David Cameron’s ungainly attempt to declare the ideological victory of Thatcherism on the Today programme has produced the expected, and probably intended, irritation on the left.
I suspect that the Tories quite like it when the left and Labour party behaves in a way that is rather ungracious. It produces a sort of agreeable disgust, an assurance that the advocates for the rabble are aping the manners of the rabble, another reason to keep power in the hands of the Optimates.
Or perhaps I’ve just been reading too much Cicero recently.
Anyway, to get back to the point, are we all Thatcherites now?
I grew up defining myself against Margaret Thatcher.
In a hugely embarrassing interview with Radio 4 for a fantastic show about the Wyatt/Costello classic Shipbuilding. I recently described myself as a teenager who got a New Statesman subscription for a birthday present, and was delighted.
I was a primary schoolboy who listened to the 1983 General Election in bed and got up to stare at the street lights of my home city in utter disbelief, and who, as I grew a little older, went on Youth CND marches. I missed my Geography GCSE because I was leafleting for the Labour party in the European Election.
I even remember having an outraged conversation with my dad when he tried to convince me that pre-privatisation British Telecom was a bit rubbish, and how he hated having to wait months for a phone line. I think I might have called him a fascist. Certainly, I felt he was a class traitor, especially because we’d done homemade anti-Thatcher posters for the 1983 election, complete with “Choose Foot, Kick Thatcher out” puns.
Oh, and I was hugely jealous of my french teacher, who got Red Wedge tickets, when I couldn’t go.
Naturally, I’ve got every Billy Bragg album, though my favourite song was, and is, the Saturday Boy, with the Boy Done Good as a sort of spiritual sequel, from an older, happier man.
Culturally, ideologically, politically, I grew up as an Anti-Thatcherite.
23 years later, so am I a Thatcherite now?
I certainly don’t define myself as against Thatcher any more. It’s why I’ve found the anti-Thatcher brigade tiresome this last week. I bought Costello’s Spike when it came out, and played Tramp the Dirt Down hundreds of times. But Spike came out when I was sixteen, and “Baby plays around” is a better song anyway.
What’s more, there are some things where Margaret Thatcher was clearly right and my teenage self was wrong. Soviet communism is probably the biggest one. I didn’t really understand Trade Unions growing up, but I think she was pretty much right about the need for secret ballots for strike action, and ending the closed shop. I think she was right about the Single European Market, and Sunday trading.
On many other issues though, she seems a figure from a distant, much less pleasant past. Her attitude to South Africa was wrong, as even if there was a case for engagement with the National Party not isolation, it should not have been made by post-imperial Britain. Her policies on gay rights were archaic and divisive. Her 79-82 economic policy was a needless self-inflicted injury. Mass unemployment should never have been acceptable.
Finally, there is the pervasive feeling that while in some sense needed, much of what she did, and the way that she did it, did not need to be so harsh.
That such harshness appeared to be the only way to make reforms says much about the failure of the left, which was as juvenile and embarrassing as I was back then, but with far less excuse. We were all so busy being against Thatcher, we forgot to decide what we were for, or how on earth we were going to make it happen.
If we, as socialists, couldn’t address the social problems that Thatcher’s critique of Britain were intended to address (like my father, on the left, but wanting a telephone installed quickly) or even recognise that they were problems, what alternative could we provide?
None, it turned out, and it took us a long, painful time to learn that lesson.
Imagine a Kinnock government in 1987. Would it have been a success?
I don’t think it would, even though there would have been no Poll tax. At the very best, Kinnock would have been a Mitterrand, forced to adapt to tides pulling in the opposite direction. We would have had out own version of a ‘Turn to Rigour“. A “New” Labour would have been uncomfortably born in government, not in opposition. In 1992, it would have been better, but mostly thorough inaction, rather than following the Tory attempt to extend the Thatcher revolution into ever more uncomfortable policy spaces.
In some sense then, I am a Thatcherite. I feel no pull to the seventies. I don’t desire a society where much of industry is in state hands, or most utilities (except in unambiguous cases of regulatory and private failure). Nor do I want marginal tax rates to reach the levels they did, or a reversion to the industrial relations culture of the time. It wouldn’t work, anyway. The industrial base of Britain has changed too much. So has the global economy.
But while I prefer the more open, trading, economy Britain has now to a centrally planned or corporate one, though I believe there’s room for a strategic, enabling state that Thatcher missed, or undervalued, or lost in her wider argument about “withdrawal”. The state needed to withdraw, but there were some key salients that should have been held, and weren’t.
I’d have rather had a left government that understood how the world was changing, and changed with the grain of society, not against it. I’d have preferred an employment and industrial policy that did more so smooth the transition from corporate to enabling state.
We could have introduced rights to protect workers from exploitation at the same time as we changed Union roles, rather than a decade or so later.
We should have used Oil money better to invest for our future, and used receipts from council housing sales to fund more social housing building. There should never have been a poll tax, (though to be fair, local government funding is still a mess, two and a half decades later and no-one has a clue what to do about it)
There was much that was done wrong, as there always is.
A change in Britain in the eighties was probably inevitable. It could have been a better, fairer, kinder shift than Thatcher gave us, but I was too busy being a teenager to think about how the left might do something as awkward, and complex and imperfect as that.
Unfortunately, so were the grown ups. Because of that, it is Thatcher’s inheritance we struggle with, not our own.
To the extent that we are all Thatcherites now, it is our own fault. If we’d been smarter, we might have been Healeyites.
But we weren’t.