Since the death of Margaret Thatcher last week the British Establishment have been revelling in their past. In a similar manner to the death of Princess Diana, the Royal Wedding and the Olympics, they believe that this event could serve as another circus to distract working class people from their problems. We would all come together as one nation and forget our class differences. This has been a serious miscalculation.
In reality Thatcher’s death could not have come at a worse time for the bosses and their representatives. The reaction of ordinary people to the death of Thatcher over the past week has not served to unite the nation, but has highlighted the class polarisation within society. The attempt to whitewash history and paint Thatcher as a hero in the present economic and political climate shows how divorced from reality the ruling class really are.
Just as in the 1980s, today the Tories are waging huge attacks on the working class. This is what makes Margaret Thatcher’s demise so inconvenient and untimely. Prime Minister David Cameron has been forced to invoke the memory of the class battles of the 1980s and all that Thatcherism represented in service to her memory. The difference between now and then is that the capitalist crisis is the deepest in history, and therefore the attacks that must be made are on an even greater scale than Thatcher ever attempted.
The Nasty Party
The irony is that the real legacy of Margaret Thatcher was over a decade out of power for the Conservative Party. The Tories were contaminated with the legacy of greed, individualism and contempt for ordinary working people. So they were unceremoniously booted out of office in 1997. The following years saw a succession of leadership crises as the Tories struggled to reinvent and distance themselves from the legacy of “Thatcherism”. Even in 2010 they were unable to achieve an outright majority and were forced into a coalition government. This is in part down to the reek of Thatcherism that they have far from shaken off.
The first task for David Cameron when he became leader of the Tories was to decontaminate the Tory “brand.” Now all his efforts appear in vain. No doubt Cameron was sincere when, on announcing Thatcher’s death last Monday, he dubbed her a “Great Briton” and that she “saved the country.” But Cameron knows that these opinions do not really fly in the real world, beyond the Tory shires, and given the choice, discretion would indeed be the better part of valour.
The truth of the matter is that in the past week the sentiments of Cameron and the Tory rabble, unable to control their grief, accompanied by the fanfare of the bourgeois media, have done more to raise the class consciousness of British society than Ed Miliband has done in the three years since he took the leadership of the Labour Party.
Millions of people up and down Britain, young and old, have been talking about the real face of British capitalism that was for a period concentrated in the personality of Margaret Thatcher. Commentators such as the Daily Mail have been indignant that some of those celebrating were not even born during the Thatcher era! As if the 20% destruction of industry that Thatcher presided over has no consequence for the one million (1/4) unemployed 16-25 year olds today. The argument does not wash with young people who identify this personification of capitalism “in the raw” with the misery inflicted upon them today.
Thatcher’s death is not what Cameron needed. His painstaking attempts to distance the Tories from their “Nasty Party” image have been left in tatters at a time when he is trying to preside over the biggest cuts to living standards in British history. The attempted beatification of Thatcher has, in its sum effect, more in common with the MPs' expenses scandal than the Royal Wedding. It has polarised British society. The question arises then: why has Cameron so miscalculated?
Accident expresses an underlying necessity. The timing of Thatcher’s death was out of the control of the Prime Minister. Ironically, it is the craven part played by his predecessor Gordon Brown, who as a Labour Prime Minister promised Thatcher a state funeral, that has provoked particular indignation.
Poem: "Epitaph on the Politician Himself"
Here richly, with ridiculous display,
The Politician's corpse was laid away.
While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged
I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.
by Hilaire Belloc
Thatcher has not actually been given an “official” state funeral. But, as the Daily Mail smugly notes, with the Queen planning to attend, a 700-strong military escort and a service in St. Paul’s Cathedral, this is a state funeral in all but name. The only difference appears to be that we don’t get a day off work!
