They say you can judge a person best from how their children turned out. Harry Truman wanted his son to be “just like Jimmy Stewart”. He ended up having a girl instead. And she ended up writing a novel that was eventually turned into a Wesley Snipes movie. Not bad, Harry. Not bad. As for Ronald Reagan, he tallied up human rights abuses during his administration, but managed to raise a nice liberal boy who spends his time fighting for stem cell research and gay marriage.
Margaret Thatcher always had a bit more of an edge to her. It shows in her seed – like her son, Mark Thatcher, a convicted loan shark who hired mercenaries to launch a coup in a war-torn African nation. Thatcher’s own record in the “dark continent” wasn’t too good either. She called Nelson Mandela a terrorist and lent her support to the apartheid regime. Nor was the whole “armed overthrow of a government” thing a problem. Thatcher embraced Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew Salvador Allende in a particularly bloody coup in 1973, as a friend and ally.
That said, the outpouring of left-wing celebration over the death of the woman who gave the British working-class a brutal spanking and wrecked her country’s social safety net strikes the wrong note. Not because Thatcher deserves more deference. And definitely not because the dead deserve the respect we so often deny the living. But because all the personalised anger gives her too much credit for riding social forces that were beyond her control. Thatcher wasn’t a mastermind, she was a second-rate politician who came into the scene at just the right time. “Global neoliberalism” is only synonymous with “global Thatcherism”, because she seemed to enjoy its destructive success more than everyone else.
Born the child of the daughter of a small town grocer, Margaret Roberts was from a young age indoctrinated with a middle class work ethic. The Bible, Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek swirled around and formed a neat synthesis in her young brain. An insufferable overachiever, she studied hard and eventually went to Oxford for both chemistry and law. Her first job was as a chemist (where she didn’t actually help invent soft-serve ice cream, but hey whatever gets the Atlantic those hits), but she eventually became a barrister. A husband – a wealthy businessman named Denis Thatcher – and a political career soon followed.
On the face of it, the 1960s and 70s weren’t a good time to be a young, conservative parliamentarian. The post-war consensus, which sought to maintain full-employment, nationalise key industries and cede certain concessions to workers, had become so entrenched that even Tory governments like Ted Heath’s submitted to it. Thatcher, a Hayekian ideologue at heart, objected. She tried to organise an opposition within her party, pushing Keith Joseph, a fellow neoliberal, to challenge Heath for the top leadership spot. Joseph lost his nerve, Thatcher didn’t and went on without him. She won.
The mood within the Conservative Party favoured her. The country seemed to be in turmoil, with Northern Ireland ablaze and the trade unions standing firm enough to block any right-wing reforms. Thatcher was a confident voice, promising “no u-turns” in her quest to remake Britain.
But the public was resistant to change. After all, the postwar welfare state constructed in Britain and elsewhere across Western Europe marked, in many peoples’ minds, a high-point in human civilisation. The sick were looked after regardless of financial standing through the National Health Service. Jobs were plentiful, access to education more freely available and prosperity generally shared. The system could be bureaucratic and gray, but for generations emerging out of the horrors of Depression and World War, it was a welcomed development.
But the promise of the British welfare state – economic plenty and shared prosperity – depended on a post-war boom that couldn’t last forever. The economy faced crisis by the 1970s. Near-full employment and a cushy welfare state made workers bold, not docile. Cushioned against possible job loss, they demanded significantly higher wages. Capitalists were able to keep up when times were good, but when stagflation hit – the intersection of poor growth and rising inflation – and coincided with international developments like the OPEC oil embargo, a crisis of profitability spiraled out of control. Inflation rose, productivity fell. Profits went down the shitter.
Then came Thatcher from stage right with a solution: smash the working class, make the poor pay for the crisis, dismantle the welfare state, do whatever it took to restore profitability for the propertied classes. On its own terms, this mission was a success, but at a terrible cost – child poverty soared, unemployment topped 10 percent, organs of local government and trade unions that didn’t back Thatcher were crushed. It’s no wonder thousands were dancing in the streets this week in working-class cities like Liverpool and Glasgow at word of her death.
There’s a lot for those at the bottom rung of society to be angry about, but if not for this Margaret Thatcher, there almost certainly would have been another one just like her. Neoliberalism was a rising force across the world. In America there was Reagan; in Germany, there was Helmut Kohl. Thatcher just got the most attention (and anger) because other neoliberals managed to accomplish the same economic restructuring at only half the political and social cost. English workers hated Thatcher’s reforms more than American workers hated the ones in their country, not just because they’re surly and more used to class struggle, but because she had a habit of grinning and telling them that they deserved it while she mowed them down.
Before the onset of the global economic crisis, across the world, leaders of capitalist states – from French socialist François Mitterrand to Georgian peanut farmer Jimmy Carter – had been faced with the same structural issues and also backed away from popular economic policies. But they seemed to at least feel a bit bad about it all. They seemed to understand that jobs were getting harder, real wages were going down and we feared for the end of economic prosperity. Carter put on his sweater to empathise with us. Thatcher talked “Victorian values” instead.
Some of that talk worked – the middle class was filled with enough dopes willing to blame trade unions and the poor, instead of their rulers for society’s problems – but not as well as it might seem. Thatcher won three elections, but topped off with only 43.9 percent of the vote.
Is it any surprise that more than half of Britain is celebrating right now?