Most big stories are discovered in mundane circumstances. At lunchtime on Monday, I went down to our canteen to have my lunch and noticed that one of the flat screen televisions was on… and was playing footage from the eighties. Even though the sound was either off, or I was too far away to pick up any sound, It soon dawned on me that one of the big political hitters of the eighties had died… and by process of joining the dots deduced that it was the biggest of the lot.
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The strange thing was that I didn’t feel happy about the news, maybe slightly sorrowful. Not for her, but for the thousands of people who were victims of her policies. I had though that I would be posting “The Witch is Dead” from the Wizard of Oz on my Facebook, but on the day a dignified stance seemed more apt rather than the frankly embarrassing sight of parties being held, or the posting of the “Witch” song.
I had previously posted about Thatcher on the 30th anniversary of her first Election win in 2009, and looking back most of the arguments made then still stand up. The destruction of the heavy industries, which had been a cornerstone of Scottish society, had not helped. Indeed it could be argued that the lack of investment in these industries made Thatcher’s decisions the easy choices, rather than the tougher re-investment choices that maybe she should have taken. After all Germany & Poland (to name two countries) still have their own, modernised, heavy industries.
There are two things missing from the obituaries and other pieces. Firstly there is no mention of just how lucky she was. Barbara Castle might have become the first female Prime Minister had she ran when Harold Wilson resigned. Had Callaghan been able to read the runes and gone to the country in the Autumn of 1978, he would have had a better record to defend and had better polling than when he was eventually forced to go to the country the following March. Had Callaghan won, he would have been the first recipient of Britain’s new found oil wealth, rather than Thatcher. The biggest stroke of luck though came when Argentina invaded the Falklands.
In the spring of 1982, Thatcher was the most unpopular Prime Minister ever – the title of this post comes from a conversation Thatcher had with her economics advisor Alan Walters at the time of the 1982 Budget when more cuts were on the cards (sound familiar?). When Argentina invaded the Falklands, Thatcher insisted on putting together a task force to retake the islands by force if necessary, aided by the Chief of Navy Staff at that point. It was risky, and was not a smooth ride but the re-taking of the Falklands was Thatcher’s turning point. Within a year, Thatcher secured her second term (with a 144 seat majority) and with it time to bed in her political legacy.
Secondly, the strand of Conservative thinking that Thatcher came to represent did not come fully formed into the world on the afternoon of May 4th 1979, indeed this was thinking that had been brewing away in the background since the 1950’s, though only someone with a personality like Thatcher would have taken those reforms and turned them into the British equivalent of a revolution. Influenced by the fledgling think-tank IEA, the Conservative economic team of Nigel Birch, Enoch Powell and the Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft fought for, and lost the battle to, implement measures to control money in the late 1950’s & impliment cuts. MacMillan, with an eye on the upcoming Westminster election (which he called in the autumn of 1959) brushed aside their en masse resignations as “a little local difficulty”.
The three former treasury ministers though began to influence younger politicians, including Thatcher who entered parliament in that 1959 election, and sparked debate over the best way forward for the UK. Heath made baby-steps in the direction of the monetarists during his term, but he and his Chancellor Barber u-turned when the Economy downturned in a desperate “dash for growth”. When Heath’s “Who Governs” gamble went belly up, it was just a matter of time, even more so when the second election of 1974 saw Labour gain a majority.
With Powell no longer a member of the Conservatives and another leading right winger (Keith Joseph) shooting themselves in the foot, the former Education Minister emerged as the leading right wing candidate, but not the favourite.
In a sense, this is the other reason why I haven’t been as joyous as other people… the realisation that there are now many “disciples” in powerful positions to keep the “reforms” Thatcher put into place firmly in place. Until the left has a long hard think about where it wants to go and generate the ideas necessary for that journey, then we’ll be stuck with the Tories, the yellow Tories and the pink Tories all swapping power in Westminster… For some Thatcher saved this country from terminal decline, for most people here in Scotland she destroyed livelihoods. Manufacturing has not recovered since Thatcher’s premiership. I rather suspect that rather than save this country, her years will be seen as the beginning of the end of the UK.
Rather than glory in her death, we should remember her victims. The many people thrown on the scrapheap. The people so turned off by life that a cycle of drink or drugs is the only alternative. The 251 British casualties in the Falklands as well as the Argentineans killed when we torpedoed a ship heading away from the islands (the General Belgrano). The victims of disasters in Zeebrugge, Kings Cross, the Piper Alpha oil rig and Hillsborough football stadium – all disasters where neglect of procedures were key. Oh, and the biggest of the lot the Labour Party which has been missing in action for the past 30 years.
No, we don’t shed a tear for her passing, just for the victims. Not that they got very much consideration from our much vaunted “Free Press” this week, but ho… hum…