The situation that Cameron has been landed in by his predecessor reveals something about his position. From a sensible, bourgeois point of view, the last thing that is needed is this funeral – widely known to be costing up to £10 million. At a time when workers, students and single mothers are struggling to make ends meet this is like waving a red flag to a bull (incidentally, The Independent reported on April 16th that so-called “pauper’s funerals” are on the rise as the government turns down more and more applying for funeral assistance). This is why they have restrained themselves from giving the proceedings the official state label.
But it would take a particularly strong Tory Prime Minister who could restrain the pomp and ceremony. To rein in the general outburst of verbal effluvia from the Conservative ranks and bourgeois media over the past week that has so disgusted ordinary working people could only be achieved by a leader of real authority. But the truth is that Cameron is in a particularly weak position in government, and within his own party. He is a prisoner of circumstance and has very little room to manoeuvre. This has already been revealed through his schizophrenic dealings on the question of Europe.
Cameron is in a coalition with the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats. With 40% of British exports going to the EU, it is extremely important to British capitalism. At the same time he is under more and more pressure to appease his rabid, Euro-sceptic right wing, particularly at a time when the UK Independence Party is on the rise and winning over disaffected Tory voters. Cracks and fissures are constantly emerging within the coalition and within the Tory party itself as they struggle to carry out their massive austerity programme. This is the same section of the party, incidentally, who had until last week regarded Margaret Thatcher as some kind of living saint and are the most eager to canonize her in death. These elements lionise Thatcher and have used the past week to demonstrate the shortcomings of the present Tory leadership.
When Cameron says that “Thatcher saved Britain”, what he means is that Thatcher saved Britain for capitalism. Ever since the beginning of the 20th century the general process of British capitalism has been one of decline. Particularly after the Second World War this process was accelerated, as Britain decisively lost its position of world domination to the US. Alongside this you had the rise of much more competitive economies such as Germany and Japan, who due to the destruction of their industries during the Second World War were able to reconstruct in the 1950s and 60s with the latest cutting edge technology in terms of manufacturing and infrastructure, outcompeting British industry on the world market.
Britain’s lagging position was covered up during the post-war period due to the boom in world trade. This upswing came to an end in 1974, and by 1975 industrial production in the advanced capitalist countries had fallen by 10%, exposing the inherent weakness of British capitalism which had not invested in production. In a contracted market, much like the situation today, the weaker economies suffered. This led to revolutionary movements that swept Southern Europe, toppling dictatorships in Greece, Spain and Portugal.
By 1975 inflation had hit 27% in Britain and the next year the Labour government was forced to go to the International Monetary Fund for a £3billion bail-out, with strict conditions attached including £8billion cuts in public expenditure (equivalent to £56billion today, or the equivalent of the entire annual budget for the Department of Education).
As a consequence Jim Callaghan’s Labour government took a sharp turn to the right. They argued that inflation was the consequence of rising wages, and so wage restraint was needed. With massive inflation and frozen wages, the Labour government between 1974 and 1977 presided over the biggest fall in real wages compared to any comparable period in British history.
For a while the Labour Party was able to hold the workers back and implement wage cuts. However, when they came back to the unions for a third round of “wage restraint”, it proved too much and even pushed moderate sections into the industrial disputes of the late 1970s.
The Trades Union Congress of September 1978 rejected Callaghan’s wage restraints, which was the signal for an offensive by the unions who sought to win back what had been lost in previous years, leading to the “Winter of Discontent” of 1979. In Britain in the 1970s over 13million workers were organised in trade unions – 55% of the workforce.
The attempts of the Labour Party reformist leadership to try to manage capitalism in a period of crisis, rather than do away with capitalism, lead to the demoralisation of the working class that allowed the Tories – with Thatcher – into power. As always the decisive question in class society boils down to the question of leadership. The handing over of the country to the dictates of the IMF by the Labour Party leadership paved the way for the Tory re-election of 1979.
The Role of Thatcher
The combination of the ongoing crisis of British capitalism and the colossal strength of the British trade union movement was a finished recipe for class struggle. A showdown was inevitable. In 1974 the Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath had called an election with the question “who runs the country, us or the miners?” This followed a series of successful miners’ strikes in the early 1970s which had put the Tory government on the back foot. Heath asked the country, and the country gave him their answer: “The miners.” The Labour Party was elected to power in 1974.
