Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Thatcher: An unintended transformation

So Margaret Thatcher has passed into history. She's seen as someone who transformed Britain according to her vision. One day we will understand her real legacy; that actually, she failed to do so

I expect we’ll remember where we heard the news. I was in the living-room of my New York apartment on Monday morning, waiting for my partner to finish with the shower; in the meantime I sat in front of my laptop, quietly e-pottering. As she stepped out of the bathroom, I could hear the morning news programme on the local public radio station, WNYC.  Something about the former British Prime Minister having died in the night. A plummy English voice was interviewed.

“I’m finished with the bathroom,” called my partner. Then: “Are you there? Did you hear me?”

“Yes,” I said. The sunlight streamed through the blinds; the first day of spring finally with us, after a very long winter.

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Of course everyone had plenty to say. The current Prime Minister assured us that she was a “great Briton”. Parliament was recalled so that MPs could trot dutifully into the Chamber and utter paeans of praise. (An allowance of up to  £3,750 was payable to those Members who had to return from abroad.)  Singer Morrisey, by contrast, said that she was "barbaric" and "without an atom of humanity", and "every move she made was charged by negativity".  Billy Bragg, on tour in Canada, posted a message that was, typically, more thoughtful. “This is not a time for celebration. The death of Margaret Thatcher is nothing more than a salient reminder of how Britain got into the mess that we are in today... of why cynicism and greed became the hallmarks of our society. Raising a glass to the death of an infirm old lady changes none of this,” he wrote.

For me, Monday was a reflective day, as it will have been for many people of my age whose working lives began as Thatcher came to power, and are now nearing their end; and who, surprisingly often, have felt the need to leave the country she created. Bragg is right. There is nothing to be gained from pouring vitriol on someone who has died at a great age after a long illness; the more so because, despite the ghastly results of her career, she was by all accounts capable of great kindness and charm in her personal life. What is more important is to understand who she was, the world she found, and the one she wanted in its place; and why, contrary to popular belief, she did not bring it about. 
***  ***  ***

Far too early on the morning of Friday, March 1, 1974, a small grey Morris car chugged north from Oxford to Banbury. It was barely light and the skeletal trees along the road were just beginning to resolve themselves against a dull grey sky. I was sitting in the passenger seat, wearing a dun-coloured raincoat and smoking. I smoked a lot then.

Robin was smoking too. He was a teacher at the college I attended; another of the teachers had just stood as Liberal candidate for Banbury in the general election that had been held the previous day. We had volunteered to act as scrutineers at the count. Then as now, most constituencies began their count as soon as polls closed, and declared overnight; but Banbury was and is largely rural, and the sealed ballot boxes were driven in the night to the Town Hall and opened in the morning.

The scene that we saw in the Town Hall on that day in 1974 was probably much as it was when the reforms of the 1870s ushered in the secret ballot. The hall was lined by 15 or 20 shaky trestle tables; at each there sat a civil servant – most were middle-aged men, soberly dressed in suits and ties despite the early hour. Beside and opposite them sat the scrutineers for the three parties, all volunteers, who observed the votes as they were sorted, and would stop the civil servant if a vote for their candidate landed in the wrong pile. In fact, we simply watched for mistakes; if a Labour vote fluttered into the Liberal pile by mistake, I politely told the teller, and my companions did likewise. All were friendly; the Conservative scrutineer, an elderly man, was warm and chatty, the Labour man quieter but pleasant enough. Now and then two more civil servants would come to the table with another ballot-box. These were of green-painted tin; I should not be surprised if they too had been made for that first secret vote. One was resolutely jammed shut and it took the efforts of three civil servants and a chisel to prise it open.

The count took five or six hours and we declared at midday. Our candidate, Geoff Fisher, came third but had done well to increase the Liberal vote; at least one village, as I recall, appeared to have voted Liberal en masse. (I have long forgotten which one, but in any case, it would be illegal to say.) Victory went to the Conservative, Neil Marten, a distinguished war hero. Someone (Marten, I think) lit a cigar below the No Smoking sign, there were polite speeches, and Robin and I started for home, bleary-eyed but not displeased.

