“The Empire Never Ended” – Thatcher and the end of democracy

Margaret Thatcher

So there it is. Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first -and so far only- female prime minister has shuffled off her mortal coil at the grand old age of 87. I’ll make something clear: unlike some, although not as many as claimed by The Daily Mail and The Telegraph, who decry any such outbursts of cynical joy as manifestations of the entire “Left”, that terrible, intangible -i.e. pretty much non-existent- social group those two newspapers seem to fear and loathe so much, I take no pleasure in the death of an old woman with dementia. Death is a grim specter that hangs over all of us, and the only significance of Thatcher’s actual demise is that it reminds us of how fragile life is. Other than that, it is a meaningless event. For those of us who rejected her politics during her tenure as PM, and who continue to do so as her legacy casts a sinister shadow over the entirety of UK politics, any celebrations of her passing are not only a bit tasteless but, more importantly, pointless.

But, let’s get something else straight: Margaret Thatcher was a hated woman. She inspires more revulsion than almost any other politician in modern British history. This is not some mean-spirited posturing by the SWP, or a reaction restricted to communist comedians on Radio 4, no matter how much the Mail would like to claim them as the sole spokespersons of the “Left”. Up and down the country there are people who despised Margaret Thatcher, not out of some sort of silly tribalism, but because her policies wrecked their lives and those of people they cared about. This is a reality, and no amount of attempted trivialisation/sensationalising (delete as applicable) on the part of the right-wing press will succeed in obfuscating that (especially not Toby Young’s juvenile suggestion that, had it not been for Maggie, someone like Mark Steel would have wound up in a gulag. Yes, Young’s paid to write such crass drivel). If the tasteless outpourings of glee signify anything, it’s that Thatcher was a divisive and traumatising figure for large numbers of this country’s populace. And guess what? Because of that, we’re not happy with talk of a sort of state funeral. We’re not happy with the sycophantic eulogies currently being proffered by our politicians and most news outlets. We’re not happy that she will get the kind of send-off usually reserved for war heroes and royalty. For a lot of us, she doesn’t deserve it. Maybe the hacks at the Mail and Telegraph should try considering that before turning on their sneer-and-outrage buttons.

Equally, however, those of us who loathed her need to remember some key facts. Margaret Thatcher stands today as the most successful and significant prime minister this country has had since Churchill. She was in office a stunning 11 years, one more than her closest rival -in modern electoral success terms- Tony Blair, and you can’t argue that she transformed this country, perhaps irrevocably. She oversaw economic upturn in several sectors, a wildly popular jingoistic war, and cemented the UK’s relationship with the USA, re-establishing it as a significant global power. This country would not be what it is without her, generally for worse, but sometimes for the better. I don’t want to hide from these facts. There is a large number of people who will, despite being part of the working class she generally scorned, forever adulate her because she allowed them to buy their council flats and injected a bit of national pride into their hearts; or who could identify and admire her rise from a lower middle class background to head of a party and then country dominated by men. We can of course discuss at length the merits of any particular policy, and many others, but that won’t deter from the fact that many people, of all backgrounds, not just Tory toffs and City boys, adored Thatcher, and always will.

Therein lies the fundamental problem for any analysis of the events of the past two days, and of the upcoming week or so: Thatcher won. She may be dead, but she won. Her policies were almost always hideous. She targeted the poorest in the country and systematically dismantled any aspects of their communities and societies that would allow them to oppose her free-market capitalism. She destroyed unions, aided and abetted by a vicious campaign against them by her allies in the press, spearheaded by -who else?- Rupert Murdoch, whose hold on Britain’s media narrative and political class was established at the height of Thatcher’s reign. Supported by the rhetoric of his and other papers, she demonised those on welfare, the working class and left-wing politics to the point that the latter became unpalatable to large sections of a middle class electorate rendered better off by her other policies and the boom of the financial sector. It was a phenomenal exercise in divide-and-rule: as the poorest plunged into unemployment, their communities -especially in the industrial North, Scotland and Wales- brushed aside, with the nouveaux riches and big corporations, benefiting from increased deregulation and the unwavering privatisation of public services, becoming her vocal cheerleaders, even as services such as transport, energy and telecommunications, supposedly ones intended to serve the people, became the playthings of the very richest, and an increasing financial burden on the rest. But, hey, so long as we could feel good about caning some Argies and owning a council flat that once could have housed a poor family, who cared -among the middle classes and above- if the train service got worse and gas and electricity prices rose? We weren’t all in it together, to coin a phrase from Thatcher’s descendents, but most of us didn’t even notice. Those that did were comprehensively deprived of a voice.

