The left has never quite known how to deal with Margaret Thatcher in life or in death. Her determination to smash any problematic group is what provokes visceral celebration of her death, whether by miners condemned as ‘the enemy within’ or Chilean refugees. No other figure so personifies the Tory vitriol used against everyone from Hillsborough victims to the homeless dismissed as ‘shirkers’ and thrown on the scrapheap. While the current government’s U-turns are an easy target, her competence in achieving her agenda still paralyses the left.
The left, so profoundly broken by Thatcherism in the 80’s, focuses on the late Prime Minister’s personality. Recovery appears simpler if the political climate change that took place is embodied by her and her alone. Her uncompromising personality and extraordinary capture of the political consensus for over a decade can be claimed as a feminist victory if one puts aside the victimisation of single mothers, the freezing of child benefit, or the Miners’ Strike wives who organised against her. The role of gender in her rise to power can’t be explained outside the context of class and empire. She marketed herself as part-Hyacinth Bucket, as a middle-class housewife fixing the problems men couldn’t deal with, part-Catherine de’ Medici, as an imperial, Churchillian ruler. Her presence as Prime Minister did little to benefit working-class women. For them her status was not as a man or woman, but simply the omnipresent ‘Thatcher’.
It seemed possible to legislatively reverse her policies and leave her as the answer to a pub quiz question before the full extent of her revolution was clear. But not even the riots and non-payment movement over the Poll Tax policy that toppled her government stopped the permanent shift rightwards. Thatcherism set out to change British culture and create an ideological hegemony. It wasn’t just that workers could buy their own council homes (though a third of sold council homes are now owned by private landlords) and apparently no longer needed unions, even though unions’ most effective political legacy is to raise living standards by turning low income jobs into middle-class jobs; when her successors came for the institutions she had not touched like the Post Office or British Rail, the left was defenceless – the political centre had shifted too far and the means of resistance were demobilised.
Margaret Thatcher recognised targeting institutions could destroy left-wing power and produce the capital for radical right-wing policies; North Sea Oil was used to alleviate the destruction of coal and manufacturing industries; monetarist starving of manufacturing allowed for the growth of the financial sector; privatising council homes legitimised privatisation of industry, ensured workers less dependent on unions, and reduced left-wing councils’ spending power; smashing the miners’ unions allowed for further privatisation; abolishing troublesome left-wing councils allowed for the attempted Poll Tax that finally toppled her. Even when a large proportion of the population hated her and the values of Thatcherism, their power and resistance was broken. This strategy was perhaps best explained by Sir Ian ‘Serena’/’Gandalf’ McKellen in opposition to the Section 28 legislation that banned the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools: “Many close to Mrs. Thatcher say she has no objection to individual homosexuals and employs quite a few of them. What she cannot stand is groups of homosexuals. By the same token she doesn’t mind trade-unionists, it’s just that she doesn’t like them joining trade-unions. You can’t have homosexuality on the rates anymore. She is privatising homosexuality. Well I for one intend to take out shares.”
Ken Livingstone – perennial foe of Thatcher and the right – explained, “Every real problem we face today is the legacy of the fact she was fundamentally wrong.” Bit by bit, many of her achievements have been undone. The House of Murdoch has started to crumble even after she gave Mr Murdoch an effective media monopoly and means to bust the printing unions; the Section 28 legislation that legislated pathological fears of gay people during the AIDS plague was reversed by the Labour government and apologised for by David Cameron; Prime Ministers Major and Blair avoided her divisive rhetoric and zeal towards Irish republicans and fostered a peace process; the Hillsborough victims finally had their names cleared and the police’s role in the disaster confirmed last year; Chilean and South African dissidents have started to rebuild their countries after the Thatcher-aligned Pinochet and apartheid regimes fell. Yet it is a harsher country to live in than before she entered Downing Street.
The left’s response has been undermined by never quite understanding how she succeeded. Margaret Thatcher realised that using institutions to create or destroy political meaning was vital to her revolution. Being a natural capitalist she understood political capital was not finite – the British left has never understood this, always waiting for the short-term political vacuum to open with the exception of Nye Bevan’s means of weaving the NHS into the British social fabric. If the former Prime Minister claimed ‘There Is No Alternative’, was she correct? What is the coherent ‘alternative’ the left offers to challenge Thatcherism’s political, economic, and cultural hegemony? The financial crisis beginning in 2007 led many to claim an end to the Thatcherite consensus. But the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government in 2010 shows a political consensus ever more entrenched in the right. Regardless of whether she was truly an intellectual, or her private flexibility amidst public uncompromising over unions, Europe, and Communism, Thatcher was backed up by a well-orchestrated ideological machine of think tanks who still dominate the political conversation today.
Occasionally there are calls for radical ideas to shake up the political consensus, the most mainstream being a land value tax or a guaranteed minimum income. But the battle to win on ideas as Thatcherism has largely done for 30 years needs broader social visions. The closest the left comes to this is the New Economics Foundation’s calls for a 21-hour week and a ‘Green New Deal’. These ideas are powerful because they require destroying the Thatcherite hegemony in order to succeed, and open up a whole range of policies such as re-imagining the role of the state in social care and child care. These ideas are powerful because they offer a break with Thatcherism on matters like unions and the financial sector’s domination, but also because they offer a different vision of the society she famously claimed did not exist – one of compassion that truly values the worth of the individual rather than one which knows “the price of everything and the value of nothing.”