Comment | To defeat Thatcherism, we must leave Thatcher behind

John Lubbock argues we must leave Thatcher's ghost behind to undo her poisonous legacy.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Tuesday, April 9, 2013 0:00 - 1 Comment

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Maggie Thatcher Brixton 1

Hundreds gather in Brixton to celebrate news of Margaret Thatcher’s death (photo: John Lubbock)

“Antony: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.”
William Shakespeare – Antony and Cleopatra, Act 2, Scene 3

On Monday night in Brixton, locals had a little protest party which made good on a promise that many on the left have been making for years now: to celebrate Thatcher’s demise. Some people saw this as spiteful or sick. By and large these are people who have no cause to understand the antipathy many feel towards her.

Having worked on Middle-East human rights issues, I personally think that it is a mark of our open society that people can be joyously offensive to authority and not suffer brutal repression, which is something we should be proud of. The protest in Brixton was calm and orderly at least until I left at 10.30, with only minor drunken fisticuffs reported among the inebriated stragglers at the end.

I see nothing wrong in this kind of cathartic release of pent-up frustration, and people who don’t like it will have to lump it, just like the half of the country which despised Thatcher’s policies had to put up with her being the longest serving prime minister of the 20th century.

The fact that Tony Blair thinks that these events were in ‘poor taste’ frankly makes me want to assure him that we’ll hold a much classier standard of party to celebrate his no doubt peaceful expiration at the end of a long, conceited life. For just as there are those who have never forgiven Thatcher for what she did to the working class, there are many who will never forgive Blair for Iraq.

However, I would concede that picketing Thatcher’s actual funeral is a slightly different matter which would invite comparisons to the pathetic tactics of the Westboro Baptist Church. To concentrate on the person of Thatcher is to ignore the larger picture – it’s the ideology she helped to create which should be addressed, because unlike her it’s still alive and kicking.

Both pro and anti groups seem guilty of a basic simplification in their emotive, kneejerk reactions to Margaret Thatcher’s death. This is somewhat understandable, given that she was a politician who inspired a uniquely gut-based response in the public, bypassing logical assessments of her policies by coating them in a vague sense of nationalist duty and economic necessity. But perhaps now she is firmly rooted in the past (it has been nearly a quarter of a century since she left office), it should be possible to take a step back and view the person and the ideology she created as separate things.

The fetishisation of free-markets, the apotheosis of laissez-faire capitalism, Monetarism, Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism… call it what you want; it has become the dominant organising (or perhaps disorganising) principle of our political and economic culture. Calling it Thatcherism conflates it with one person who was its ringmaster, but the ideology itself never had any sacred cows at the start. It was about destroying the existing institutional mechanisms, products of post-war social democracy, which had failed to protect Britain from global economic uncertainty.

By the 70s, stagnant institutional systems were starting to be seen as obstructive by a new business and political elite who emerged after the war. Thatcher personified this new elite, with their vision of an economically ‘liberal’ society informed by their upbringings in upwardly mobile middle-class families. It is often said that Thatcher’s father was a greengrocer, when he was the owner of two greengrocers. Being a market trader is rather different from being a small businessman.

The free-market, business-friendly interests of these emerging politicians meant they were shocked and embarrassed by the weakness and failure of Britain’s governments during the 70s. Ask the average Briton who was Prime Minister during the 70s and it’s likely Thatcher is the only one they might be able to name. The inability of Heath, and then Wilson and Callaghan’s short-lived governments to deal with the economic shocks produced by the OPEC nations’ assertion of autonomy and power, coupled with the decline in Britain’s traditional industrial economic base was a blow to Britain’s ego.

This produced a feeling of political helplessness, which, along with the ongoing loss of most of Britain’s colonial possessions, was a shock to the powerful, nostalgic image of British greatness which had been a ‘necessary illusion’ invoked by Churchill to bolster morale during the Second World War. Adam Curtis’ film about this nostalgic illusion is riveting stuff which should be on the history curriculum, but is perhaps not a flattering enough portrayal of British history to warrant inclusion in our myopic vision of our own past.

Into this stagnant political vacuum, Thatcher stepped with her promise of returning Britain to its past glories. She set herself up as the hero of a nationalistic saviour story as fictitious as that of King Arthur. This is why you keep hearing Tories saying that she ‘saved Britain’, quite oblivious to the feelings of those whose communities her policies destroyed.

Equally, in lionising herself, she created a powerful but fictitious image of a strong leader battling entrenched forces including sexism and the trade unions in order to do ‘what was right’ for her country. But this was not a valiant and honourable struggle but a merciless bloodbath with no consolation for the losers, and no gracious magnanimity on behalf of the victor.

This reified image has been eulogised and demonised since her death. But both sides misplace their energies, because what they are really fighting over is whether we want to continue or reverse the brutal reforms Thatcher started and Blair and Cameron have continued. The skirmish over the personage of Thatcher herself is little more than a proxy in this larger battle.

Now it is Thatcher’s ideology which has become the new orthodoxy, the entrenched and stagnant system which obstructs social mobility, widens inequality, polarises society and is creating a new aristocracy of hereditary business empires like Murdoch’s News Corporation.

Thatcher was just the messenger. She didn’t write the economic foundations for Monetarism, and she wasn’t the only Neoliberal. I think for the ‘Left’ (whatever that means now – I’m using it as a byword for a nebulous mass of political nonconformists and progressives), a moment of cathartic symbolism which they had long dreamed of was inevitable. Now this has passed, a sober assessment of the last 30 years of neoliberal reforms is necessary for us to decide what to keep and what to discard.

Let us not use Thatcher’s ghost as a rhetorical tool to sway the mob, as Mark Antony does in his famous monologue in Julius Caesar. No more rosy visions of British past glories. The Left needs to decide how to counter the Right’s stranglehold on political and economic ideology in order to avoid 30 more years of Socially Darwinist Neoliberalism. To do that they need to live in the Now, and develop a new animating philosophy which can somehow unite their fractured ranks.

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John Lubbock

John Lubbock is a graduate in international politics and human rights MA at City University, London and research and advocacy officer for the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights in London. He tweets @jwsal

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Paletleme Amirliği – Nisan 2013 | Emrah Göker'in İstifhanesi
Apr 19, 2013 8:18

[…] “We Must Leave Her Behind” […]

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