Contesting The Legacy

“There are certainly parts of the country that are more anti-her than others, but I think they tend to be the parts that have become relatively less important.”
Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph

Moore spoke on the day that we saw the last of the Rt Hon the Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. At least he’s honest. We’re really seeing the UK establishment for what it is now, contemptuous of all outside the charmed circle of the M25 doughnut ring. So if the United Kingdom doesn’t work for us, why should we work to sustain it? Answers on a postage stamp please.

It’s been a fascinating week. The Thatcher funeral was history in the making. And the writing. And the re-writing. The victors get to do that. And more. They get to shout down anyone with a different point of view. ‘We’re all Thatcherites now’, according to Cameron. Speak for yourself. Ten million quid to give the most divisive PM ever a triumphalist send-off? Not in our name. Austerity? You’re having a laugh, aren’t you?

The London parties have taken to heart Orwell’s words, that whoever controls the past controls the future. And they’ve been every bit as passionate about possession of it as any of Thatcher’s victims.

You have NO right to remember. You can mourn the passing of a politician who in the realms of hagiography is fast overtaking Churchill. But you cannot mourn the communities she destroyed. You can feel for her grieving family and applaud her support, in theory, for the family as an institution. But you cannot point out the families she wrecked. The broken marriages. The suicides. The children who hardly saw their grandparents because their parents had to ‘get on their bikes’ and ‘move to where there is work’. As if work is something that grows randomly like a plant and is not the product of human thought and action.

You have NO right to a view on events from 30 years ago if you weren’t around at the time. Even if your own life has been harmed by them. Full employment has never been restored, even in the Blair/Brown years when boom-and-bust was abolished. A ‘flexible labour market’ has become the new normal. Complete with the huge additional cost that represents for public spending. And the incalculable cost of wasted lives.

You have NO right of respect for free expression. Download what you will, but the music charts will be censored to show official disapproval of the choices that you, the once-so-sovereign consumer, make in the market place.

You have NO right to party. Is that so? If YOU don’t want to party, then don’t. Spare a thought if you can though for those who endured Thatcher’s reign of economic terror. Empathise with the catharsis involved in celebrating the end of a woman whose rule was brutal, callous and heartless. To rejoice at outliving your worst nightmare is a natural human reaction, even 23 years late; those who uncomprehendingly objected merely prolonged the cruelty.  Spare a thought not just for the lame ducks Thatcher sent to the wall but for the small businesses that also expired as a consequence of her illiterate policies. Ironic that, for a grocer’s daughter.

You have NO right even to question the now settled historical account of the 1980s. Move on. It’s 2013. It certainly is, and we still live by the assumptions imposed back then. They still go unchallenged by mainstream parties. Anyone who says ‘move on’ has something to hide from the piercing light of justice. Well, at least those mining communities have got closure now. (Pun intended.) They’ve had their bit of fun. Draw a line and return at once to your assigned prole sector. No chance of that. ‘Achieving closure’ is manipulative psycho-babble. In plain English, ‘accept defeat’. Accept the victors’ view.

The crackdown has been so over-the-top that it’s a fair bet that it has actually backfired rather spectacularly. No-one could have been the saint that Maggie was made out to be and more than a few who knew nothing of her policies will now be doing some digging for the truth. A watershed moment for British politics? Almost certainly. There is one person who has come out of the past week with a reputation genuinely enhanced. That person is Clement Attlee, who didn’t get a £10 million ceremonial funeral but did far more than Maggie to deserve one. Thatcher destroyed one half of his legacy, the nationalised industries, because she was too thick to examine how best to reform and modernise them without removing every last trace of democratic accountability. So she delegated the job to brighter folk in the commercial sector, who didn’t have a clue about democracy. Now her successors are destroying the other half, the welfare state, for precisely the same reason.

Dig for the truth and it will emerge. How many of our problems today are NOT part of the Thatcher legacy? Her manipulation of the unemployment figures, by parking the disabled and long-term sick on other benefits, underpins the furious debate over welfare reform. Complaints about rip-off utilities are the poisonous fruit of privatisation. And the shortage of social housing would not be what it is without Right-To-Buy.

Many voters did well out of Right-To-Buy and Thatcher knew they would reward her for making it possible to buy their council houses. Not just legally possible, but financially possible. With discounts that amounted to free money. Loads of it, stolen from ratepayers right across the land. Thatcher was a thief, pure and simple. She took what did not belong to her government – the property of local authorities answerable to their own electorates for its management – and gave it as a political bribe to a whole new social class. Duly noted. When private property is next taken into public ownership, no-one should expect to receive full compensation. Indeed, any at all might be viewed as needlessly excessive.  It certainly was when the water industry was privatised; its previous municipal owners were paid not a penny.

Make no mistake, the tide is turning back towards public ownership. Thatcher’s death, and the re-appraisal of the past that it has now unleashed, will speed that sea-change. Those who say ‘move on’ would like to remind us that history cannot be reversed. Indeed it cannot. But policy can. Thatcherism proves that it can. And so Thatcherism too can be undone. In the grand scheme of history, it may not even merit a mention.

The challenge now is to shape that undoing. The Left remains poorly placed to do it. The impotent rage of the Left during the 1980s was, sadly, all of its own making. How could it defend Labour-run councils, how could it uphold their right to make their own decisions, when it would have done the same sort of thing had it been in Thatcher’s shoes? What answer was there to the sell-off of council houses when a Labour government would have interfered as much if not more, for example to abolish grammar schools in areas that had repeatedly voted to keep them? It is that kind of contempt for local choice that places Labour and the Coalition equally in our sights. Neither is fit to preside over the rebuilding of the democratic sector that we so badly need. A rebuilding in which the region, as an area neither too large nor too small, ought to play a vital role. Labour, left to its own devices, will nationalise, centralise, and concentrate yet more power and talent in London at the expense of those areas deemed ‘relatively less important’.

The Thatcher years saw some hard re-thinking on devolution. Many a Labour supporter came to rue the day that Scotland and Wales rejected the escape route from Thatcherism. A profound and vigorous regionalism throughout the UK would have had the effect of isolating the Thatcherite virus in its heartlands, depriving it of the resources – such as North Sea oil – that it needed to do its work, and creating in regions like Wessex a new politics that could have challenged the Tory hegemony here. Class division in Britain has a strong geographical dimension. Old Labour tried, and ultimately failed, to interpret geographical problems purely in class terms and to present control of the Westminster law-machine as the solution. It’s time now to try the alternative, to liberate the regions to find their own solutions.

Old Labour played by the old rules and it lost. It opposed proportional representation and the dispersal of power. And so allowed power to concentrate in the hands of an unrepresentative gang of free market thugs. Radicals in Wessex must be clear about what went wrong. And about what is now needed to put it right.

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