***    ***   *** 
I am looking back at another world. It ran at a slower pace.  Telephones had heavy circular dials; wait a minute or so as the exchange clicked and whirred; a trunk call was costly, not lightly made. I can remember the excitement later that year when my sister spoke to me from Dunedin, her voice echoing over 12,000 miles with a time lapse so that I had to wait some seconds after speaking before she replied. The little Morris that took us to Banbury still had a starting handle for emergencies; the rear axle rode on glorified cart-springs. In the summer I left college and started my first job, and used a typewriter with heavy keys and a bell that clanged as you reached the margin and returned the carriage, and carbon papers that smeared your fingers black.

But change was coming. Less than five years earlier, my family had crossed the North Atlantic on a Canadian Pacific liner; it was still an economic choice. By 1974 the wide-bodied jets had ended that forever. Concorde prototypes from Fairford flew over our house daily, and in two years they would carry the rich to New York in just three hours. The computers that would replace my typewriter had arrived, although they were still disguised as calculators. Colour TV had arrived too, in a form we were assured was “much better than the American system”. (Actually it was. BBC engineers referred to the US system, NTSC, as “Never the Same Colour”.)

It was also becoming clear that Britain was not prepared for the changes ahead. Nothing exemplified this so much as the motor industry. Long shielded behind high tariff barriers, it had from 1960 finally faced real competition with the first-duty-free imports – Volvos from Sweden, which was in the European Free Trade Area (and at that time drove on the left, like us). From 1973, when Britain joined the misnamed Common Market, the forerunner to the EU, competition got very hot indeed. Herein was the triumph and tragedy of British industry. Britain’s Austin-Morris had pioneered the mass production of cars that were transverse-engined and front-wheel drive, as most cars under two litres now are. The British arms of Ford and General Motors had led the way in unitary construction, belt-driven camshafts and more besides. But quality was dire. A 1972 Morris Marina I bought some years later was so crudely built that the door-handle assemblies moved around in their housings. Unit profitability was also low, through a combination of poor accounting and labour troubles. The latter were blamed for much of the problem although they can only have been part of it. In any case, the unions themselves were not an accident. I remember that when I was 16, the local newspaper carried an item about a man who had retired from the Morris works after 50 years. “Surely the unions have ruined everything today?” he was asked by an eager journalist. “No, it’s a good thing. Back then you could get picked on,” he said. Union activists probably often were irresponsible, but the industry had made its own hell over many years.

While the motor industry suffered a special problem with quality, other sectors also suffered; the shipbuilding industry, in particular, faced harsh competition from Sweden and Yugoslavia and later from Korea. The aerospace industry, too, faced the consequences of poor decisions; the Vickers VC10 was in most respects one of the finest airliners ever built, but had been designed to serve the “hot and high” airfields of the Empire and Commonwealth, not the high-volume routes where the future lay. In the home, one’s radio had been built by Morphy Richards or Dynatron; by 1974, it came from Grundig or, increasingly, Hitachi.

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The political establishment could not respond to the changes. The practice of politics, then, was oddly amateurish; the scene in Banbury Town Hall must have been pretty typical. And neither major party had any real sense of direction.

The Conservatives, in 1974, were an odd coalition. In the 19th century they had represented the aristocratic and landed interest, but in the 1870s their greatest leader, Benjamin Disraeli, had transformed them, introducing the idea of the patrician party that cared for the people; he introduced reforms such as the Artisan’s Dwellings Act, thus establishing that a government could take active measures to help its people. It was a strange precedent to be set by Tories, perhaps; but it was so – a transformation wonderfully described by Edgar Feuchtwanger’s 1968 monograph Disraeli, Democracy and the Tory Party. In the mid-20th century this spirit was far from dead in the party; in particular, it made strenuous efforts in the 1950s and early 1960s to provide sufficient working-class housing, although not always with happy results. Conservative governments were also not afraid, at times, to interfere in industrial policy, and Midland motor manufacturers were encouraged to replace shipbuilding in the West of Scotland, again not always with success. Thus the Tory Party was not really a free-enterprise party; rather, it was a coalition of businessmen, landowners, and country gentry, presided over by a bunch of amiable toffs who had distinguished themselves in Churchill’s wartime administration but had little real idea of what to do with the peace.

