Cartoon by Gerald Scarfe
Guest post by Dr Ian Taylor
Some will say this is too soon, and others will say it’s a bit late, but in my judgement now is probably the most appropriate time to look back on the Thatcher years and decide whether they were good or bad for Britain. I guess it’s fair to say that the title I’ve gone with gives a fairly big clue as to where I stand on this one. Nonetheless, I seize on her incompetence for a reason: Her supporters will often concede that she may not have been the nicest person in the country, but argue that at least she turned this place around. The fact that she made a difference can hardly be disputed. But it certainly wasn’t for the better.
All I really want to do with this posting is present a few facts about the economy which is where her greatest achievements were supposed to lie. I’ve also given the crime figures. If the analysis that follows seems somewhat detached and dispassionate, that too is for a reason. My intention is simply to get a few important facts into the public domain to provide some ammunition against the ‘wasn’t she wonderful’ crap that we’ve had to endure over the past fortnight or so. As a middle-class teenager in the 1980s I can certainly remember her reign, but I am sure that others can speak with far more authority about what it was like to endure record levels of crime, poverty and/or unemployment. If not, I leave it to the reader’s powers of empathy and imagination to figure out what that must have been like.
On average the economy grew by about 2.3% from 1979 to 1990. This is hardly an amazing achievement: Tony Blair (of whom I am no fan) averaged 2.5%; while the average during the post-war Keynesian era was closer to 3%. And of course, Thatcher’s Premiership coincided with a time when Britain was best placed to exploit North Sea oil reserves. In terms of pure economic performance her record is distinctly unimpressive. Nonetheless, growth of 2.3% wouldn’t be so bad were her years in office not bookended by two recessions that gave us unprecedented levels of unemployment.
In 1979 unemployment stood at 1.5 million. Within a year of Thatcher coming to power it had rocketed upwards, and stayed at above 3 million from 1983 to 1987. Thereafter it fell slightly, although not below 2 million – a figure that would have been unthinkable in the ’50s, ’60s or even the ’70s. Unemployment then rose up again past in the 3 million mark in the recession of the early ’90s.
Thatcher’s apologists, like former Telegraph editor Charles Moore, like to point to the reduction in the number of days work per annum lost to strikes during her Premiership: down from 29.5 million in 1979 to 1.9 million by 1986 he says. What he’s rather less keen to talk about is the number of days’ worth of productivity lost in that year (or any other) due to unemployment. 3.2 million out of work that year multiplied by 240 working days a year amounts to 768 million days lost in 1986 alone.
In the 1980s interest rates rose to double figures – higher than they’d ever been before, or since.
This is something that her supporters like to harp on about, albeit without uttering the word ‘poll’. In truth, she cut taxes for the rich, whilst increasing them for the poor with the poll tax and through VAT rises.
This was, apparently, another big triumph of her economic policy. In truth, inflation rose to 18% in 1981, and moreover, was higher when she left office than when she came in: 11% compared to 10.3%. It’s true that on average inflation was lower in the ‘80s than in the previous decade, but then again inflation fell around the world during the 1980s: Given that inflation is largely determined by the price of raw materials the fall hardly seems like a major achievement, particularly in the light of the aforementioned figures.
Where to begin on this one? The proportion of children living in poverty in this country more than doubled under Thatcher: rising from 14% of children in 1979 to 31% by 1990. Meanwhile, according to a recent Guardian ‘Data blog’, the number of people living below 60% of medium income rose from 13.4% to 22.2% under Thatcher. These figures continued to rise under John Major, but when seen in comparative context it ought to be understood that they were far from inevitable. The number of people living in poverty had been falling throughout the 20th Century up until 1979, and, to give credit where it is due, the number of children growing up in poverty also fell slightly during the New Labour years.
In 1979 there were 2.5 million crimes recorded in the UK; by 1990 that number stood at 4.5 million. The 1980s also saw some of the worst rioting in British cities of the 20th Century. You’d think that things like this would embarrass the ‘party of law and order.’
In short, Thatcher’s legacy is a thoroughly shameful one.
While searching Youtube for the famous (infamous?) “Kinnock: The Movie” 1987 election broadcast, I came upon this less well remembered, but excellent broadcast from the same election. I understand that Ed Miliband’s in a rather awkward position right now (not helped by Blair’s disloyal intervention), but he really ought to have a look at this, and reflect on the fact that there was a time when the Labour leadership felt able to tell the unvarnished truth about Thatcher, the Tories and what they represent:
The Thatcher fan club (led by the Daily Mail) howls with rage at those who dare ’disrespect’ her memory.
Remember when harmless, decent, old Michael Foot died?
