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Editorial: Thatcher, the Icon

In life, Margaret Thatcher, never humble, gladly accepted her transformation from shopkeeper’s daughter into capitalist icon. She was The Iron Lady, TINA, and the woman who made Britain great again. She was the architect of ‘Thatcher’s Britain,’ a tough, free-market economy whose backbone she stiffened with ‘Victorian values.’ To her supporters, Margaret Thatcher arose as the conquering hero who broke the power of the unions and saved the country. To her detractors, she was the harpy that devastated working-class communities, destroyed British industry and took pleasure in doing it. Francois Mitterrand, the French ‘socialist’ president fancied he saw in her, ‘the eye of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.’

The Thatcher myth obscures the reality. In truth, the grocer’s daughter followed policies that were neither exceptional nor original. When she came to power in 1979 capitalism in much of the world was experiencing its biggest economic depression in 30 years. In Britain, as elsewhere, business enterprises were failing, production had slumped and unemployment had begun to soar. Governments of all political colours were reacting to the economic downturn in the only way that was possible under the iron laws of capitalism, by cutting back on spending and allowing the system to take its course. Those who acted otherwise were soon given a lesson by the system.

If there was anything distinctive about Thatcher’s politics, it lay only in the enthusiasm and energy with which she set herself to her task. ‘Thatcherism’ was a political style: abrasive; uncompromising; and ruthless. It was unapologetic. ‘There Is No Alternative’ she said and hammered the words home again and again. Her message was simple and accurate. Capitalism runs in accordance with its own laws and, despite the assertions of many politicians, offers little choice to those who claim to run it. TINA cut back on government spending, opened the nationalised industries to the discipline of the market, allowed unprofitable businesses to fail and sank her teeth into the miners. She was very, very thorough.

Yet the myth prevails, and we should beware of it. Above all, we should beware of the myth promoted by those that hate her for what she did. Thatcher the hate figure is of immense value to capitalism. It is easy to imagine embodied in the woman herself all the ugly and anti-working-class features of the system: its relentless drive to minimise working-class incomes; its unconcern for working-class lives; and its insatiable demand for profit above all other things. These are its unchanging features; Thatcherism was merely its naked political expression. It may be necessary to remind ourselves at this time that the death of Thatcher, real and symbolic, does not imply the possibility of a more benign management of capitalism. That would be to create another dangerous myth: Thatcher the scapegoat, symbolically carrying into death the sins of capitalism and purifying the system. But capitalism can only be run in the interests of the capitalist class.

For socialists, celebration is premature. The death of Thatcher changes nothing. We will save our celebrations for the time when capitalism, the real enemy of the working class, is defeated.