The Tories did not forget this humiliation, and what had started as a tendency within the Tory Party began to emerge as a more powerful force.
In the past week this has been dubbed in the media as what Thatcher liked to refer to as the struggle between the “Wets” and the “Drys” in the Tory party. The “Wets” refer to the old Tory grandees, a hangover from the empire days that had controlled the Conservative Party from time immemorial. They were epitomised by Ted Heath, regarded themselves as statesmen, but in reality were out of touch with the needs of British capitalism. Former Tory Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was another example, who was so aghast at the upstart Thatcher and her policy of wholesale privatizations that he likened it to “selling off the family silver”. This wing of the party was wedded to industry and more inclined to negotiate with the trade unions.
The developments of the class struggle in the 1970s had created and solidified another wing, Thatcher’s “Drys”. They represented finance capital and the City of London, resting on a growing base of support among the traditional petit-bourgeois “Tory backwoodsmen”, for “Queen and Country”, the reactionary “hang ‘em and flog ‘em” brigade.
This wing of the party had a dual character, epitomised by Thatcher. Ruthless and vicious in pursuit of their aims, they represented the City boy upstart, the “yuppie” culture of the 1980s, “new money” as opposed to the old established aristocratic Tory grandees with their antiquated (uncompetitive) industry. At the same time the more backward elements from the Tory shires stood for the family and “traditional values”, a Euro scepticism based on nationalism, capital punishment, etc.
Much has been made of Thatcher’s apparent “feminist” credentials. They try to paint her as a woman fighting to succeed in a man’s world. In reality she was a political representative of the material needs of the capitalist class at that time, fighting against an ossified crust that had formed at top of the Tory party. Her sex was accidental to this.
The capitalists have two choices in their search for profits. They can invest in more productive technology in order to out-compete their rivals on the markets. Or they can increase the exploitation of the working class. The process of British capitalism was, and has been, one of decline. Making significant investments in order to compete with the likes of the US, Germany and Japan was not an option. Hence the ascendancy of the City of London and Finance capital inside the Tory party. Britain was to become a “share-owning democracy”: everything was for sale.
But to “sell off the family silver”, to embark on mass privatisation, meant taking on the unions. The Tories had felt the sting of defeat in the 1970s and this time had learnt the lessons.
Even during the Grunwick dispute of 1978, which involved the whole labour movement mobilising in support of a group of Asian women who had been sacked from a photograph processing plant, the seeds of Thatchersim were developing:
"Appalled as I was by what was happening at Grunwick, I did not believe that the time was yet ripe to depart from the cautious line about trade union reform (which I had agreed with Jim Prior) in order to mount radical attack on the closed shop. We had to consider a much wider raft of questions, ranging from the unions' immunity under civil law, to violence and intimidation which only escaped the criminal law because they came under the guise of lawful picketing. Until we had begun to solve some of these problems, we could not effectively outlaw the closed shop." (Margaret Thatcher, The Path to Power).
The closed shop, elements of workers' control in the workplace where the unions had a say over hiring and firing; the solidarity of the trade union movement behind a group of Asian women; the right to picket; all these things appalled Thatcher and she was determined to vigorously fight against them.
Thatcher was formed in the period of humiliating defeats for the Tory party in the 1970s, which hardened a particular wing of the party. It was that Tory Party, not the “Wets”, which capitalism needed in order to wage war against the working class in the 1980s. The attack that was unleashed by the bourgeoisie, spearheaded by Thatcher, was vicious out of necessity – to take on the British trade unions was no walk in the park.