From the Daily Mail (two days after his death):
NB: Wikipedia states that ”at the outbreak of the Second World War, Foot volunteered for military service, but was rejected because of his chronic asthma. It has been suggested (2011) that he became a member of the secret Auxiliary Units.
“In 1940, under the pen-name “Cato” he and two other Beaverbrook journalists (Frank Owen, editor of the Standard, and Peter Howard of the Daily Express) published Guilty Men, a Left Book Club book attacking the appeasement policy of the Chamberlain government, which became a run-away best-seller.”-JD
H/t Sunny at Liberal Conspiracy
Recalling the Commons and the Lords for “debates” on Thatcher yesterday was, of course, a grotesque act of political manipulation and well as an outrageous waste of money at this time of austerity. All 650 MPs were emailed with the message that they could claim up to £3,750 just for turning up. Peers could draw £300 for attendance. Then there are the tens of thousands for security and running costs as Parliament was not due back until Monday.
Former miner Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley), one of many Labour MPs who stayed away, may well have been right to say simply ”I’ve got better things to do.”
But of those Labour MPs who did turn up, two were pretty good:
David Winnick (Walsall North)…
…and Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn):
Well done, you two: proper, serious and honest, reformists.
James Bloodworth (writing at Obliged to Offend in December 2011):
Instead of celebrating … the left should reflect on what a
pig’s ear it’s made of the past 30 years
Ever since Margaret Thatcher stopped appearing in public due to poor health, the
fit and proper reaction to her eventual exit from the earthly realm has been
discussed with increasing regularity by the left.
That rolling news will gloss over her legacy with the empty platitudes of the obsequious is entirely predictable. Nor will it surprise many to see the leading lights of the Labour
Party queuing up to shower the former Prime Minister with praise.
There are, however, plenty of us who haven’t forgotten the lives she destroyed, the
dictators she championed or the unmitigated social disaster set in motion by her
particular brand of finance capitalism. We do not feel the need to do what many
formerly of the left now do, and parrot the dictum that we are ‘all Thatcherites
now’ (just a hint, but when a person says neo-liberal capitalism is ‘inevitable’
what they really mean is that it is desirable). Many of us are not, and never
will be Thatcherites, and we will continue to feel no shame in believing that
there is more to life than the winner-takes-all capitalism she so
unapologetically championed during her lifetime.
There are of course also those, on the other side of the fence, who view Thatcher’s eventual demise as an opportunity to get one over on her family, her friends, and her supporters
in a way that was not possible in an era when her ideas triumphed so
emphatically. In this regard, Margaret Thatcher’s death is not only to be
greeted with sullen contempt, but is to be actively celebrated.
The idea of getting back at this almost mythical figure for the numerous defeats she
inflicted on the left is strong motivation for those planning to crack open the
Champers on learning of her passing. Considering that during her reign she
trounced us at every opportunity, revelled in her victories, and then did it
again, the desire to see the back of the woman is perhaps understandable, even
if the outright celebration of her passing is, to my mind at least, taking
things a bit far.
What we on the left would do well to remember, however,
is that the ideas embodied by Mrs Thatcher are not going to be dented, let alone
killed-off by the departure of their most famous living embodiment. ‘All the
forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come,’ Victor
Hugo once said, and if the left is to recover from the tremendous setbacks it
has suffered during the past 30 years, it is the ideas embodied by Mrs Thatcher
that must be replaced, not the worn-out figure of an elderly lady.
Rather than celebrating the death of a human being, even a not
particularly endearing one, the left should instead examine with
clear-sightedness where it has gone wrong, how it has behaved and how it can do
better – and boy, can it do better. Considering the complete failure to make any
political inroads since the 2008 banking crash, this should be clearer today
Time and energy spent celebrating the deaths of those who
popularise ideas we dislike is time that would be better spent popularising our
own ideas. With this in mind, morbid celebrations are better left to the
psychologically unhinged. The media already does an effective job in portraying
us as morally detached from the values of the average person; they certainly
don’t need us serving up ammunition on a plate for them.
The two month “Falklands War” between Britain and Argentina in 1982 was a freak event. It was part of no larger conflict; no issue other than possession of the islands was involved.
Both Argentina and Britain were bourgeois states. Neither of them oppressed, and neither of them was trying to conquer the other, or likely to, as a result of the war.
The Falklands Islands were not a base from which Britain oppressed others in the region, and never had been. The only issue between Britain and Argentina, the cause of the war, was the fate of the Falklands Islands and their inhabitants.
Living 400 miles across the South Atlantic from Argentina, the Falkland Islanders were British. In identity, desired international affiliation, language and culture, they were British. The islands had been British since the 1830s, when the modern Argentine state had not yet emerged.
