1980s >> 1984 >> no-959-july-1984

Is there life after Thatcher?

Ungrateful dole queues and Social Security claimants did not celebrate the news that Margaret Thatcher intends to be Prime Minister after the next general election. Will they really have to endure the sculpture of her hair and the nag of her voice for so long? Will she rule over their misery for ever? Or, if she ever does leave the scene, will there be very much left for her successor to take over?

With her huge parliamentary majority, Thatcher can afford to ignore such reservations. Under her leadership, she claims, something called Britain has found something called a new confidence and purpose and all sorts of desirable things arc going up—industrial output: the number of people in work: “personal income”; profits. These are obviously examples of manipulating statistics, viewing movements from a base figure which is convenient so that changes always seem to be as you want them. The allegedly upward movement in employment, for instance, has clearly not happened since Thatcher came to power although it may be possible to make it seem that something like it has occurred in very recent times. So the three million who have not been part of the increase in employment, those who are in work but subject to the downward pressure on wages which has followed large scale unemployment. and those who battle to survive on the meagre state allowances, will not be impressed by the figures. Neither will those who find it increasingly difficult to get prompt medical treatment or access to social services or who are aware that civil liberties are under a growing threat . . . Of course we are accustomed to Prime Ministers telling us that their period of office is one of progress into an enduring prosperity but beneath this specious rhetoric an odious reality festers.

There was rather more gratitude and celebration among the Tory grassroots, although it must be said that political awareness does not flourish in that particular piece of undergrowth. Thatcher is, after all, an unexpectedly effective vote-winner and her blatantly populist appeal to the more regressive impulses among the working class pleases the constituency workers who lick all those envelopes and trudge all those streets. The Prime Minister’s loyal parliamentary lieutenants also made the predictable noises of ecstatic expectation, perhaps spurred on by the unusually large number of cx-Cabinet ministers now lolling on the back benches as a result of disagreeing with the female fuhrer.

In another part of the Conservative Party feelings were not unmixed. Those who see themselves as prospective occupants of Number Ten may become restless and rebellious if Thatcher hangs on so long that they miss their chance; like many of her predecessors, she has neglected to bring on any likely successor, as was the case with Eden and Churchill. Thatcher has also developed a knack of absenting herself when these aspirants are in trouble, as she did when Leon Brittan was wrestling with the siege at the Libyan Embassy. From the unlikely origins of a provincial grocer’s daughter, Thatcher has learned much about the dirty game of politics.

Much of the dismay which greeted Thatcher’s declaration was caused by her name being linked with unemployment, cuts in services, pit closures, attacks on the National Health Service and so on. People who think like that regard the present plight of British capitalism and the wretched poverty of millions of workers here as the results of a deliberate, unnecessary Tory policy, largely the personal inspiration of Thatcher herself. This too is a grass roots opinion and it is just as ill-informed and unhelpful as the ecstacy in the Tory constituencies.

The first thing to be said on this score is that Thatcher’s actions arc by no means unprecedented. In her anniversary statement, when she looked back on five years of Tory rule and forward to centuries more of it, she gave this warning to all workers who might think of struggling to protect their living standards against the government’s attacks: “A lot remains to be done . . . and every bit of industrial disruption just adds to the mountain we have to climb”. Nearly twenty years ago, on 26 October 1964, Harold Wilson was saying the same sort of thing, in one of his regular hectoring appearances on TV: “The old fashioned restrictive practices have no place. We must get rid of monopoly practices, overmanning the job, costly demarcation arguments, and a temptation to indulge in wildcat strikes”. Wilson was talking about an “.  . . extremely serious economic situation which the country is facing”, and just as he was a precedent for Thatcher so there were precedents for him. In the twenties many staple industries, on which much of the fortunes of British capitalism rested, were in decline. Coal, iron and steel, shipbuilding and textiles were particularly hard hit by the rise of foreign competition and as they were in many cases concentrated in a few centres their decline caused severe hardship and depression also to be concentrated. Just as they are nowadays, areas like the Rhondda and the Tyne became wastelands of despair, relieved by occasional flashes of rebellion. It seemed then, as it is thought by some people now, that large segments of industry in Britain were being destroyed never to revive—and there was a popular tendency to blame this on the deliberate policy of a particularly callous government. The similarly popular remedy was to change the party in government to one which promised to be less callous—like one including Philip Snowden, Jimmy Thomas, Ramsay Macdonald . . .

Illustration by George Meddemmen.

Anyone who thought, and who now thinks, like that simply does not understand capitalism and its cycle of economic activity. The depression of the twenties was followed by a measure of recovery before the Great Crash and the intense misery of the thirties. The war saw another recovery and for some years a condition in which full employment was itself a problem to the capitalist class because of the strength it gave to the workers’ bargaining. A succession of governments, Labour as well as Conservative, grappled with the problem of holding wages back at a time when the pressure was for them to rise. They called their attempts at restriction by many names—a pay pause, stages one. two. three . . . : the social contract, and so on. They all amounted to the same thing: a government trying to do its job of running capitalism in the interest of the ruling class and against the interests of the working class.