She may be dead, but the “reforms” Thatcher used to cut a swathe across British life in the eighties have had a lasting, maybe even permanent effect, so much so that when the supposedly left-wing Labour party came to power in 1997, they themselves had been corrupted by free-market capitalism, to the point that Thatcher saw Tony Blair as part of her legacy. She had effectively destroyed her opposition by forcing it to transform into a slightly more socially progressive clone of her Conservative party. Deregulation of banks continued unabated, corporations continued to harvest more and more of the UK’s wealth into the hands of a select group of privileged individuals, and inequality deepened to a catastrophic degree. We only have ourselves to blame. The media narrative  depicted any views to the left of Blair as “loony” or even dangerous, to the point that ideas such as nationalisation or unionisation have become political minefields. What unions we have only subsist in the public sector, such as among teachers and nurses, as well as  in the rail industry which, whilst privatised, still relies on public funding. This might be the greatest sour joke of all: Thatcher and her ilk have implemented a system in many industries where corporations take over public services only to be bolstered by the supposedly unwanted state, the main effect being that state subsidies line shareholders’ pockets, even as the services the latter are supposed to have taken off the hands of the inefficient state get worse. It’s a gigantic catch-22, and a tunnel from which little -if any- light appears to be shining, because any talk of reclaiming public services for the people is even derided by said people’s supposed party, Labour, let alone the right-wing press or the Tories. The very principles that Labour was founded on have been discarded as part of Blair’s -and therefore Thatcher’s- legacy.

If Blair was bad, what has come along since he and then Gordon Brown were shown the door is even worse, probably even worse than anything Margaret Thatcher could have dreamed up. Riding on flimsy narratives about the budget deficit and a right-wing press campaign against people on benefits, David Cameron’s Tories have taken Thatcherism to a new level, one where those most vulnerable are demonised as somehow responsible for the country’s economic woes whilst the mega-rich, who, if they are big bankers or millionaire tax avoiders, actually are part of the problem, get given tax breaks. Most terrifyingly and frustratingly, the aforementioned narrative fails to be broken, even when exposed as false. Tax evasion and avoidance cost the treasury far more than benefit fraud, yet no matter how often this is repeated, the Tories’ “skivers vs strivers” rhetoric wins out, even among those they’re hitting with bedroom taxes and disability benefit “reforms”. The power of Thatcher’s divide-and-rule technique has never been stronger, turning fellow members of the working class against each other whilst the mega-rich reap the rewards of what little growth the country garners. With the welfare state getting vitriolically undermined, so the way is cleared for even the bastions of public service, such as the NHS and education, to feel the cold blade of privatisation press against their necks. It doesn’t matter that inequality is continuing to separate the richest from their fellow citizens to an unprecedented degree, and clear for all to see. If the Royal Wedding and Elizabeth II’s Jubilee showed anything, is that the presumed right of the elites to lord over Britain’s underclasses has never been never been so profoundly established in our minds. The Queen is set to get a £6 million pay-rise and few will bat an eyelid.

This is why so many of us will feel such rage today, as Thatcher is fawned over by her supine idolators. In her wake, Britain has become a more unequal, less fair and more precarious place to live for too many people. And, call me cynical but I am certain that things will never change. Any alternative progressive vision is systematically and vocally undermined by both the corporate press and the uniformly similar LibLabCon political class, to the point where progressive parties can’t even get more than the odd parliamentary seat. It’s a world where the chattering classes -and, by extension, the people- would rather give airtime and space to the vacuous and noisy xenophobia of UKip rather than look at systems that could actually redress the balance. Thatcher won. The 99% of us who don’t belong to the privileged few will slowly but surely get left behind in the race towards some sort of quality of life.

The line “The Empire Never Ended” has been trotting around my head for some time now, and I’ve even used it in another article. I stumbled across it in Philip K Dick’s Valis, where it’s used in his bizarre gnostic philosophy to describe the sociopolitical system established by a mad god, one that gave us the Roman Empire and supposedly ended with Nixon’s resignation, the latter orchestrated by a “good” and “wise” god, who is some reflection of Jesus Christ. I’m an atheist, so this vision means little to me, for all its interest. And Dick died three years into Margaret Thatcher’s time as prime minister (and a year into Reagan’s presidency), so he missed the way the militaristic empires of old have been replaced, in the wake of the end of the Cold War, by a convoluted regime guided by the monetary interests of a few wealthy individuals, backed loudly by a media dominated by vested interests and supported by an opportunistic political class that, of course, can still turn to a bit of military muscle when needed to further the free-market cause, as Tony Blair, Thatcher’s child, so ably (and, thankfully, to his detriment) demonstrated. The Empire never ended. It just got clever. And, by being clever, through the vision of Thatcher, Reagan and their followers, it’s more powerful than ever. I don’t see it ending anytime soon, and that’s to our eternal shame. I won’t join in with the crude celebrations over Margaret Thatcher’s, no matter how much I hate the fawning she’s getting, mainly because they’re pointless. She won.

* As a footnote to the above, I am startled and dismayed to see that so many gay people have lamented Thatcher’s passing, to the point that these individuals are overlooking -perhaps caught up in the euphoric wave of Thatcher sanctification- that she oversaw the introduction of the most homophobic law the UK has seen since 1967, by which I of course mean Section 28, which prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools and had a hugely detrimental effect on gay kids all over Britain, one that is still being felt today. I can just about get that Gay Times and many of the LGBT community got a bit doe-eyed over The Iron Lady, I assume because of gay icon Meryl Streep, but if we’ve got to the point where, as a community that has had to fight for our rights, we have become so imbued with the attitude of sheer selfishness and greed she promoted that we forget, disregard or neglect our own past, then this world is even more screwed than I thought.

Photo (c) of Don Mcphee. I hope he won’t mind me using it.

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