Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Thatcher's Children

Margaret Thatcher had stopped being "Margaret Thatcher" a long time ago. Most of her confidantes suggest that the death of her husband Denis was a blow that left her shattered and from which she never recovered. In a way, of course such loyalty and love was only to be expected in a woman who embodied so many of the virtues and the vices of a suburban house wife. 

She had suffered increasingly from poor health after a series of strokes and it was a more or less open secret that "her mental powers were not what they were": she had dementia. Her friend and close political ally, Norman Tebbit, described her death as "a release", and perhaps it was. Yet the passions that her passing have unleashed are so extreme- both of condemnation and adulation- that it seems that Britain has still not yet come to terms with the tumultuous decade when "The Leaderene", "Attila the Hen" or "The Great She-Elephant", all terms bestowed by her own side, with greater or lesser affection, was the pre-eminent political leader in the UK and possibly the world.

It is easy to forget the context of her rise to power- the breakdown of the British economy and the emasculation of the political class in the face of Trade Union arrogance that took place in the late 1960s and 1970s. The militancy, which we now know was funded, at least in part, by the Soviet Union had destroyed the governments of Ted Heath in 1973-4 and Jim Callaghan in 1978-9. In the face of the breakdown of the "winter of discontent", the electorate gave the untested and even mildly derided Margaret Thatcher the biggest Parliamentary majority in over a decade. Though a government majority of 43 was not as large as the 96 enjoyed by Harold Wilson in 1966, is was comfortable enough after the long agony of the small majorities endured over much of the 1970s.

Although now remembered as a ideologue, for much of her first government, 1979-83, she pursued policies that would now today be seen as moderately Statist. In this she reflected a political pragmatism that mistrusted practical radicalism, even while she enthusiastically promoted the seemingly coherent thread of radical economic Monetarism as mediated by Sir Keith Joseph. Yet during her early years in office, she was always a more cautious policymaker than her abrasive manner and grating voice might have suggested. She was not- could not- be as certain as her friends believed and her enemies feared. The result is that her legacy is far more of a patchwork of economic radicalism and social conservatism than her boosters have made out. Though she made much of challenging vested interests, there were as many battles that she did not fight- in law, in politics- as those she did- in finance, Privatisation and of course in the weakening of the control of the trade unions.

The apotheosis of Margaret Thatcher was the extraordinary blunder of the Falklands War. The diplomatic and intelligence debacle of the Argentinian invasion left her government in tatters- with the resignation of her foreign minister, Lord Carrington. In hindsight there is a curious inevitability about the dispatch of the Task Force and the retaking of South Georgia, and eventually the Argentinian surrender. In fact the whole enterprise was a massive gamble that at various points: the loss of HMS Sheffield, the landings at San Carlos and the Battle of Goose Green could have become a humiliating catastrophe. Yet, from the ashes of disastrous incompetence the spectacular recovery allowed the Conservatives to romp to a triumphant electoral victory in 1983, with a majority of 144.

In part, of course, the scale of her success can be put down to the luck of her choice of enemies. In Leopoldo Galtieri, the Argentinian dictator, she found a pantomime villain who could not even get his South American neighbours to back him, and whose reckless all-or-nothing policy allowed her to pull off a rare thing in diplomacy or in war: a complete victory. In 1983 she faced a virulently left wing Labour party that had driven out many of its core voters- including many members who created the new SDP in 1981- with a commitment to neo-Communism that seemed to serve the Kremlin more than Britain.

The 1983 electoral victory- albeit against divided opposition- unleashed the period of high-Thatcherism. The government returned to Westminster with radical energy and over the next four years wholesale changes were made: the 1986 "big bang" which for better and for worse ended the restrictive practices deemed to be holding back the British financial sector; the sale of state companies: each on larger than the next: Amersham International, British Telecom, British Gas, British Petroleum. Firstly, however, the Tories had some unfinished business with the trade unions. The 1984 Miners strike took place on ground that had been carefully prepared- and once again the Prime Minister was lucky in her choice of foe. There was almost no mistake that that the unflinching arrogance of NUM leader Arthur Scargill did not make. In the end the spectacle of the large scale violence and the disruption of the flying pickets undermined support for Scargill even among the Miners themselves. The NUM split and the dream of class solidarity with the Miners as the vanguard of the proletariat, which dated back a good hundred years, was gone.

Yet if the strike might have been managed no other way, the aftermath certainly could. The loss of the national asset of coal and the resulting breakdown of the communities that was the direct result of the strike was echoed in the failure of entire regions. The excessive interest rates that were the result of monetarism in the recession of 1981 were so severe that over half of the UK's manufacturing sector was lost and the de-industrialisation of whole areas carried a huge social cost. It is a matter of great bitterness that every one of the otherwise deluded Scargill's most extreme predictions on pit closures has been fulfilled. Though industrial strife was largely eliminated from Britain, the Conservatives had "created a wasteland and called it peace".

