as a challenge, calling the new Labour-controlled councils the ‘loony Left’, and setting out on a mission to destroy them.
The late 1970s and 80s was also a time when local authorities opened their recruitment policies to black people, using youth work, teaching, social work, and administrative position as the entry points. It is very difficult for people now to even believe that in the 1960s and 70s some local authorities did not generally believe that black people were intelligent enough to be primary and secondary school teachers, office clerks and youth workers. And the few who got positions, were generally over-qualified (having a degree was a disqualification), many with considerable previous experience in the Caribbean. But, as the community grew, and black youths came in to contact with the various services, common sense decided that qualified Afro-Caribbeans, who understood the cultures of the young people, should be employed as the professionals.
This view was propelled by the ‘loony’ Labour-controlled councils, especially the London-based ones, and within a short time, the number of black people working in town halls grew massively. It led to years of confrontations between Leftwing controlled local authorities and central government, with the mass-circulation tabloid press giving a running commentary. However, one of the unintended consequences of the Thatcher/Livingstone confrontation was the destruction of self-help black organisations, based mainly around island origins, but highly effective, with the single unifying body being the West Indian Standing Council. Organisations such as CARD – the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination – led by Dr David Pitt and Dame Jocelyn Barrow, had given way to a group of dynamic young black men and women who preferred to, and were encouraged to, work through the Labour Party. In time this gave rise to Black Sections and its equivalent within trade unions, and a series of ‘black workers’ groups within local government.
If is often now forgotten that black women voted for the 1979 Thatcher government in droves, understandably taking the then feminist line of supporting a woman as leader. But, with Thatcherism, as her ideas came to be known, first by the Jamaican scholar Stuart Hall, there were some positive unintended consequences for the black community. Of those the most beneficial was the Right to Buy policy, in which social housing tenants were given the right to buy their homes. However, apart from her divisive social policy programme, the name of Margaret Thatcher will be remembered in history for its association with Ronald Reagan, the late US president, and their association with the collapse of the Soviet Empire. The occasion gave rise to an erroneous celebratory book by the Japanese American, Francis Fukuyama, The End of History.
Crucially, this moment of ‘victory’ for neoliberalism, eventually radically overhauled progressive politics, both in the US and Britain, the two dominant Anglo-Saxon societies – along with their satellites in Australia, Canada and New Zealand – in which the conservatives parties and governments shifted to the right, and the left-leaning Democrat and Labour Parties, out of touch with popular politics, were forced to follow.
Neoliberalism, or more rightly, neo-conservatism, had captured hearts and minds and the ‘left’, if it intended returning to government, had to deal with this mass consensus.
Bill Clinton, followed by Tony Blair, in the US and Britain respectively, re-invented the ideologies of their parties by sticking ‘new’ in front of the popular interpretation of what they represented. Bill Clinton invented something called the New Democrats, with a programme which set out to target so-called welfare mothers, the Wisconsin agenda, and those on social benefits, preaching the language of the far right and utilising the passive racism of George Bush Snr (remember how he ambushed Dukakis with his Willie Horton smear?).
In economic terms, Mrs Thatcher’s radical fiscal and monetary policies removed a lot of fears embedded in the post-war Keynesian consensus. She showed, for example, that public utilities could be privatised and still continue to provide a relatively good service, even if they run the risk of being hijacked by a money-grabbing business elite.
She reformed industrial relation legislation to stop trade unions taking strike action at the drop of a hat, holding the entire nation to ransom; she removed the foreign exchange controls which dogged the Labour years; and she greatly reduced subsidies to inept zombie businesses. She challenged the over-manning in the public sector and improved productivity with long work hours becoming the norm in some sectors, things that a Labour Government could not do.
But her longest lasting influence was the adoption of the now discredited Chicago School monetarist policies of Milton Friedman, which had been given a trial run in Latin America, in particular Chile.
Analysis and Conclusion:
Thatcher, as party leader and later prime minister, had two great direct influences on British society – economic and social through her government’s policies. She also had an enormous influence through the cultural environment created through her ideas, her disciples and through the decision by the Marxism Today-led Left to challenge her.
It was her deep socio-cultural influences that led the sociologist Stuart Hall to name her cultural and other ideological influences ‘Thatcherism’ and who chose to challenge her ideas and the way they were being interpreted by ordinary working people, who gave an added tension to the public discussions.
Two things about economics and social policy: just as people remind us that Mussolini made the trains run on time, Chile, under the dictatorship of General Pinochet, became the laboratory for the Chicago monetarist experiment as it did, in 1981, with the reconfiguration of its public pension scheme, which has become the model for the developed world.
In the final analysis, monetarism as a theory for the management of the macro-economy has failed; although it may look fine in theory, it has proved divisive and destructive and incapable of performing the over-arching role created for it in governing a pluralistic society.
Finally, Thatcherism came to represent everything about the class nature of British society, a cultural obsession which the British find difficult to understand when others say there are not interested in class, that other connection such as religion, ethnicity, colour, gender, sexuality and other forms of identity may be more influential. It was an issue that often brought some of us in to conflict lecturers in the late 1960s and early 790s, as someone whose formative political years were spent during the student and black power upheavals of the mid-60s to early-70s.