If voters sought a cohesive ideology in Labour instead, they did not get one. Labour had always been a seething mass of internal contradictions and stabbed backs. Between 1945 and 1951 it had pursued, in government, policies of nationalisation and social welfare, but there had been a long-running leadership conflict between socialists on the one hand and moderate social democrats on the other. The latter prevailed in the shape of Hugh Gaitskell, but his early death in 1963 left the leadership to Harold Wilson, who many remember today as a member of neither faction; simply an operator. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s he led a party balanced on a knife-edge between union-driven, socialist and occasionally out-and-out Marxist policies, and centrist managerialism.

It was these two ill-defined forces that faced each other in the election of 1974. The big figures were the two main party leaders and the big beasts of their parties, plus the centrist Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, a flamboyant individualist later charged with (but not convicted of) conspiracy to murder. Few thought of the little-liked Education Secretary, Margaret Hilda Thatcher. But in 1975, in the wake of the party’s defeat, she ran for the leadership and, to everyone’s surprise, including her own, she won. In the meantime, the minority Labour government lurched from one crisis to another, winning a fresh election in the autumn of 1974 with a tiny majority that it could not keep.  In 1979, widely blamed for unemployment and industrial trouble, it lost an election. Thatcher became Prime Minister. 
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 As former Development Minister Clare Short pointed out on Radio 4’s PM programme on Monday, Thatcher was not a conservative; she was a radical right-winger. But no-one realised it. They were simply voting out a government they felt had failed, and choosing the alternative. They were wrong. Ideology had arrived on the right of British politics.

Thatcher was driven by a curious mixture of anti-Keynesian monetarist economics and a homespun work ethic. The former was a current of the times, led by the Chicago economist Milton Friedman. It should be seen in context; Europeans were still haunted by the German hyperinflation of the early 1920s, and in Britain inflation of over 20% in the 1970s had eaten into savings and had also driven the wage claims of powerful unions. At the same time, Thatcher was also driven by a deep belief in self-reliance and enterprise. Her father had been a successful shopkeeper; in her view, everyone could be, if they would just get up early enough. Mixed up with half-digested economic theory was a dream of a nation of self-reliant Britons where everyone had their own business and owned their own house, and the state had no role in the economic lives of men and women. As someone wrote the other day in another context, it is a common phenomenon: nostalgia without memory.

I said earlier that, contrary to popular belief, Thatcher did not bring about the change she wanted. Nothing exemplifies her failure so much as this fantasy of a nation self-reliant burghers and prosperous artisans. Subsidised industries went, along with the unions that defended them. If their business was out of date, held Thatcher, it should close. Many did. Mining was old-fashioned, coal was old-fashioned, the mines were a hotbed of unionism. So they went, after one of the bitterest industrial disputes in British history. The shipyards went. The printing industry went. Some car plants also did not survive.

Not all of this could have been prevented. The print unions, in particular, were resisting change that was both inevitable and beneficial. But the wholesale deskilling of a workforce was a blunder on two profound levels. First, we lost the structure of craft apprenticeships and industrial training that allowed German industry to move upmarket and adapt to a changing world. In Britain it was allowed to die, and we were left to make a living by selling other countries' products to each other. Second, a skilled working class with a sense of identity and history was replaced, in many places, by a lumpenproletariat, in which some families have now not worked for two generations. Aspiration and enterprise were not encouraged. They were destroyed along with the pride and sense of self that drives them.

In another, completely different, way, Thatcher’s drive for individual self-reliance backfired equally badly. The sale of public housing was part of a burgeoning property market that people eventually felt obliged to enter whether they wished to or not, and the average householder was burdened with a lifetime financial commitment that constrained their enterprise and mobility as surely as a pair of concrete boots. When the housing market faltered in 1989, a million British houseowners found themselves in negative equity (in US parlance, under water). As we now know, far worse was to follow 17 years later. The “property-owning” democracy is not about self-reliance. It is a prison.

But nothing illustrates Thatcher’s miscalculation so much as the decline in democracy. In a 2008 Guardian article, Vernon Bogdanor pointed out that when Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 it had a membership of about 1.5 million; 30 years later it was down to 145,000. Labour underwent a similar decline between 1996 and 2008, from 400,000 to 150,000. In the 1950s one Briton in 11 had belonged to a political party; now just one in 88 did. Voter turnout, well over 80% in 1974, dropped to just 59% in 2001 (it has since recovered a little). One must be very careful about oversimplifying these phenomena; they’re not confined to Britain and besides, they do not always indicate a simple disengagement from politics – many who no longer vote are engaged in other ways, on single issues or through social media. But the fact remains that there is an increasing disinclination to take part in the mainstream democratic process. 