The war that Thatcher unleashed was no-holds barred, and to the death. Every dirty trick was employed. In Grunwick in 1978 Thatcher actively supported scab transport workers against the striking women. She stockpiled coal for years before provoking the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 in order to render it less effective. And she used the full force of the state against them. This was open civil war, brutal and dirty. She utilised the BBC to reverse the footage of the Battle of Orgreave, portraying the miners rather than the police as the aggressors. She covered up the truth of the Hillsborough disaster where the police tried to push the blame onto the Liverpool supporters – a deliberate act of class venom in retribution for the Liverpool council’s militant stand against Tory cuts. She harboured the Fascist, mass-murdering Chilean dictator Pinochet. She attempted to introduce the regressive Poll Tax, which would charge a council tenant family more than a Lord in his mansion. Only this morning on the BBC News Peter Mandelson was reported as saying that the advice he received as Northern Ireland secretary from Thatcher was “don’t trust the Irish, they’re all liars.”
Ordinary working people generally have a sense of fair play about them. The bourgeois tries to cultivate this natural inclination and wed it to their “rules” – bourgeois law, morality, etc. But capitalism could not afford these niceties in the 1980s. They needed a militant, unmasked champion of capitalism in the raw with an utter contempt for working people. They got it in the form of Margaret Thatcher. That is why she is so hated, and that is why people have been rejoicing at the news of her death.
Ding dong the Witch is Dead!
We have written elsewhere in more detail about the crimes committed by Thatcher against the working class in the 1980s. She set out to destroy the power of the unions, starting with the miners whom she literally starved back to work, destroying whole communities. It is akin to the clearing of the highlands in its devastating effects on the north of England. She plundered the state in a vain attempt to “save Britain”, as David Cameron has stated. We are entitled to question whether the Prime Minister has been living on the planet Mars? Even from a bourgeois point of view, this has been a complete failure. It suffices to quote Marx and Engels to explain the relationship between the general, on-going crisis of British capitalism which Thatcher tried to rescue, and where we stand today:
“And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.” (The Communist Manifesto, Chapter 1 - Bourgeois and Proletarians.)
Thatcher was and is still hated because she expressed, in the concentrated form of a single personality, the naked class interests and true nature of British capitalism, not just in words, but in deeds: the destruction of communities, police brutalisation, victimisation, lives wasted in unemployment for decades.
Up and down the country people have been celebrating over the past week. Street parties were called in Brixton where the 1981 riots took place; in Belfast where she let Bobby Sands die; in Glasgow where in Scotland the hated poll tax was first implemented; 3,000 partied in the rain on Saturday in Trafalgar Square where the Poll Tax riots of 1990 occurred and in countless other celebrations in towns and cities throughout the UK.
On the internet countless “memes” have been produced, images of Thatcher with captions such as “Hell is now being privatized”; “Her final wish was to be cremated, but we’ve no coal left”; “Britain isn’t mourning, queue here to piss on Thatcher’s grave”. These have become internet phenomenona. In horror has the Daily Mail carried images of fresh graffiti from around the UK carrying such gentle messages of condolence as “Rot in hell Maggie”. A video clip of the various celebrations throughout the galaxy on the death of Darth Vader at the end of the Star Wars film trilogy has been circulated widely.
Another video clip that has become very popular, from some years ago, is of the Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle, who, on hearing that Thatcher's funeral would cost £3million, said: "For 3 million you could give everyone in Scotland a shovel, and we could dig a hole so deep we could hand her over to Satan in person.
Most famously, the song “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”, from the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” climbed within the space of 6 days to number two in the music charts. Scandalously the BBC refused to play the record on their Sunday show “out of respect” for her family, and with the excuse that the music charts should not be political! However, the song of the pro-Thatcher campaign, “I’m in love with Margaret Thatcher”, which reached only number 35, the BBC played in full.
It is interesting to note that even a number of Tory MPs condemned what they called an act of “censorship” on the part of the BBC. Normally the bourgeois have the media all stitched up and controlled through their ownership of the press and the journalists. The music charts they cannot control with such ease. Once again the BBC, who showed its true credentials at the Battle of Orgreave, serves the ends of Thatcher even after death!
