Thatcher dominated my childhood, and changed politics forever when she declared the end of society. The left and the right is still recovering from her legacy.
I grew up hating Thatcher.
I was thirteen when the Tories came to government in 1979. I was in my thirties by the time they were voted out. By then I was back in New Zealand.
Thatcher was the only leader I’d ever known.
In England in the 80s, I joined countless anti Thatcher demos, stood on picket lines during the miners strike, shoulder to shoulder with the friends I grew up with and their families, who were defending their jobs.
We had posters of Reagan carrying Thatcher in his arms in Gone With The Wind style (or was it Thatcher carrying Reagan?) because we hated Reagan too.
I joined Billy Bragg and The Specials in the Red Wedge movement. We really believed music would bring down the Tories.
We set up ‘illegal’ debates between Sinn Fein and the protestants to talk about peace in Ireland. Thatcher had banned any media coverage of Sinn Fein.
At university, my friend Nat joined the Revolutionary Communist Party and door knocked for the Tories. His nutty theory was that the worse it got under Thatcher, the more likely the proletariat would rise up and overthrow the Tories.
By the end of the 80s my coat was covered in badges representing failed campaigns on the left.
Why did we fail for so long?
I still remember the day the kids at my comprehensive school cheered Maggie’s 1979 election, and the shock of realising many of their families had voted for her.
She was cruel. She blamed the poverty that her own policies caused on the moral failure of the poor. She was a war-monger, a bomb-lover, an enabler of dictators. It was no accident that she resisted the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, gave comfort to Pol Pot. For all her exploitation of Irish terrorism, she failed ever to condemn the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior.
It took us until the 90s before we answered a question that seems obvious today: How could such a woman have won three general elections?
We told ourselves in the 80s that she won because of the right wing newspapers, because she bought votes with North Sea oil revenues, because the Argentine junta gifted her a military triumph in the Falklands. All those factors played a part, but they were never enough of an explanation. Tony Blair quotes the Labour activist who said to him, after 1992, ‘The people haven’t voted for us for four elections in a row. What’s wrong with them?’
Neil Kinnock was my kind of Labour leader, a caring, decent and responsible visionary. But he lost because he led a party that always sounded conservative, as if the past Thatcher was sweeping away was better than any future we could articulate. Even as I stood with coal miners, holding ‘coal not dole’ placards, I wondered why we weren’t articulating something more constructive. In Sweden the left adopted the slogan ‘protect the worker not the job’, and succeeded where the UK left failed.
Thatcher had the advantage of a clear, coherent set of ideas that both analysed the cause of problems and proposed a solution; Her method was a forceful TINA - ‘There Is No Alternative’. There always was a better way, but the left failed to articulate it credibly, simply. We refused to concede that our opponents brought a devastating intellectual force to the debate. We turned inward and stayed in the bunker. Our only defense was that she was wrong and ridiculous; nothing more needed to be said.
Labour split into two pieces. One, the Social Democrats, who had too little quibble with Thatcher’s policies or politics. Then the rump of Labour told working people it wanted to fix their lifestyles rather than being the party that advocated for their choices and their aspirations.
Earlier this week, before Mrs Thatcher died, I read an Economist story about the town of Harlow - a blandly middle township where, in the 70s, hardly anyone owned their own home.
Today, two thirds of the residents do, thanks to Mrs Thatcher’s policy of allowing people to buy the home they lived in.
The same was true in the village that I grew up in. Oh how we raved and ranted and marched and pressed against those council house sales. Then go round to my friends house to celebrate with her parents because they were about to buy the council home they’d lived in for twenty years. How did that happen, that we found ourselves on the wrong side of an argument about allowing people to own their home? If owning your home isn’t a core Labour value, what the hell is the point?
Thatcher changed the course of history; in so many ways for the worse. She made a more unequal country where the poor kids I went to school with were denied opportunities. Today my friend’s parents have watched their old Council house fall apart because they’ve been in and out of work, and haven’t been able to afford to maintain the house. On the other side of the village, wealthy ‘life stylers’ now live in the beautiful cottages. They recreate a fake village life, and commute to London for work. My old primary school has been turned into an exclusive private prep school.
Whole regions of the country were devastated under Thatcher, never to recover. Industries were killed off rather than reformed.
She damaged her own party and made it unelectable. Like the Republican party in the US today, Thatcher ditched compassionate conservatism, where those in power believe its their duty to look after those less fortunate. Thatcher declared the end of society, and announced the new era of the individual. Community was a socialist construction, she argued. Self-promotion, get-rich-quick, greed-is-good, Dallas and shoulder pads were the new order. It's hard not to see the roots of the 2008 crash in the spirit of Thatcherism two decades earlier.
Voters rejected Thatcherism in a landslide in 1997.
But if the left is to stop another Thatcher, it also has to take responsibility for enabling her politics. It must never again become conservative and resistant to change. If you do not adjust as society changes (for surely there is such a thing as society), then change will be forced brutally upon you by a Thatcher, or a Douglas. We are reformers not advocates for yesterday.
In a 1987 article that seems stunningly prescient and relevant today, Tony Blair noted:
“Her slogan in 1987 was ‘power to the people’; her Conference speech borrowed a phrase – ‘an irreversible shift in power in favour of working people’ – from Labour’s 1974 Manifesto. In other words, even Mrs Thatcher has had to pretend that she is extending opportunity and power.”
Opportunity and power for working people - these are the core values of the Labour movement. Thatcher never stood for them, but her success rested on her ability to persuade people she stood for them better than we did.
There is a nuance that many fail to grasp: The left’s job is not to mimic the right, nor is it to follow public opinion blindly; What the left has to understand is that our principles, our advocacy of opportunity and power for working people, are universally popular - and therefore if we are not popular it is only because we are not being true to our own principles.
So often the left confuses unpopularity with principle. That is the only way Thatcher could ever accomplish what she did.
When she left government, Thatcher became a "geopolitical consultant" for the tobacco company Philip Morris. That tells you everything about who she really represented, and how little she cared for people.
The Sun newspaper headline this week said it all; ‘Maggie dead in bed at Ritz.’