The Lessons of Magaret Thatcher for the EU - Part I

The debate about Margaret Thatcher’s legacy continues. In Europe of course she is most remembered for her opposition to the socialist Jacques Delors, the fixing of exchange rates and the creation of a new pan European Gold Standard as a prelude to what would amount to a new socialist style command economy.

That debate continues and one hopes that other more expert voices will address it. Suffice it to say that it seems to me from the lessons of the past decade that neither neo-liberalism nor command-socialism can offer a programme for a successful liberal democratic society. Rather that the “Third Way”, which began with the Thatcher vision and ultimately informed the Blair Government should become a way for Europe too. The failure of neo-liberalism should mean not a return to command socialism but to ethical capitalism. The challenge before us all is to create the environment and the conditions for that to work. If we are to find a ‘third way’ and an ethical capitalism able to share power with elected representatives we shall have to look to the politicians. So far this does not appear to be a happy prospect.

However love her or loath her, Margaret Thatcher was one of Europe’s most eminent political leaders. In this short note I would like to learn another lesson from her passing. Her death and her “state” funeral has thrown into relief again the bitterness felt by those who know whole towns and villages which were hit by the rapid changes in Britain’s economic structure which occurred during the Thatcher period. This was economic success for most and empowerment of a middle class, and it also empowered significant numbers of those who would consider themselves “working class,” for example those who were able to buy their own homes for the first time. Although we have recently heard how Margaret Thatcher “divided” Britain, she in fact led her Party to victory in elections where the Conservatives were sometimes taking seats in what had been traditional Labour areas. Privatisation socialist style as we have seen means the rise of the Oligarch. There is no mass ownership in Russia or most ex-Soviet states. Privatisation Thatcher style made little capitalists of us all, and if we ourselves did not buy shares then our pension funds did. 

It is over-simplistic to characterise Thatcherism as “Right Wing” and the new post-communist ethos as “Left Wing”. In empowering the general public Thatcherism was as much a working class movement as any socialist revolutionary might have wished for. Indeed one only has to see the kinds of constituencies the Tories were not only winning but making their own. That generally was in the south and the midlands – in the north and in Scotland it was a different story.    

There were painful adjustments for those corners of the economy which had been used to union-led restrictive practices, anti-competition protection and a population cushioned from economic reality. The Thatcher Government did what had to be done and it is important to note that future Labour Governments have operated very much within the new parameters her Government set out. Never again would the UK return to the state control of so much of its means of production – a characteristic which had all but destroyed its competitiveness and turned Britain into “the sick man of Europe.” 

But this was happening in a small country and in many areas such as South Wales, a highly educated and flexible young labour force was quick to seize new opportunities. The Vale of Glamorgan emerged as a sort of mini Silicon Valley and Cardiff developed as the great city it is today. Universities were expanded, despite warnings from many that “more means worse.” But young people did not have to move far from the old mining towns to find work and if you were in work you had “never had it so good.” 

As we saw in the days leading up to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral there were still dissenting voices. It was clear from the thousands who turned out on the streets that the dissenters were in a small minority in London, but not so in the North East and Scotland. Margaret Thatcher’s Government virtually ended the Party’s role in Scotland and although it remained a significant presence in Wales, even in Swansea, where corruption in local government had disgraced the local Labour Party, the Conservatives were under pressure in the manufacturing areas in the midlands and the north. It is worth remembering that this was all a long time ago but the bitterness felt in some communities is still very strong indeed.

Now take this model and apply it to the European Union. This time it is not the mining villages of Durham or the South Wales Valleys but entire countries like Greece and Spain and of course now Cyprus. Whereas the younger generations in the mining villages had only a few miles to travel to find a different kind of work in the expanding service sectors or High Tech, an entire generation in Greece and Spain not only has to leave the home village but has to leave the country. 

It may be argued that the mines were not closed by politicians – Heath, Wilson, Callaghan - no Government had been able to tame the extremists in the miners’ union.  Arthur Scargill was not actually a miner, but a Communist political agitator and a union bureaucrat who led the National Union of Mineworkers to defeat and who closed the mining industry. He also very nearly destroyed the Labour Party. He had quite an opinion of himself and indeed recently sued the union for its failure to keep him in a suitable lifestyle in retirement (including his grace and favour Barbican flat).  NUM general secretary Chris Kitchen, recently observed dryly; "I honestly do believe that Arthur, in his own world, believes that the NUM is here to afford him the lifestyle that he's become accustomed to."

This was the kind of opposition faced by a UK Government democratically elected and at times with very widespread support even in traditional Labour areas.

As this was going on the Labour Party was being taken over by those who put ideology before elections and as Sir Gerald Kaufman famously remarked, in 1983, the Labour Party manifesto was “the longest suicide note in history.” 

Why against this background do even a small minority of people look back on the Thatcher period with such emotional hatred? The anger of “destroyed communities” has not gone away and has been passed on as a kind of myth or political legend to the next generation. Those protesting and many of those ready to celebrate a death – however terrible and inhuman that may seem to any sensitive person, are those who are influenced by this phenomenon. The myth of the Witch, or the “evil Thatcher” or whatever, though fundamentally based on ignorance and some rather selective political history, remains a strong presence in the political landscape.

Let us now ask what future generations will make of the whole regions, and indeed whole nations laid waste by the European Union’s economic policies. The anger and bitterness we saw in a relatively small but vocal minority is as nothing compared to what we shall see in the years ahead from those now suffering from the economic depression inflicted by the Troika. 

Read  part II here 

photo credit: charles.hope via photopin cc