Argentina’s claim to the Falklands rested on a few years of formal possession by Argentina’s predecessor state, a century and a half in the past, and on their comparative geographical proximity to it.
Against that stood the wishes of the inhabitants to remain British and their no less strong desire not to be subjected to Argentine rule.
Argentina’s rulers were, under General Galtieri, a murderous, unpopular military junta. By invading the islands, they sought to make themselves less unpopular at home and rally the forces of Argentine chauvinism behind them.
Margaret Thatcher and her government, though their political standing in Britain would improve greatly as a result of the war, were at that point very unpopular at home too.
On the merits of the issue, right lay with Britain, defending the Falklanders. To recognise that did not imply support for Thatcher’s war, and we did not support it: indeed, we ran the slogan “The Enemy is At Home” above the masthead of the weekly paper, Socialist Organiser, throughout the war.
On the other side, nothing but Argentine chauvinism could lead socialists, if they were capable of registering what was happening in the world around them, to support Galtieri’s invasion and occupation.
In fact a fantasy “let’s pretend” “anti-imperialism” could and did lead many not only (rightly) to oppose Thatcher’s war but also (wrongly) positively to back the fascistic Galtieri junta. Many socialists, and not only the “revolutionaries”, became honorary Argentine chauvinists for the duration of the war. Why? How?
On the grounds that its opponent was Britain, sections of the left cast Argentina as the hero in a drama that was going on nowhere else except in their own heads. They lost themselves in a delirium of “anti-Imperialist” political fantasising.
The fact that there was nothing “anti-imperialist” in the Argentine seizure of territory 400 miles from Argentina, inhabited for generations by people who did not want to be part of Argentina and had done Argentina no harm, did not faze them at all. Your “Anti-Imperialist”, when desperate for a “fix”, tends to be impervious to reason and arguement.
All the activist left opposed Thatcher’s war. Beyond that, the left divided into two groups. That time round the SWP was on the side of sanity and rational politics. Along with “Socialist Organiser” (what is now AWL), it refused to support Argentina, its military rulers, or the occupation of the Falkland islands.
(Militant (now the Socialist Party/ Socialist Appeal) had a bizarre approach all of its own, declaring that the alternative to the war was “a Socialist Federation of Britain, the Falkland Islands, and Argentina”.)
The other main group in the left consisted of a large part of the softer Labourite left, around Labour Briefing (The Argentinians were fighting Thatcher, weren’t they? What more did we want?); the Mandelite Fourth International, then a sizeable organisation, the International Marxist Group; the Workers Revolutionary Party, crazy as a bed-bug; Workers’ Power; and the other half of the organisation to which the tendency which is now AWL then belonged, the Workers’ Socialist League.
The pro-Argentine part of the WSL was led by Alan Thornett (now of the ISG).
The story of what happened in the WSL, and how Thornett’s section made themselves the pioneers of what today is the “anti-Imperialist” politics of the kitsch-left in Britain, including the SWP, has a lot of light to shed on the current dispute between the “anti-Imperialists” and ourselves.
(Some of the documents of that dispute can be found in Workers’ Liberty 2/3.)
The WSL of 1982 was the result of the fusion, in July 1981, of the forerunner of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Socialist Organiser, and a group that had separated from the WRP seven years earlier, called the WSL. In the fusion, we took the name Socialist Organiser for the joint paper and WSL for the joint organisation.
After nine months, the unification began to break down around the Falklands war. The organisation divided into warring and, as it proved, irreconcilable, factions.
We all agreed on opposing the war, and at the start all of us had rejected positive support for Argentina and declared ourselves in principle for the right of self-determination for the Falkland Islanders.
Six weeks after the British fleet set sail, the Thornett group decided that we should back the Argentine military junta against Britain. Soon they claimed that backing Argentina was a principle of “anti-imperialism”.
First, without any prior warning, they tried a small coup, changing our position by a vote of five to three on an Executive Committee whose full membership was 12. After the National Committee majority rejected and overturned that, they started to reconstitute the old WSL and counterpose it to the rest of the organisation.
From then on, the new WSL unravelled, and within it the Thornett section itself unravelled even faster, scattering their supporters out of the organisation in all directions.
The late Alan Clinton, a Thornetteite who would become Labour Leader of Islington Council some years later, coined what then became the response of the Thornettites to all talk of the rights of the Falkland Islanders: “The Falkland Islanders? They wouldn’t populate two streets in Islington!” That disposed of their rights!
