Death in Downing Street
“The Tory Party can be a ruthless monster when it sees power slipping away” (Lord Prior, former Conservative Cabinet Minister).
Everyone had expected that she would go kicking and screaming but when they forced her out of Ten Downing Street she went obediently, delighting the hordes of media hacks by shedding a few quiet tears. Not necessarily tears of grief: it is possible to weep from anger or frustration or from the humiliation of being forced to face an unpleasant reality.
For some time she had seemed to believe she was invulnerable and could go on as prime minister for as long as she chose. But the day came—after the by-elections in Bradford North and Eastbourne—when the Conservative leadership decided that she had deceived herself too long for the good of the party. It did not come into their calculations that Thatcher had been deceiving millions of people for over eleven years.
Since 1979 Thatcher has steadily dominated British politics so that elections became almost a judgement on the woman in Number Ten instead of on her government and its individual candidates. Thatcher talked as if there was a direct, personal bond between her and the millions who voted Tory. On the fifth anniversary of coming to power she said “I believe that five years ago the British people made me prime minister because . . .” and then “I believe I was re-elected with an overwhelming majority last year because . . .” At that time—in 1984—there was some dismay in the Conservative leadership at her declaration that she intended to be leader in the next election. There was even more when, after the Tory victory in 1987, she told us she would go on and on winning elections and taking prime minister’s questions and humiliating her ministers until her famous energy flagged and she was too frail to wield a handbag any more.
Pop stars and politics
Like many politicians—and pop stars and comedians—Thatcher aroused reactions which were often at one extreme or the other. You loved her or your hated her. as the Sun reader would say; unless you are a socialist, in which case you most likely regard the whole lot with a numb horror. Those who loved her, who wept when she fell, adored her as a person who held staunch principles rooted in that awful cornershop in Grantham, a person who always knew her mind and fought to the death for her beliefs. She was, in other words, just the person, after those years of cowardly consensus-politics, to stop the unions holding the country to ransom, to weed out those scruffy teachers who wreaked such moral havoc in the permissive sixties and to put those impertinent foreigners in their place. These sentiments were encapsulated in a rebuke by Cilla Black one evening when she instructed an ungrateful audience that Thatcher had “put the Great back into Great Britain”.
As many of her ministers found to their cost, Thatcher did not take easily to being thwarted; she liked to have her own way. But this does not mean that she did not at times make U-turns in her policies, even if she tried to disguise them by saying that it was everyone else who had been out of step. The final example of this was when she took the “advice” of the Men in Grey Suits and abandoned the fight for the Tory leadership. Someone of Thatcher’s reputed strength and resolution should not have been so moved by the prospect of defeat on that second ballot as to run away from the battle, especially after she had so bluntly declared that she was still fighting. This was not the attitude which so pleased her admirers during the Falklands war—although of course in the Falklands it was other people who were in the battle, taking the casualties.
Putting the Great Back Into Great Britain meant Thatcher storming into international conferences to cow the foreign statesmen by her ruthless exposure of their deceits. It was calculated to encourage people as confused as Cilla Black and as bigoted as the massed readership of the Sun in their prejudice that there is something historically desirable in all things British and that whatever it is must be defended against the threats from those jabbering, treacherous foreigners.
In contrast, other prime ministers and other politicians—including Conservatives—have for a long time been facing up to the real situation of the decline of British capitalism in the world. This decline has happened in spite of the occasional attempt to conceal it with turgid patriotic nonsense. Some politicians, like Enoch Powell and Nicholas Ridley, have accepted it sulkily, rambling on about threats to British sovereignty from European bureaucrats. Others, like Heseltine, have argued that the best hope for British capitalism is to become part of a large European conglomerate, impaired sovereignty and all.
Patriotic workers have applauded Thatcher’s verbal assaults on foreign leaders and her stand as the champion of a Great Britain although these things are not relevant to their lives. They take no account of the cruel waiting lists for hospital treatment and of vital, life-saving treatment being withheld because of a shortage of cash. They ignore the homeless who, according to a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, have doubled in numbers since 1978. They pay no heed to the deepening misery of those on the lower slopes of poverty; one recent estimate by the Institute for Fiscal Studies was that over 12 million people were living at or below the official poverty line. They say nothing about the social despair which causes increasing crime; Home Office statistics record a rise of 17 percent in the second quarter of 1990 over the same period in 1989. These are the harsh realities of life under capitalism in Britain and what really lies behind Thatcher’s regal claim, as she vacated Number Ten. that “we” leave Britain in better shape than “we” found it 11½ years ago.
The standard Thatcherite technique of dealing with poverty in the 1980s and 1990s has been to reassure themselves that it is all a matter of choice. Since 1979, the Tories tell us, they have overwhelmed us with the opportunity to choose between private and state medical treatment, between council services and those tendered out to private contractors, between joining in the great Thatcherite bonanza of making loadsamoney or being poor. We can choose to be like someone struggling to keep a family on the dole or we can be as rich as Michael Heseltine.