A chorus of condemnation has been raised by the Establishment at the disrespectful way in which people are expressing the joy at Thatcher’s demise. The Reverend Tony Blair called it “distasteful”. As Trotsky said of a British Labour leader, why have an outward policeman when there is an inward one within his soul.
Bourgeois public opinion has made a much better job of condemning those rejoicing in Thatcher’s death than they did in promoting her to Sainthood.
Of course while we join with those who rejoice at the demise of Thatcher, which is a healthy class reaction to an abhorrent individual, we recognize that it is also a protest at the capitalist system itself, today as well in the days of Thatcher.
Some on the left in the past few days have quoted Marx regarding the role of the individual in history:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” (Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte).
The personality of Thatcher was historically chosen for the needs of the capitalist class at a particular time. We cannot understand the role she played unless we understand it in the context of the overall class struggle. Equally, however, we cannot condemn the healthy reactions of ordinary people to the death of a Tyrannical figure. It is very easy to say “Thatcher the individual is not the point, it's capitalism stupid.” Or that it is “comforting for both sides to build hate figures and saints”, as if those who celebrate Thatcher’s death are only doing so for emotional reasons or because she had some dislikeable features of her personality detached from the role she played. This dry, abstract and patronizing approach misses the point completely.
From the lefts who cry “it’s not the individuals stupid” to the Blairs who condemn the lack of taste of ordinary people or sympathy toward a bereaved family; to the hysterical denunciations of the Tories who are apoplectic with rage at the disrespect the plebs show for their social betters; all connive to reinforce, to one degree or another a very powerful force at the disposal of the ruling class: so called “public opinion”:
“Bourgeois public opinion is a close psychological web which envelops on all sides the tools and instruments of bourgeois violence, protecting them against any incidental shocks, as well as against the fatal revolutionary shock, which, however, in the last resort is inevitable. Active bourgeois public opinion is composed of two parts: first, of inherited views, actions, and prejudices which represent the fossilised experience of the past, a thick layer of irrational banality and useful stupidity; and second, of the intricate machinery and clever management necessary for the mobilization of patriotic feeling and moral indignation, of national enthusiasm, altruist sentiment, and other kinds of lies and deceptions.” (Leon Trotsky, Between Red and White, 1921)
Is it immoral to be disrespectful to the dead? Yes, sometimes. The ill-concealed glee expressed by the bourgeoisie at the death of Hugo Chavez last month, in their “cultured, tasteful” manner, was an affront to the international working class.
At other times it is not. The mothers of murdered communists spat on the body of the hanged Mussolini in 1945. No doubt his great admirer Winston Churchill found this all very disrespectful. Perhaps the Reverend Tony Blair would say it was just in bad taste?
A BBC reporter interviewed Kate Evans today, a young mother and protestor at Thatcher’s funeral today.
BBC: “What are you planning to do?”
Kate: “I’m going to turn my back on the funeral procession.”
BBC: “And what do you say to the other people who are here who say “hang on, this is a funeral, that’s offensive and disrespectful”.”
Kate: “I would never have protested at a private funeral. If Margaret Thatcher’s family had taken her body to a church and had a private ceremony I would have stayed well away. But £10million of our money is being spent on celebrating the life of someone who ruined the lives of millions.”
This is the real voice of the British working class who have witnessed in full view the hypocrisy of official bourgeois morality over the past week.
“Morality is a function of living human society. There is nothing absolute in its character, for it changes with the progress of that society, and serves as an expression of the interests of its classes, and chiefly of the governing classes. Official morality is a bridle to restrain the oppressed. In the course of the struggle the working class has elaborated its own revolutionary morality...” (Leon Trotsky, Between White and Red)
Rather than unite the country in mourning, the death of Thatcher has brought to the surface the real deep class divide that exists in Britain, and it is an indication of the gigantic class battles that are being prepared. If we want to have an idea of what those battles will be like we need only look back to the 1980s miners' strike.