They denounced us as “pro-imperialists” because our attitude, “defeatist on both sides” implied that we wanted the fascistic military government of Argentina overthrown by the Argentinian workers during the war. They insisted it was the duty of “anti-imperialists” to support the Argentinian military forces against Britain, to be “revolutionary defencists” for “anti-imperialist” Argentina and its military dictators.
I responded to their bizarre solicitude for the Argentine military with the statement that I’d be happy to see the whole military apparatus of the Argentine state, whose sole function in history — apart from extirpating the native Amerindian population of the country — has been internal policing, sunk to the bottom of the South Atlantic. They went into shock; and when they came out of it some of them denounced me as “an agent of British imperialism”.
We on our side of the common organisation, thought of the Thornettites as hopelessly disoriented people, politically drunk on foolish, self-indulgent fantasy politics; and as people who were shamefully ignorant of the Trotskyist political tradition in which they claimed to stand.
“Revolutionary defencism” for Argentina was political nonsense; but leave that aside. They understood it to mean that socialists should “subordinate” class struggle within Argentina to the potential good effects of an Argentine victory, “even if it strengthens Galtieri”, on “the international balance of forces”. That had nothing to do with Trotskyist politics or the Trotskyist tradition.
Trotsky, for instance, being entirely on China’s side against the Japanese invaders in the 1930s, advocated a war of national defense. Nonetheless, he advocated a working class revolution against the Chaing Government, during that war.
Their joke-shop, buffoon-fantasy “anti-imperialism” was no harmless bit of inconsequential nonsense, though: it led them to an all too real support of the foul Argentine regime and its mini-imperialism in the Falklands.
Today the biggest forces on the left, in the first place the SWP, have the politics, or very close to them, that the Thornettites had then. Their “anti-Imperialism” is no less empty.(Alan Thornett can rightly claim to have been the Copernicus of this sort of anti-imperialism”, and for all I know, he does!)
They don’t just oppose our own government – they back some of the foulest regimes on Earth, on the sole criterion that they oppose the British and US governments.
The SWP’s descent into such politics did not start with Iraq. It started with their switch in 1987 to support Iran in the Iran/ Iraq war, on the grounds that the USA was backing Iraq. (It had been doing that for the previous seven years.) Until then, the SWP had opposed the Iran/ Iraq war on both sides.
The SWP’s descent from Marxist-socialist politics first reached its present level of political dementia in the Balkans War of 1999. They tried to build an “anti-war movement” in support of a Serbia which was engaged in attempted genocide against the people of its “internal colony”, Kosova. Serbia’s activity in Kosova was the sole issue in the war, which stopped when the Serb Army withdrew from Kosova.
The SWP learned nothing from that experience. Then came 9/11.
The New Anti-Imperialism identified itself, so to speak, to the kitsch left by Bin Laden’s great blows for human liberation in New York and Washington.
There was a new and vigorous “anti-Imperialism” loose in the world.
But this was a comprehensively reactionary “anti-Imperialism”? It was not “anti-Imperialism” in any sense in which socialists and consistent liberals are anti-Imperialist? Don’t be silly, comrade!
Nothing is or ever could be more reactionary than America, Britain and their allies and stooges. History moves in strange and unexpected ways. The Islamic clerical fascists are against America, and that’s all that matters now.
This was a stark change for the SWP in more ways than one. In the mid-1990s, when Muslims in Bosnia were being butchered, the SWP kept strictly aloof from any hint of supporting them, or denouncing the international arms embargo which hindered them in defending themselves.
They were still remiss in their Islamismophilia during the Balkans war, when they sided with Serbia, which was slaughtering and driving out Muslim Albanians.
Then came 9/11. In the Afghan war the SWP jumped “on board” — and with all the shamelessness of old-time Stalinists shuffling when their “line” switched.
In the Afghan war, Socialist Worker went so far in “supporting” the enemy of our British and American enemies as to attempt to explain away the horrendous treatment of women by the Taliban regime (Socialist Worker, 6 October 2001).
At the heart of all such thinking is the syndrome where the left defines itself largely in negative terms – by what we are against, not what we are for.
The moral, political and intellectual crisis of the left today takes the form of a comprehensive collapse of positive norms. But it is cumulative. It has been going on a long time. The Falkland War is now a quarter of a century in the past.
You can trace the present state of the left back to the attitudes which the once-very influential Stalinists, and some of the “orthodox Trotskyists”, cultivated towards the USSR and other Stalinist regimes. They were unconditionally on the side of those regimes against “Imperialism”, by which they meant the advanced capitalist countries of the west.