The post-war boom, so long-lived, was beginning to falter just as the minority Labour government of 1974/9 came to office. After a brief honeymoon with their election manifesto, during which they bought off the miners’ strike which had given such anguish to Ted Heath, Labour got down to the affairs of the British capitalist class—which meant assaulting the workers’ living standards. As the recession deepened Labour deserted the very Keynesian policies which, they had once so confidently argued, were the positive remedy to any slump:

   It was Denis Healey, not Geoffrey Howe, who first put monetarism on the agenda of British politics, and abandoned a Keynesian strategy. It was Healey, not Howe, who put prices and profits before public spending and jobs (Stuart Holland MP, Guardian 16 June 1980).

Keynesianism was not alone as a cherished principle to be rejected by that government. A party with its roots in the trade unions, and so to be expected to look favourably on union activities to improve workers’ conditions, they fought the unions to the last day of their office. When that courageous and useful bunch of workers, the firemen, were forced into strike action in an effort to improve their meagre pay, it was the Labour government which contemptuously broke the strike with the use of blacklegging troops. When the hospital workers, another group of socially useful people, struggled for better pay and conditions, Labour ministers urged that blacklegging should be a normal, accepted practice:

    I assert very clearly that everyone has the right to work and everyone has the right to cross a picket line. It is not a sacred object and I hope they will do so (James Callaghan. House of Commons, 23 January 1979).

Of course the Labour government claimed that all of this—holding wages down, breaking strikes, cutting services—was all done to improve our lives although they could never satisfactorily explain just how this was to come about. It was all, they said, something to do with fighting inflation, by which they meant rising prices and the inexorable alternative was high unemployment, once described by Denis Healey as “. . . by far the biggest single cause of avoidable human misery and suffering’’ (House of Commons. 20 April 1972). At the time the Tories were in power so it was safe for Healey to anguish about human suffering but when his time as Chancellor ended unemployment had doubled, extending this avoidable misery to twice as many people as under the Tories. Healey had celebrated his accession to the Chancellorship with a threat to squeeze the rich until the pips squeaked but in the event the rich did rather less squeaking under Labour than under the Tories. During the Heath government the proportion of wealth owned by the top 1 per cent fell from 30 per cent to 22.5 per cent; under Labour it climbed, to 23.5 per cent in 1975, 24.9 per cent in 1976 and so on.

The reasonable conclusion from all this, comparing one period of capitalism to another, and government by one party to that of another, is that there is nothing of significance to choose between them. Capitalism in the early thirties under MacDonald is little different from capitalism in the early eighties under Thatcher. Anyone who thinks that things here are so bad that they should escape abroad must think again, for there is little to choose between capitalism in one country before another. In France, for example, the Mitterrand government, which was greeted by delirious left-wingers as the start of a socialist revolution, is now carrying out policies which are to all intents and purposes identical with those of the Giscard d’Estaing administration which it succeeded. Finance Minister Jacques Delors recently spelled out what Mitterrand “socialism” means:

   The road to economic salvation can only follow a model which puts the accent on a drastic drop in inflation, maintenance of the buying power of our currency, and the ferocious search for competitiveness.

Delors’ austerity programme, according to the Guardian (4 May 1984) is being compared to those of Thatcher, Reagan and the former right wing Premier Raymond Barre. By the same token it could also be compared to those of Healey and of Labour Chancellors of the past—Cripps, Snowden, Gaitskcll.

None of this is coincidental. This present recession affects capitalism worldwide and politicians all over the world are trying to deal with it in the same futile, anti-working class way as their predecessors in office did. There have been slumps before and there will be again, for they are endemic to capitalism. The preferred remedies remain basically unchanged through time and space despite the fact that at no time and nowhere have they been effective. The only thing which changes is the political personalities who promote these remedies, and the succession of impoverished workers who obstinately support what the politicians represent in the face of the massive evidence that this is all a waste of effort.

The simple, clear conclusion to be drawn from this is that we must look for something more fundamental and enduring than the characters of politicians and their panicky responses if we are to understand capitalism and why it works as it does. A social system rooted in class ownership of the means of life is essentially anarchic; it cannot be controlled by economists or politicians; it must produce conflict and impoverishment for the mass of the people. That was what happened before Thatcher ever came squawking into her Grantham babyhood and it will be happening after she is gone to her grave.

So yes, there will be life after Thatcher—the life of capitalism. When she leaves office some other politicians will go through the same impotent deceptions and will be the object of a similar ill-informed adulation.