What everyone forgets is that the rise and rise of Margaret Thatcher was politically contingent and not inevitable. Had, for example, Wilson’s debilitating brain disease kicked in a year or two later, Callaghan would not have been able to scoop the succession and be so colossally inept. Had Dennis Healey been the leader that confronted Thatcher every day in the Commons, the sense that Labour was doomed like a rabbit in headlights would never have crept up on us. Had the Labour leader been someone who would talk frankly to the union bosses about the likely alternatives they faced, rationality might have returned to Left politics. Had Michael Foot’s vanity not been so great that he acquired a leadership for which he was even more inadequate than Callaghan, Thatcher would have had proper principled opposition during the Falklands War. Had Owen and Williams and Jenkins put principle and party and allegiance ahead of being stroked by a fundamentally Conservative media, there would not have been a fourth party to split the anti-Thatcher vote.
And so on. It was not inevitable even that she become Conservative leader, let alone that she win the election, or the one after that. Part of the myth promulgated at the time was just this, the idea that she was the archangel of history and that everything that happened was part of some vast upheaval built into things from the dawn of time.
It was also a myth that the intellectual balance had swung to the Right. If you look at the rightwing intellectuals much praised at the time, they are a sorry bunch. Roger Scruton is about the best of the bunch and he is a crazy, objectively considered. Milton Friedman’s economics have been largely discredited by their operations in the real world and Hayek’s claims about the coming dominance of evil statists have ended up as the justification of corruption and gangsterism everywhere he and Friedman have become doctrine.
This takes me inevitably to one of Thatcherism’s main claims to the high ground – privatization. I will acknowledge, because I am a truthful girl, that one privatization worked – British Telecom provided a better service, adapted to rapidly changing technology and became an international player. However, the same cannot be said for the privatization of the power companies, the water companies and above all the railways. Forcing hospitals to put cleaning contracts out to the cheapest tender has given the UK some of the dirtiest hospitals in the world and the epidemic of MRSA that helped kill my father and many like him. (Railways came later, but it was the gray Major acting as she would have done had she had time.)
There is a paranoid theory that one of the reasons why American insurance companies gave money to think tanks that put a lot of support into Thatcher is that they really really wanted to ensure that the NHS stopped working well.
Thatcher, given the claims of people like Hayek about coming dictatorship, was anything but a democrat. When it became clear that the inner cities were going to go on voting Labour even if she sold them council housing cheap, she simply abolished the GLC and various metropolitan councils. She couldn’t win at a local level, and so she took away the playing field altogether. Purely considered as an ethical choice, that stinks. And moreover, the very moment Labour gave us a London government again, the popular vote went to the man Thatcher removed by administrative fiat. (And there are problems with Livingstone, of course there are, but that is not the point here.)
Thatcher was prepared to govern by racism and homophobia when it suited her. Her handling of immigration was both inept and unpleasant; she made something of a hash of the epidemic; she played to the gutter on gay rights via Clause 28. Inadvertently, she helped reunite a gay movement which had spent two decades divided by gender.
She stopped pretending that things were fair and created a society in which looking after number one and screwing your enemies were legitimated as well as what actually happened. Ironically, the control freakery that is one of the worst things about Blair is a consequence of her. In a whole bunch of areas, from the smashing of the miners and the abolition of the councils to the decision to shelve rail and tube links to Labout constituencies in inner London, she made spite the order of the day. And she treated her own ministers with contempt and scorn – the only time I ever dreamed about her, I found myself shouting at her for her rudeness to other Tories.
She even got up the Queen’s nose.
And then there was the Council Tax – one of several occasions where Thatcher got people out onto the street burning things down.
She was in the right place to get some of the credit when Communism collapsed – along with Reagan she has to take much of the blame for the failure to help Eastern Europe and Russia acquire working civil society.
Above all, she destroyed hope for half the population. She wrecked the best bits of my adult life and turned half of my former friends into zombie yuppies obsessed with house prices and share issues. And she wasn’t actually all that good or cunning or clever – just lucky in some horrible ways.
The soundtrack for those years for me is always going to be ‘Ghost Town’ by the Specials. When you hear people praise her, just play it loudly until you can’t hear them any more.