Meanwhile the apotheosis of Margaret Thatcher created tensions in her own side. The 1986 Westland affair, where she lost two of her ministers, revealed her weakness in her relations with her ministers, and for the remaining years she had in power, she faced continuing pressure- she insisted that all her victories, in Cabinet as well as outside, should be as complete as that of Port Stanley, and in doing so she began to see her control of the Conservative Party itself unravel. It was an erosion that would lead to her defenestration in 1991.

Yet late Thatcherism saw renewed victories, not least in foreign affairs. After the Falklands the Americans developed a respect for Thatcher as a leader and as an ally, and the ideological closeness between Ronald Reagan and the Prime Minister was mirrored in strategic co-operation that was deeper than ever. The response to Soviet re-armament and the Soviet war in Afghanistan was to renew NATO, and while the nuclear arms race accelerated through the mid 1980s, amid huge protests in the West, the pressure was causing the USSR to buckle. It was Margaret Thatcher who first recognised the new direction that Mikhail Gorbachev intended for the USSR and she who inspired many in the East to aspire for Western freedoms and values, at a time when the Left in Britain remained either blind to the reality of the evils of Communism and or were indeed complicit in those evils- as we now know some were. 

In the end her international stature- not even in the run up to the Gulf War of 1991- could save her from the wrath of her enemies on her own side. Growing misgivings over such policy mistakes as the Poll tax- imposed disastrously in Scotland in 1989 and in England and Wales in 1990- and the intrusive and downright nasty Section 28 which harassed and victimised gay people, led many Tories to fear for the survival of their party. She might have resisted but by that time she was isolated and out of touch and the list of those irritated or outraged was far longer than those inspired or grateful.

On the announcement of her death riots took place once again in Brixton- the seedbed of the riots of 1981. Now Brixton is gentrified and relatively wealthy and it was hard to have sympathy for those who took part. Few, if any, of them had direct experience of the reign of Britain's first female Prime Minister, yet the name of Margaret Thatcher has become a bogeyman. Equally it was hard to sympathise with the flowers and tears in Belgravia. The fact that Margaret Thatcher had drawn her last breath at a suite in the Ritz was a reminder not merely that she had been a rich widow as well as a wealthy wife, but was as almost typically tactless in death as in life. 

The country that she leaves behind is deeply troubled. The social forces that she helped to unleash have increased the wealth of the rich- in recent years to a truly astonishing degree- but have left the bulk of the population behind. Only a privileged few now know real job security, and those, she would caustically note, are mostly in the state sector. Social payments are at record highs, social mobility and social justice are at record lows. The rage that her early imposition of the poll tax created in Scotland has, a political generation later, led to the real prospect of the end of the UK. The triumph of German manufacturing and the growing repatriation of industry back from China to the USA are a bitter reminder of the British capacity that has been lost- and the legacy of the big bang in financial services is tarnished since the crisis of 2008. Britons today are uncertain and fearful- the sense of decline and failure is palpable.

Margaret Thatcher recognised the declinism that had set in in the 1970s and sought to challenge it. Her message was that with energy and leadership, Britain might retain its place as a global leader. Her patriotism was based on doing just that, and if she later turned against the EU, her choice of EU commissioner- Arthur Cockfield- in 1984 proved decisive in showing the value of a single market and freer economics to an organisation that had become increasingly weak. For a brief moment she made the UK the leading power in Europe and almost a co-partner with the USA in NATO. Yet in the end her political career failed because, whatever the power of her strategic vision, she lacked the self knowledge to empathise with her friends as well as her enemies.

As Britain contemplates its further decline, perhaps what we find hard to forgive is that her failures have left our position still in the balance. Some may say she brought hope, but in the end the venom which besmirches British politics is a product of her era.  Although she beat so many of her enemies- Communism in the USSR and in the UK, Galtieri in the Falklands, in the end she could not forge more than a grudging political consensus- it was against the very nature of her personality. Meanwhile the insincerity and charlatanism of Tony Blair's occasional forays into being a Margaret Thatcher tribute act revealed the same weakness in him too. Britain has not arrested its long fall from number one. For all the sturm und drang of the 1980s, her career in retrospect seems a blip and not a turning point.

The 2011 film, "The Iron Lady" may have been a fantasy, yet in the end the brilliant performance of Meryl Streep captured the spirit of a prim suburban housewife who by force of personality put on the armour of ideological certainty and personal will to become the political force of nature that was seen as Margaret Thatcher. In the end the film also showed how the loss of power and, most of all, the loss of her husband, ended the journey of that legendary figure, leaving not an icon, but a frail human being.