The almost equal amounts of adoration and hatred for Margaret Thatcher remain as puzzling to me as they ever have. Every time I hear tales of triumph or woe surrounding ‘the Reich of the Thatch’, I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s observation that “the older I get the more clearly I remember things that never actually happened”. According to legend, she drastically reduced the burden of taxation on ordinary wage earners and businesses alike, but at the expense of school and hospital closures, allowing the poor and unfortunate to die in the street by withdrawing benefits, privatising just about everything, including the NHS, police force, army etc, and basically being a bit of a psychopath.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard so much unmitigated bollocks spoken by so many about so few. Thatcher’s cheerleaders seem to frequently behave as if what she said and what she did were one and the same. State spending accounted for 40% of GDP when she won the 1979 election and a pitiful, er, 39% when her own side booted her out in 1990 – hardly a ‘savage’ or ‘liberating’ reduction, regardless of your perspective. Similarly, her most vociferous critics sometimes give the game away these days when they talk about ‘cuts’ which are “much worse than anything Thatcher did”. Well, that’s because she quite demonstrably increased public spending instead of cutting it, dingbat.
So, how can I be right and so many other people so incredibly wrong? It’s a fair question, but easy enough to answer. In tribal politics, where the need for a historical figure to either lionise or demonise is paramount, small matters such as the truth tend to get lost during the process of myth creation. Thatcher is just the latest in a long line of significant figures whose history has been re-written, providing both sides of this tribal battle with a focal point, a reason to believe that they need to win elections and keep the other lot out. Her legend has actually tricked many sane, rational people into believing that the two major parties are fundamentally different, when they quite clearly aren’t.
Perhaps her biggest contribution to British politics came, ironically, after she left office and set about deliberately undermining every Conservative leader who followed, rather than taking a step back from public life and allowing others room to breathe. If the Tories die within a generation, as I expect them to, then she’ll be a large part of the reason why.
Anyway, two stories that caught my ear this morning had something of ‘the Thatcher connection’ about them. The first, a book on the Iron Lady herself by that ‘sword of truth and shield of fair play’ Jonathan Aitken, seeks to dispel myths and reveal hitherto unknown information about a woman he clearly admired. Quite why anyone possessed of sound mind would trust Aitken to tell the truth about anything is unknown, seeing as he once manipulated his daughter to lie in court under oath. The last time I’d heard from him prior to this morning was about eight years ago, when he was pleading with the Conservative Party for a ‘second chance’ to represent them as an MP.
Er, ‘second chance’ means you’re not in prison anymore, shithead.
Meanwhile, this piece from the Economist argues that some (mainly northern) towns should be left to their own devices, to shrink or even die if necessary. This is interesting since Thatcher stands accused of, amongst other things, consigning millions to the scrapheap and butchering these same places almost 30 years ago. In reality, much of the decline in older British industries that occurred during the 1980s was beyond her control, and her biggest mistakes actually came in the rather desparate attempts that were made to keep the official unemployment figures down. Three million could (and you might argue should) have been five or six.
Two things happened here that are very rarely remembered in the tribal argument about the Thatch. First up, arms of the state were expanded and their new facilities deliberately located in those areas hit hardest by the changing economic climate (i.e. not the South East). By the time Labour left office, this process had been continued to the extent that some parts of the Uk were running along similar lines to Communist Bulgaria, with circa 60% of their GDP being spent by the state. This meant that when real cuts came, as opposed to the imaginary ones of the 1980s, these would be the places most exposed to job losses and economic decline.
Then there was the cynical, deliberate and absolutely disgusting trick of loading nearly two million people off the dole/JSA and onto various other benefits, mainly relating to sickness and incapacity. Again, this was exacerbated throughout the Major years and then by New Labour, as management of the statistics took precedence over (mis)management of the economy. Next time you hear any politician from one of the major parties announcing a ‘crackdown’ on fraudulent claims of sickness or disability, remember that this situation suited them both perfectly well at the time. To actively encourage people down that road and then use them as political footballs for following it is a fucking disgrace.
Ultimately, I’m not an admirer of Thatcher, but for reasons that are often forgotten about. She ran one of the most unpleasant and socially authoritarian governments in modern history, playing to the mob with such pearls of wisdom as the Tebbit test, Alan Clark’s ‘bongo bongo land’ outbursts, and Section 28. A tendency to use the law as a stick with which to weaken political enemies was backed up by her government’s regarding of the police as a sort of private army, there to crush legitimate dissent, regardless of whether or not it turned violent. I’ve never got my head around people who call themselves Libertarians but regard Thatcher as one of their own, and probably never will.
I can only think that their liberalism applies only to questions of economics, and their analysis conflates rhetoric with reality.
Although to be fair, most people tend to do that where the Thatch is concerned – take care and catch you soon.