I was shocked into the awareness of something qualitatively new during the Balkans war of 1999. We did not support NATO, but we emphatically refused to do or say anything which implied support for or complaisance towards the primitive ethno-imperialism of the Serbian regime. Serbia had launched a genocidal drive in Kosova which NATO – in its own way, for its own interests, and after over a decade of complaisance towards Serbian imperialism – was attempting to check for the sake of regional stability. (See the dossier on Kosova in Workers’ Liberty 2/3).
Yet the kitsch-left and in the first place the SWP created a one-sided “anti-war” campaign which in fact was so designed as to give maximum support to Serbian imperialism.
“Anti-war”? The Serbian government could at will have “stopped the war” by withdrawing from Kosova (as eventually they did). If NATO had abandoned its action without Serbia withdrawing, then war would have continued – one-sided war by Serbia against the Kosovars.
The SWP indulged in a fantasy of anti-imperialism as bizarre as, and greatly more irresponsible than, that of poor old Alan Thornett when he passionately championed the anti-imperialism of the murderous Argentine junta in the Falklands war.
Or take another measuring rod. Repeatedly in articles and speeches over many, many years, I have used an incident in the history of the French Communist Party to illustrate the moral and political degeneracy of Stalinism.
In 1938, the leader of French Stalinism, Maurice Thorez, publicly proposed that the catchment-area of the “Popular Front” should be extended to include “patriotic”, that is anti-German, French fascists.
I can still recall how shocked I was when, young and naïve, I first read about this.
The PCF never achieved a popular front with patriotic fascists. I have lived to see people who say they stand in Trotsky’s political tradition realise something very like it – the SWP’s “popular front” in the “anti-war” movement with the obscurantist authoritarians of the Muslim Brotherhood – MAB – who advocate the creation of Islamic dictatorships all across the Muslim world.
You could quibble that they are not quite fascists, but it would be only a quibble.
They rightly opposed the 2003 war, but did it by lining up squarely with the Saddam Hussein Regime. They used Saddam’s long-time British Stooge, George Galloway, as the face and voice of the pro-Saddam “Anti- war” movement.
They have given abject and uncritical support to the Sunni supremacist and Jihadist “resistance” in Iraq against the bourgeois-democratic — more or less — forces in Iraq.
This “Left”, this kitsch-left, is far gone in political corruption, disintegration and decay.
In this situation, the first responsibility of honest socialists is to tell the truth. Describe things as they are. Only in that way can socialists prepare the future.
By James Bloodworth at Obliged to Offend:
Instead of celebrating when Thatcher dies, the left should reflect on what a pig’s ear it’s made of the past 30 years
There are, however, plenty of us who haven’t forgotten the lives she destroyed, the dictators she championed or the unmitigated social disaster set in motion by her particular brand of finance capitalism. We do not feel the need to do what many formerly of the left now do, and parrot the dictum that we are ‘all Thatcherites now’ (just a hint, but when a person says neo-liberal capitalism is ‘inevitable’ what they really mean is that it is desirable). Many of us are not, and never will be Thatcherites, and we will continue to feel no shame in believing that there is more to life than the winner-takes-all capitalism she so unapologetically championed during her lifetime.
There are of course also those, on the other side of the fence, who view Thatcher’s eventual demise as an opportunity to get one over on her family, her friends, and her supporters in a way that was not possible in an era when her ideas triumphed so emphatically. In this regard, Margaret Thatcher’s death is not only to be greeted with sullen contempt, but is to be actively celebrated.
The idea of getting back at this almost mythical figure for the numerous defeats she inflicted on the left is strong motivation for those planning to crack open the Champers on learning of her passing. Considering that during her reign she trounced us at every opportunity, revelled in her victories, and then did it again, the desire to see the back of the woman is perhaps understandable, even if the outright celebration of her passing is, to my mind at least, taking things a bit far.
What we on the left would do well to remember, however, is that the ideas embodied by Mrs Thatcher are not going to be dented, let alone killed-off by the departure of their most famous living embodiment. ‘All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come,’ Victor Hugo once said, and if the left is to recover from the tremendous setbacks it has suffered during the past 30 years, it is the ideas embodied by Mrs Thatcher that must be replaced, not the worn-out figure of an elderly lady.
Rather than celebrating the death of a human being, even a not particularly endearing one, the left should instead examine with clear-sightedness where it has gone wrong, how it has behaved and how it can do better – and boy, can it do better. Considering the complete failure to make any political inroads since the 2008 banking crash, this should be clearer today than ever.
Time and energy spent celebrating the deaths of those who popularise ideas we dislike is time that would be better spent popularising our own ideas. With this in mind, morbid celebrations are better left to the psychologically unhinged. The media already does an effective job in portraying us as morally detached from the values of the average person; they certainly don’t need us serving up ammunition on a plate for them.