The Iron Milk Snatcher

In all the media Thatcherfest, the one thing that made me laugh was the story of the confusing hashtag. What happened is that a curious website called “Is Thatcher Dead Yet?” launched a new hashtag — #nowthatchersdead — which apparently caused consternation among devotees of the singer Cher, who read it as news that their idol had passed away.

I only saw Margaret Thatcher in the flesh once, but the occasion left an indelible impression. It was in the Autumn of 1986 at the Tory party conference in Bournemouth, which I was covering for the Listener, a BBC magazine that is now, sadly, extinct. The Highcliffe Hotel, where all the party grandees were staying, is about a hundred yards up a clifftop path from the Conference Centre where these kinds of proceedings take place. I was standing on the path at lunchtime, surveying the extraordinary security arrangements for the event (which included a Royal Navy destroyer patrolling offshore, and snipers on the rooftops all around), when suddenly Thatcher emerged from the Conference Hall heading for the hotel. And then I saw an extraordinary sight: a middle-aged woman in high heels, carrying a handbag and surrounded by a ring of armed, supremely-fit bodyguards. She was walking so briskly uphill that some of the goons had to break into a trot to keep up with her.

She was such a divisive figure during her political lifetime: remember all that stuff about her being a “milk-snatcher” when, during her time as Education Secretary, she stopped free milk for primary schoolchildren? What’s extraordinary about the reaction to her death is the extent to which she retains her capacity to polarise opinion. Hence the impromptu parties that reportedly greeted news of her demise (though one is always suspicious of such convenient spectacles — convenient, that is, for the Tory tabloids; their reports remind me of the fake news footage purporting to show Pakistanis dancing in the streets after learning of the 9/11 attacks in 2001). And the lock-down security arrangements for her funeral in London next Wednesday, when critics plan to hold their own celebrations of her passing.

In the midst of all this yah-boohery, it’s hard to find cool appraisers. My hero, in this regard, is the late Hugo Young, who wrote not only a fine biography of Thatcher, but also a great appraisal, which the Guardian reprinted in full yesterday. At one point, Young observes:

I think by far her greatest virtue, in retrospect, is how little she cared if people liked her. She wanted to win, but did not put much faith in the quick smile. She needed followers, as long as they went in her frequently unpopular directions. This is a political style, an aesthetic even, that has disappeared from view. The machinery of modern political management – polls, consulting, focus groups – is deployed mainly to discover what will make a party and politician better liked, or worse, disliked. Though the Thatcher years could also be called the Saatchi years, reaching a new level of presentational sophistication in the annals of British politics, they weren’t about getting the leader liked. Respected, viewed with awe, a conviction politician, but if liking came into it, that was an accident.

This is a style whose absence is much missed. It accounted for a large part of the mark Thatcher left on Britain. Her unforgettable presence, but also her policy achievements. Mobilising society, by rule of law, against the trade union bosses was undoubtedly an achievement. For the most part, it has not been undone. Selling public housing to the tenants who occupied it was another, on top of the denationalisation of industries and utilities once thought to be ineluctably and for ever in the hands of the state. Neither shift of ownership and power would have happened without a leader prepared to take risks with her life. Each now seems banal. In the prime Thatcher years they required a severity of will to carry through that would now, if called on, be wrapped in so many cycles of deluding spin as to persuade us it hadn’t really happened.

These developments set a benchmark. They married the personality and belief to action. Britain was battered out of the somnolent conservatism, across a wide front of economic policies and priorities, that had held back progress and, arguably, prosperity. This is what we mean by the Thatcher revolution, imposing on Britain, for better or for worse, some of the liberalisation that the major continental economies know, 20 years later, they still need. I think on balance, it was for the better, and so, plainly did Thatcher’s chief successor, Tony Blair. If a leader’s record is to be measured by the willingness of the other side to decide it cannot turn back the clock, then Thatcher bulks big in history.

