Wayne O'Leary

The Grocer’s Daughter

You would have thought by the recent outpouring of hagiographic claptrap that someone of heroic stature in the preservation of Western civilization, a Churchill or perhaps a Roosevelt, had passed from the scene. No, it was the grocer’s daughter Maggie Thatcher, former British prime minister (1979-90) and vengeful, authoritarian point person for the contemporary conservative counterrevolution. Such is the low bar established for modern expressions of retrospective public adoration.

Nothing is more strangely obtuse about the death of Baroness Thatcher (she was given a peerage upon retirement) than the reaction to it on this side of the Atlantic. Controversial at home — there have been bitterly derisive faux funerals in her honor throughout the depressed and impoverished north of England — she has been uncritically hailed in the US, especially in the fawning mainstream media and in political circles. America’s chattering classes have literally fallen over themselves to sing the departed prime minister’s praises.

The reality is somewhat different, as those who lived through Thatcher’s social and economic reign of terror during the 1980s know full well. One of them was the late, great historian Tony Judt, whose prizewinning Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Penguin, 2005) brilliantly lays out the story in all its gory detail. Simply put, the Thatcher project was to undo the Labourite-formulated social compact that dominated the UK from the 1940s through the 1970s by radically reducing the government’s role in all spheres of life, crippling the national trade-union movement, and letting the wealthy entrepreneurial class run the country once more, as the “Iron Lady” felt they should.

A domestic return to the prewar days of laissez-faire was coupled with the adoption of a belligerent foreign policy aimed at recapturing the glories of the colonial past, when Britannia ruled the world; this was satisfied by crushing impotent Argentina in the unnecessary Falklands War, a flag-waving blood sacrifice parlayed into reelection in 1983. And it was all carried out with a jut-jawed obstinacy and a distain for opposition opinion whether internally or abroad.

As Judt describes it, the Thatcher model at home was characterized by reduced taxes on the rich, untrammeled free enterprise, privatization of industries and services, Victorian moral values, and an Ayn Randian celebration of the individual at the expense of “society,” which the prime minister denied as a concept. Thatcherite radicals, Judt makes devastatingly clear, “treated public policy as an extension of private interests” and saw the marketplace as “a sufficient adjudicator of values and outcomes.”

Part and parcel of this rollback of the welfare state, whose safety-net provisions benefitted those kept at the bottom for generations, was Thatcher’s adoptive role as a top-down class warrior. In a manner that mirrored American tea-party attitudes of today, the lower-middle class businessman’s daughter, a classic product of the European petite bourgeoisie, despised those a rung or two lower on the ladder; no high-Tory noblesse oblige for her. Working class types who might be unemployed or collecting government benefits, who might even be asking for credit at her father’s store, were enthusiastically demonized as ne’er-do-wells (takers, not makers) to be put in their proper place.

Tactically, Thatcher’s class-warfare predilections found their most congenial expression in her decade-long crusade to destroy the UK’s heretofore powerful labor unions (her “enemy within”), especially its organized miners; this she effectively did by passing laws that restricted their right to strike and by privatizing their publicly subsidized places of employment. If labor protests had to be put down using harsh methods, the Iron Lady was happy, indeed eager, to comply (and did) with armed force. Uncompromising ruthlessness was Thatcher’s stock in trade dating back to the 1970s, when as education minister in the Heath government, she abolished free milk for British schoolchildren as a budget-cutting measure. Not for nothing did French President François Mitterrand famously remark that she had “the eyes of Caligula.”

Policywise, in addition to budget austerity, Thatcher’s reign was marked by obsessive monetarism (squeezing the money supply to the point of recession), which resoundingly failed, and massive privatization, which marginally improved economic efficiency at the cost of cruel levels of joblessness. Under this force-fed free-market extremism, says Judt, “everything” in Britain’s socialized economy, natural monopolies included, was sold to the highest (or best connected) bidders, often at corrupt, bargain- basement prices. In the process, “the public space became a marketplace,” and all value came to be measured in profit and loss.

Lady Thatcher imposed her version of social Darwinism by winning three multiparty parliamentary elections with no more than 44% of the popular vote, despite the help of Rupert Murdoch’s biased tabloid press; it was, in effect, a legally sanctioned coup d’etat masquerading as a mandate, which was perpetrated by splitting Britain’s majority center-left opinion. The ultimate results of Thatcherite austerity were catastrophic. Unemployment in the UK doubled from 1.6 million in 1977 under Labour to 3.25 million in 1985 under the Conservatives. Poverty reached astronomical levels (14 million Britons, including one in five children, by 1995). Retirement pensions shrank to 15% of average lifetime earnings by 1997, the lowest ratio in Europe (a result of Thatcher’s 1986 Social Security privatization act).

One Thatcherite initiative that turned out to have enormous negative consequences — not just for the UK, but for the entire Western world — was another 1986 action: the deregulation and internationalization of British financial markets, which freed investment bankers and stockbrokers in London to throw caution to the winds. They did just that 20 years later, joining their Wall Street brethren in bringing down the world economy.

So, this is the woman whom Washington officialdom, from Barack Obama to John Boehner, has publicly mourned and that Hollywood has chosen to memorialize in the film The Iron Lady starring Meryl Streep, a saccharine portrait for which Streep, an accomplished actress, should be ashamed.

Lest we forget, in addition to bringing misery to millions of her fellow citizens in the service of an inflexible ideology, the subject of this thoughtless idolatry was an apologist for both the murderous Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and South Africa’s apartheid President Pieter Botha, while dismissing Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress as a manifestation of terrorism. There was considerable rust on the Iron Lady’s bustle that her American admirers are curiously reluctant to acknowledge.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2013



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