1980s >> 1989 >> no-1017-may-1989

Thatcherism: a PR gimmick

It is hard to believe this now, but in 1984 there was some doubt about whether Margaret Thatcher would carry on for long as prime minister. Of course she did not share these doubts and when she declared her intention of carrying on she did so in words which were not only unmistakeable but also illuminating:

I believe that five years ago the British people made me prime minister because . . .
I believe that I was re-elected with an overwhelming majority last year because . . .

This assumption of the status of a sort of president, elected by direct vote instead of relying on the support of her party MPs, could not have been re-assuring to the Tory hopefuls with nervous ambitions to succeed Thatcher. For one thing, she was asserting a line of contact with the voters which was unhampered by those inconvenient and irritating people she had given ministerial jobs to and who would like to insist that they should somewhere, somehow, come into the reckoning. But five years later, with a decade of residence at Number Ten behind her, there are no longer any doubts or questions: with no substantial opposition to her, Thatcher stays as Tory leader for as long as she chooses. The government is now very much her own creation, purged of almost all dissension. If any of her ministers seem to be in a muddle, to be cutting a less than masterful figure in public and so undermining popular respect for the government, Thatcher will quickly move in to take control, setting up some committee in which she is in the chair or herself taking on some negotiation. This may mean that ministers like Paul Channon and Colin Moynihan — even the Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe — are pushed to one side but it does give the voters the impression that decisive action is being taken on some pressing problem and that, in the long run. protects support for the government.

Thatcher Publicity Machine
A minister in a former Conservative government, Charles Hill, once said that the ‘most riotous fun” he ever had was when he was on the opposition benches: “then we could make speeches without responsibility and make proposals that hadn’t got to be carried out”. Well the 1979 Tories had had a lot of that kind of fun, such was the confusion and impotence of the Labour government in its struggles to protect the interests of British capitalism. Labour’s battles with the unions over pay claims had exposed the fact that, no matter how close the ties between the union leadership and a Labour government, their power to restrain rises in workers’ living standards had limits. Even so. the Tory manifesto in 1979 was by no means dogmatic or extreme as a statement of their intentions or as an analysis of the problems of British capitalism:

Some of the reasons for our difficulties today are complex and go back many years. Others are more simple and more recent. We do not lay all the blame on the Labour Party: but Labour have been in power for most of the last fifteen years and cannot escape the major responsibility.

There was no mention of any large-scale privatising of state industries although the manifesto did state a clear intention to cut back the bargaining power of the unions, to allow council tenants to take out a mortgage on their home and to look into the administration of the National Heaith Service (some of whose employees may now be surprised to learn that in 1979 the Tories planned to “cut back bureaucracy” in the NHS). A reasonable view of the 1979 election, then, is that the working class in Britain did not so much vote positively for a Tory government as against another dose of the Labour Party in power.

If there is such a thing as “Thatcherism” it has developed since then, as Tory Party propagandists have realised how successful a vote-winner is the image of a strong and resolute leadership and how reality can be distorted to give the impression of a clear-sighted, consistent policy for dealing with the affairs of British capitalism. This is an important political factor. The vast majority of voters are members of the working class, who depend on selling their working abilities for their living. Capitalism works against their interests but they continue to support it, which is another way of saying that they are unaware of the facts of life in this system: they are vulnerable to many kinds of deception. Among the most potent of these is the delusion that workers and their employers have some common cause, that if British capitalism is prosperous then so are British workers. Thatcher’s publicity machine has effectively exploited this ignorance: for example she has been depicted as tirelessly travelling abroad in order to handbag foreign leaders who, as foreigners are liable to, have designs on pulling a fast one on the eminently reasonable and patiently peaceable British nation. Of course sometimes handbagging is not enough in which case it becomes necessary to send some British workers dressed up in uniforms and armed with an array of weaponry to do rather more than handbag — to kill other workers and to be killed themselves. But even this, as in the case of the Falklands war, did not damage Thatcher’s standing: indeed the evidence is that it had such as appeal to the more absurd depths of patriotism among workers that it actually helped her to win the 1983 election.