I think that’s right. What people on the left sometimes overlook is that Britain in the late 1970s really was a busted flush. It was industrially moribund, locked into 19th century industries and mindsets that were bound to be supplanted by Far Eastern competition, and with state ownership of monopolies in areas like telecommunications. Left to its own devices, the UK would have become as dirty and uninspiring as one of the Soviet empire’s European satraps. Much of the traumatic change that happened on Thatcher’s watch would have happened anyway, because the economic forces that drove that kind of de-industrialisation were unstoppable. And what happened would have happened no matter who was in power. The problem with Thatcher is that she applauded what was happening, and seemed relatively unperturbed about the pain that it caused for ‘ordinary’ people.

In that sense, she was a cheerleader for the Schumpeterian wave of creative destruction that surged over British industry. As Young puts it, she changed

the temper of Britain and the British. What happened at the hands of this woman’s indifference to sentiment and good sense in the early 1980s brought unnecessary calamity to the lives of several million people who lost their jobs. It led to riots that nobody needed. More insidiously, it fathered a mood of tolerated harshness. Materialistic individualism was blessed as a virtue, the driver of national success. Everything was justified as long as it made money – and this, too, is still with us.

Thatcherism failed to destroy the welfare state. The lady was too shrewd to try that, and barely succeeded in reducing the share of the national income taken by the public sector. But the sense of community evaporated. There turned out to be no such thing as society, at least in the sense we used to understand it. Whether pushing each other off the road, barging past social rivals, beating up rival soccer fans, or idolising wealth as the only measure of virtue, Brits became more unpleasant to be with. This regrettable transformation was blessed by a leader who probably did not know it was happening because she didn’t care if it happened or not. But it did, and the consequences seem impossible to reverse.

The other cool appraisal I admired came from Ross McKibbin, in an LRB piece published many years ago. At one point, he asks why — given that for the majority of the population there was, for whatever reason, a significant rise in real living standards during her premiership — was the whole thing in the end such an electoral disaster for the Conservative Party? “The fact is”, he writes

that the disaster owed much to Thatcher’s own behaviour and aspirations. Her fundamental aim was to destroy the Labour Party and ‘socialism’, not to transform the British economy. If the destruction of socialism also transformed the economy, well and good, but that was for her a second-order achievement. Socialism was to be destroyed by a major restructuring of the electorate: in effect, the destruction of the old industrial working class. Its destruction was not at first consciously willed. The disappearance of much of British industry in the early 1980s was not intended, but it was an acceptable result of the policies of deflation and deregulation; and was then turned to advantage. The ideological attack on the working class was, I think, willed. It involved an attack on the idea of the working class – indeed, on class as a concept. People were, via home ownership or popular capitalism, encouraged to think of themselves as not working class, whatever they actually were. The market thus disciplined some, and provided a bonanza for others. The economy was treated not as a productive mechanism but as a lottery, with many winners. The problem with such a policy was that it created a wildly unstable economy which Thatcher’s chancellors found increasingly difficult to control, and in which many of the apparent winners later became aggrieved losers.

The attempt to destroy the Labour Party also involved many risky political strategies. For the Conservatives to take up populism, to declare themselves in favour of a classless society and against Old Etonians, is to play with fire. There is no certainty that the outcome will be the one that is wanted. Although, as Campbell demonstrates, Thatcher spent much time cosseting tabloid editors and grovelling to their employers, it is arguable that in the long term the journalistic techniques of a commercially driven tabloid press did as much damage to the Conservatives as to Labour. The Sun is an unreliable ally, and those elites Thatcherism was designed to prop up emerged no less damaged by it than trade-union leaders. At any event, one consequence of these ‘democratic’ attempts to refashion the British class system for an essentially reactionary purpose was to create a middle class only loosely tied (or tied not at all) to the Conservative Party and almost to destroy the old Conservative working class, an indispensable element of its traditional electorate. And Lady Thatcher bears much of the responsibility for this.

And the ultimate, irony, of course, is that we have now returned to being ruled by Old Etonians.