Wednesday, 10 April 2013
A Prime Minister's Carnival
The death of Margaret Thatcher is everywhere and it has brought out extremes in people which is in itself a perfect illustration of how divisive she was. I have no wish to dance on her grave (I don't do dancing on graves) but neither do I wish to water it with my tears.
In the first place I am somewhat amazed that those who were barely alive when she came to power and couldn't possibly remember her with any clarity can form intense opinions either way. One of the favourite cries of the currently street-partying delighted has been Ding dong the witch is dead, a tune from The Wizard of Oz. Putting aside mysogyny - I have heard it as often from women as from men - it shows what part of the psyche her emanation has come to occupy. She is no longer a prime minister or a human being but a psychic demon several strides on from her Spitting Image depiction.
That she made millions miserable is beyond doubt. That she broke up long established working communities is beyond question. That the persona she affected as leader was a primly overbearing caricature of the blue-rinse brigade that made up a good part of Tory backing is obvious. She even looked like them. That her power over her cabinet was partly due to her ability to exercise the role of dominant matron to a bunch of closeted male sado-masochists seems to me likely.
But what would the Labour Party have done in 1979? What would a post-Callaghan, post-Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock-led party have done in the economic circumstances? Would it have kept the major industries going? At what sustainable cost? Would we still have nationalised steel, coal, gas and railways? Would there still be shipbuilding, Leyland cars and great fishing ports? The rhetoric would have been for keeping all this. But the action? What kind of protectionist measures would have had to be taken? Could they have been taken?
The years from 1973 through to 1979 were very troubled ones in the country. I was there at the time and in my twenties. The place was at a political crossroads. Foot versus Thatcher was the last fully ideological election that I remember, probably the first since 1945. But it was Gerald Kaufmann, a leading Labour MP, who referred to the 1983 Labour election manifesto as 'the longest suicide note in history'. So what was the alternative then? What might a Labour manifesto have said that would have been both electable and still preserved the industrial status quo? Why has no Labour government tried to reverse the privatisations or the union laws ever since?
Of course the endless tributes in the press are more nauseating than the grave-dancing. They deserve each other. And yet a certain carnival must be allowed to people and official beatification is a fair target for it.
It is certainly true that Thatcher was extraordinary, even unique, and that for some years she held the electorate - including Philip Larkin - in thrall. But Thatcherism was really Monetarism and she didn't invent that: she applied it. Nor does she have sole-responsibility for the primacy of private-sector production that is the rule rather than the exception in Europe. Thatcher did not begat Angela Merkel.
The mad markets of the new millennium were not directly of her making. She lifted regulations in a different, less globalised world. She was a woman and she was not the kind of leader the country was used to.
Politically she was a monster. The brutal effects of her policies were of little account to her: her sense of righteousness was absolute. The country must be saved by her methods and her methods alone. Her choice of the individual over the collective has had long term harmful effects. She did not invent greed but she sanctioned forms of it. Is greed any better for being honest? Hard to know.