They proudly tell us about privatised industry with its opportunities for everyone to buy shares by just filling out a form and borrowing the money to pay for them. It sounds impressive until we realise that many workers who bought shares in that way sold them as quickly as possible. In the case of British Gas, between December 1986 and April 1987 the number of shareholders fell from 4½ million to a little over 3 million. The “public” stake in British Telecom declined from 20 percent to 12 percent between privatisation in December 1984 and June 1987. Both concerns were, to all purposes, in the hands of big investors—which do not include members of the working class.
There has been a similar story with the so- called property-owning democracy. The rise in numbers of workers living in homes which they are buying with money borrowed from banks or building societies has been hailed by the Tories (and by the Labour Party) as a sign of immense social progress. In fact it is of little consequence to the workers how they pay for where they live. At times there can be some slight advantage in having a mortgage—in being in thrall to some money-lending institution. At others there may be some small gain in being beholden to a landlord.
The fiction that a worker who “buys” a house acquires greater security and higher social status has been exposed by recent events, as thousands who have been unable to keep up with their mortgage repayments have had “their” house taken over. This is called repossession when in fact the bank or building society never really lost possession in the first place. In one particularly tragic recent case of what has become known as mortgage misery, a father cracked under the strain and, rather than lose “his” house, he burnt it down, badly injuring his pregnant wife and killing the two-year old daughter he adored. He was sent to prison for six years, to reflect on the ruin of his life in Thatcher’s Great Britain. For the building society, who were guilty of no crime, it is of course business as usual.
But in spite of the misery the Thatcher mystique survived and this was partly due to her reputation of supposedly energising a transformation of British capitalism: with a little help from her Chancellors of the Exchequer, she had worked an economic miracle which would soon have its effects on all our lives. Of course unemployed workers, or the chronically sick or the homeless, might have wondered what all this talk about an economic miracle amounted to. Perhaps Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, the Chancellors who were once held in reverence for their miraculous talents but later despised for their blunders. might have thought on the same lines.
The government were always clear on what was meant by economic success. Thatcher set out her benchmarks in her statement on the fifth anniversary of her elevation to prime minister when she claimed the credit for:
Inflation at its lowest for 16 years . . . Interest rates are at their lowest for six years . . . Profits are rising—and everyone wants to work for a profitable firm.
She was lucky in her timing then but by her tenth anniversary there was a different state of affairs so that among her extravagant claims of triumphant progress there were doubts:
Yes there are problems. Inflation at 7½ percent to 8 percent is too high . . . The choice before us is a temporary rise in interest rates or a long term rise in inflation.
At the same time British capitalism’s balance of trade is in serious and chronic deficit and unemployment, having fallen, is rising again. These matters—”inflation”, interest rates, balance of trade—are of no real significance to the working class and should have no political influence on them except to show how by their own standards the Thatcher government failed to control the economy. The claim to be the originators of an economic miracle was no more than a taking of credit for a particular phase in the economic cycle. Now, when the cycle is in another phase, they are desperately trying to evade the blame.
From all sides the immediate future of British capitalism is gloomy. Thatcher’s talk of more profitable firms must be set against an annual rate of company failures approaching 25,000 and the warnings from organisations like the CBI that Britain is on the brink of the most serious recession since the Tories came back to power. The reason for this is that no government can control capitalism. The reason for the Tory bombast about economic miracles and “temporary” problems in the economy is that no government can ever own up to being impotent.
Let us hope that the Thatcher years have at least killed off the potent fallacy that female political leaders are preferable to male because they are more perceptive and compassionate. To begin with. Thatcher’s campaign to win the Tory leadership from Heath in 1975 was notable for its ruthless manipulations of the truth. After that she submitted herself to a cynical grooming which changed her hair, her clothes, her voice, even the way she sat before the cameras. To protect her own personal position she was ready to dismiss, or force out, any number of ministers while she was publicly praising them as valued colleagues. And in a last desperate ruse to hang on to power she blatantly tried to cripple the Heseltine campaign by bringing forward the nomination date: in other words, by manipulating the rules for her own advantage.
Thatcher was described as unusual—unique, even—because she held opinions honestly and expressed them with a passion based on her conviction that she was right. But she was actually a commonplace politician, running capitalism as it has to be run, against the interests of the millions who are misled into voting for the system. She lost her job, not because of her “principles” were unsound—that is really no more than a side issue—but because she threatened to be an election loser.
As one Conservative MP said a year before, when Anthony Meyer challenged her for the leadership:
Is she the best person for the job at present and is she going to be the winning formula for the next general election? We are a party interested in being in government.
So in the end it all came down to the same tawdry cynicism as usual. Thatcher was really no different and nothing important will change now that she has gone. It is just that, in his euphoria, John Major should remember that if the day should come when he is an election loser then the Grey Suits will be waiting on him too.