Margaret Thatcher: A deeply qualified encomium…

Never trust the Irish. They are all liars, liars.

That was Peter Mandelson this morning recounting Margaret Thatcher’s words of advice to him on being made Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (possibly in lieu of some more substantial criticism of the late British Prime Minister) who is buried today under a plan that does not radically differ from those laid out under Mandelson’s New Labour regime.

I didn’t get much sleep the night new Labour won their landslide victory in 1997.

Thatcher quote

Taking my kids to school the next morning, a Croatian friend remarked that she did not think a Labour government would make much positive difference to any of us. But the unconfined joy of that day related as much to the fact that after 18 years the story had finally changed.

Margaret Thatcher was an immense figure for people of my age, or older. Love her or hate her, you could hardly ignore her.

In ’79 her citation of Saint Francis seemed more of a taunt after a bruising election campaign. Easy to forget now that she won the 1979 election on the basis that unions were entitled to free collective bargaining (an enticement of the free market). She took pragmatic care to end the winter of discontent by giving the public sector unions pretty much what they wanted.  It was only by 1981/2 that she started slowly putting on her own squeeze.

Thatcher was a brilliant communicator, who applied continual pressure on her front bench spokesmen to ‘get the presentation right’. So much so that when she began to run out of radical ideas, she was inclined to blame poor presentation rather any failure in the substance of her government’s policy.

But we do know for certain that she worked hard and long, not least because of her impromptu  account of what she was doing at 3.15am 12 October 1984 when the bomb in the Grand Hotel, Brighton exploded. It’s not the sort of thing you invent at such a time just to ‘create an impression’.

I experienced her first four years in office at home, in Northern Ireland. Outside of the trauma of the hunger strikes (in which she had to fight a premise set for her by Labour’s Merlyn Rees), and some downward pressure on Welfare and the health service not a lot happened. Although it was her government which finally killed off the Delorean project in October 1982.

She lived her political life by one analogy:  “…the larger the slice taken by government, the smaller the cake available for everyone.” Thus came the sell off of utilities like gas electricity and (inadvisedly) water. In floating off the TSB she pulled off that greatest of tricks and sold us savers a bank that we already owned.

But it was a shift of ownership from the collective to the individual. And it was replicated a dozen times in several ways. The council house sales at knock down (knock off) prices created spoils for the boomer generation that has dinned into them the need to prioritise their own children’s education such that they are able to compete in what has become an over priced undersupplied market.

It made Mrs Thatcher a tacit heroine to thousands of quiet Tories (some of them living in surprising parts of Northern Ireland) who took the opportunity and the social permission to do well out of a dash for wealth and facilitated a flight from class politics that many perceived had held them back. In that regard these cultural effects may have been more profound than any of her more direct political actions.

As a politician she was gifted with a poorly equipped and over confident opposition. Scargill, Foot, Galtieiri and even the IRA all underestimated her determination and (to a lesser extent) her pragmatism. She fortunate too to have the technological zeitgeist behind her. The neo Victorian British Prime Minister, embraced technology as enthusiastically as the first generation of driven industrialists.

Eddie Shah in Warrington, then Rupert Murdoch in Wapping fought skirmishes with the unions that went with the grain of history. Their victories over the print unions – which reekcd of Ludditism – cleared the last resistance to technological progress. Albeit one that has go on to bring the newspaper business itself to yet another, possibly terminal, financial crisis.

After the Falklands War her career thrived on conflict, right up until that final inglorious death rattle of the poll tax.

But she was probably more puritan than pilgrim. The idea of Britain (or probably more accurately Britannia) appealed to her. The Falklands was her opportunity to give symbolic expression to that in a limited conflict which she deemed a defence of ‘home soil’.

But if Thatcherite ideas became current across the western world they were transmitted more by soft power than hard. He legacy in Ireland could be traced as easily in the Tallaght strategy (in which the opposition supported the government’s draconian programme of fiscal tightening) as in any geopolitical legacy from the Anglo Irish Agreement.

Rather she saved most of her martial instincts for the ‘enemy within’ (with all the human cost that entailed). She hated any rival power to the market. She may have favoured ‘free collective bargaining’, but she despised the closed shop. And she met Scargill’s radical activism with what was to prove overwhelming force.

In government, what she could not control or sell off, she centralised. What she could not centralise, she abolished. When the Greater London Council was abolished, its headquarters for just over sixty years (County Hall) was sold to private investors and for a large part it lies vacant some thirty years later.

In this socio economic ‘war’ (little suffices to describe it better), she took few prisoners. Having abolished or rate capped the larger (and more powerful) local authorities, she alienated most of Wales and Scotland and large swathes of north and north east England.

Under mass scale disinvestment, they grew poor whilst the south grew wealthy (relatively speaking) on the deregulated wits of the City.

Mrs T’s distrust of closed shops (or any form of ‘power’ external to the state) is one reason why she came to distrust the European project. Yet outsourcing and deregulation made slow marching ‘Labour’  an uneven match for lightening fast ‘Capital’. And there was little time, mind space or political will for much in the way of public sector investment.

She did rely on competent Tory corporatists like Hestletine who famously declared he would “intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner”. But he was forced to resign over a radical difference over the fate of Westland helicopters.

Ironically perhaps, her one grand projet, the Channel Tunnel, whilst a triumph of engineering and brute determination, was an utter disaster for its private sector investors.

In almost every other respect the state was a foreign country to her. If truth be told, she barely knew what to do with it. The poll tax, the attempt to privatise the Royal Mail, were strong indicators that, by her third term, Mrs Thatcher and her Tory successors had simply run out of practical ideas of what to do with the mandate.

It was her tight parsimony with the public purse that licensed Gordon Brown’s ten year long spending spree in underinvested public infrastructure, first at number eleven and then next door in number 10. If there is a primary weakness in the British English character it is the way it is given to sudden – often highly irrational –  enthusiasms on the left as well as the right.

So she didn’t trust the Irish (not that I’d be looking at anyone in the room in particular). The truth is she did not particularly trust anyone who was “not one of us”, even if the pragmatist in her knew that she had to ‘do business with them’. Her charm, whilst apparent to her most ardent followers, never quite made it beyond that clique.

But she shifted the previous political story from one of the collective decisively back to the individual, although by the time of her departure, it was largely reduced to Peter Lilley’s invidious “little list” of those “who never would be missed”. Now her Tory successors are looking for some viable means of reviving the individual as a genuinely social being.

For both left and right the ill tempered (and deeply unconservative) radicalism of the past makes that a highly challenging task. Weak trades unionism has ensured a growing gulf between the comfortably off and ‘ the strivers’ and those in poverty. As noted here previously  “the  welfare bill has been swollen by tax credits and housing benefit caused by the labour market reforms and council house sales of the 1980s”.

If no one wanted to buy British Leyland cars under Labour, then today, after Thatcher, there is no such thing as a ‘British car’. Post war, British industry, like British education, became a political plaything that lost its way in a constant ideological tug of war. As a result, the British have returned to that stereotype of the Victorian era,  a nation of shopkeepers (out of town of course), living on their wits and in that famous Oxford phrase ‘winging it’.

I’ll close with the words of one of her most ardent admirers in the press, Bruce [“the Brute”] Anderson (via Private Eye) from 1993:

Mrs Thatcher put a lot of people off. Voters who ought to have become Conservatives were repelled by the narrowness of her social vision. She offered a Britain for the striving and the sharp elbowed. She had less to offer those who could not identify with triumphant Yuppiedom, and never succeeded in translating populism into popularity.

So, where next?

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