 

Since then there has been an impressive sequence of successes for this government. They have got rid of a number of local authorities, such as the GLC. who were proving troublesome. Although they claim to stand for less state interference they have clamped down some rigid controls on local councils from Westminster. They have privatised a number of state industries, in the process allowing workers to buy a few shares, which again bolstered the delusion of a common national interest. They have killed off the assumption, which at one time had the status of an orthodoxy, that union leaders should hold a central and continuing place in decision making about the economy of British capitalism. They have passed laws which savagely restrict strikers’ ability to carry out their part in an industrial dispute; the miners who once fought so long and so bitterly against pit closures now have no choice but to accept them, as British Coal decides. They have, while claiming to improve state benefits for the sick and unemployed, actually cut them back and in some cases, such as people under 18, have virtually abolished them. They have quickly learned to dress up inconvenient statistics so as to present an untrue picture, for example through various ruses which effectively remove workers (like those under-18s) from the right to apply for benefit and so reduce the figures of unemployed. They have promoted the idea that workers should stand on their own two feet (as if we ever did, or were ever able to do. anything else) rather than depend on the state machine to pamper them with its schemes of health care, social services and benefits.

 

 
Recession Gains Strength
The list is a very long one but it is a mistake to ascribe it to the whims of one person or to the collective malevolence of a government — to this thing called Thatcherism. Many of this government’s policies were in response to, and were possible because of, the recession. For example, since 1945 successive governments have tried to curtail the power of the unions. The Heath government of 1970-74 began its life with stated intentions towards the unions little different from those which Thatcher’s government have been able to carry out. During its final spell the first Wilson government was split over the proposals in Barbara Castle’s white paper In Place of Strife, which were aimed at weakening union power. All these attempts came to grief because the British ruling class felt they could not afford a fight to the death with the unions. This situation was changing, as the recession gathered strength and as the unemployment figures mounted, as the Labour government of James Callaghan came to its end. The Chancellor of the Exchequer in that Cabinet. Denis Healey, is in fact credited — if that is the right word — with being the first Thatcherite Chancellor, such were the policies he was implementing and planning for the future. Thatcher came to power as the recession deepened; one union after another was brought to heel and finally the miners, who were always expected to provide the strongest opposition, were beaten.

 

This type of experience has not been confined to this country. In France, the allegedly socialist President Mitterrand, whose advent to power was greeted so ecstatically by the French workers. did not take long to reverse the policies on which he had won the election. Under the pressure of the problems which the French capitalist class were going through, Mitterrand outdid Thatcher in the zeal of his policies of retrenchment and attacks on working class living standards. It is clear that Thatcher likes no-one so much as a politician who agrees with her; she and Mitterrand are said to have a cordial personal relationship — as she also has with Gorbachev and had with Reagan.

 

So this Tory government is not an aberration in the administration of British capitalism, nor a breach in its continuity. It is simply an appropriate response to the conditions of its time. Although it assumes a character of infallibility in fact, in its own terms, it has made numerous blunders and its history is not one of steadfastly pursuing its objective but of a normal amount of inconsistency. For example in her five year anniversary statement Thatcher claimed one of her government’s achievements to be that interest rates were at their lowest for 16 years. Be that as it may (for interest rates are not something affecting working class conditions in any significant sense) the fact is that they are now at their highest for seven years and likely to rise even higher during the immediate future. Thatcher claimed in 1984 that low interest rates were a sign of her government’s success; how then does she assess the high rates which are now in operation?

 

 
Prejudice and Ignorance
The point is that she is not the Iron Lady of Tory mythology. Her achievement (which by any standards is impressive enough, if diabolical) is the guile with which she and her public relations caravan have seized on the historical opportunity to present her in that way. Thus even what have been called her knee-jerk reactions — which are actually finely tuned to exploit working class prejudices and misconceptions about society — are able to be depicted as responses from strength of conviction and rectitude. When another politician might flounder and fumble in face of a crisis Thatcher responds in what appears to be a direct, firm and clear sighted manner. Against all expectations of her, she is able to tap into the issues which preoccupy the voters, which does not mean that she speaks in their interests. In an interview in 1980 with Hugo Young, the political correspondent of the Guardian, she set out how she sees herself:

 

Deep in their instincts people find what I am saying and doing right. And I know it is. because that is the way I was brought up.

 

Prejudices and ignorance are, by their very nature, difficult to argue against. When they are in harmony on both sides of the class barrier it becomes even more difficult to deal with them. Perhaps that is why Thatcher seems to think that she is invincible. if not everlasting. However the cosy, pernicious circle in which one prejudice links with another to entrap human progress can be broken by the working class making a proper assessment of their standing in society, of the fact that the unimaginable wealth of a minority rests on the exploitation of the majority and that that majority suffer all manner of indignities and impoverishment. After ten years of Thatcher it may be hard for some people who are desperate about the world, to realise that her rule will not last for ever. But it won’t. And if anyone thinks that is reason to rejoice let them take the argument a stage further. Capitalism won’t last for ever either

 

Ivan