This would hardly please Thatcher. She was often called a fascist, but anyone who believes she was one of those should meet a real one. In fact she had a profound commitment to democracy; her admiration of Karl Popper’s later works, and her feelings about the Soviet bloc, were evidence of this. But her definition of democracy seems to have been very narrow; its only instrument was the ballot box, and a government so elected might do as it wished. The notion that the governance of Britain would be negotiated between different forces, all of which had a role in giving people an equal voice, would be quite alien to her.

In particular, she would have claimed that her adherence to free enterprise made her an advocate of economic democracy, but that cannot exist without free collective bargaining as well; if it does, a minority will hold the reins of power. This is effectively what happened to Britain after 1979, as the power of trade unions to represent their members was steadily squeezed. But the suggestion that there was any contradiction there would have left her puzzled at best. She would have pointed out, quite sincerely, that her privatization of the public utilities was meant to give ordinary people, as small investors, genuine ownership of national assets.

The world does not work like that. Popular capitalism is a dodgy concept, simply because anything that is of value and for sale will be sold by those who need the money to those who need it less. Shares in public utilities were no different in that respect. So her reforms did not give us those assets; they removed them from us. But that was genuinely not the intention.

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Neither did Margaret Thatcher really create the strong, united Britain that she wanted.
Asked on Tuesday about his successful advertising campaigns on the Iron Lady’s behalf, Lord Saatchi insisted that it was not his marketing; it was the product. “She wanted Britain to be great again,” he told Channel 4’s John Snow. He was not wrong. In 1979 many British people were genuinely affronted by what often seemed like the despondent management of decline. Thatcher seemed to promise, if not a resurgence, at least a certain pride; a Unionist who believed in a very united Kingdom, proud in the world. To many who admire her, Thatcher achieved exactly that; she helped destroy Communism, defended Britain from the Brussels menace and re-established Britain’s place in the world. 

Did she? Four points might be looked at here. The first three concern her greatest foreign-policy triumphs: her part in the destruction of the Eastern bloc, her resistance to a creeping power-grab by Brussels, and her victory in the Falklands war. The fourth point is the unity of the United Kingdom itself.

First, there is the notion that Thatcher, in concert with Ronald Reagan, won the Cold War and brought the Soviet Union crashing down. Where on earth does this idea come from? The bureaucratic centralised structure of the Eastern bloc was riven with internal contradictions that had nothing to do with either Reagan or Thatcher, however warm Thatcher’s relations with Gorbachev may have been. The latter relationship, in any case, cannot have counted for much inside the USSR; Gorbachev’s agenda had little to do with Thatcher. As he came to power, he is alleged to have said to his beloved wife, Raisa: “We can’t go on like this.” But his wish was to reform a sclerotic system, not to transform it into capitalism.

In any case, upheaval within the Soviet bloc was nothing new. The most spectacular instance had been in 1956, when Polish Communist leader Władysław Gomułka broke the absolute link with Moscow – up to a point; in the same year the Hungarians tried to go farther, and were invaded for their pains. But 14 years later Gomułka himself was overthrown. When Solidarity deposed Wojciech Jaruzelski in 1989, they will have welcomed Thatcher and Reagan’s support, but they scarcely needed it; the Polish shipyard workers had already brought down Gomułka in 1970 and his successor, Edward Gierek, in 1980. None of this is to say that Thatcher and Reagan played no role in the downfall of the Eastern Bloc. But it is hard to see that that bloc would still exist today, even if they had not.

What about Thatcher’s heroic resistance to European domination? This, too, holds little water. Her noisy Euroscepticism has drowned out the fact that it was she who signed the Single European Act in 1986, creating a single market that bound the states of Europe together in very much the way that European leaders had intended when they created the European Coal and Steel Community 36 years earlier. To be sure, Thatcher very publicly said “No, no, no” to Jacques Delors’s dreams of European federalism. But would those dreams ever have come true? Current events in Europe suggest not. The creation of the single market bound us to Europe far more firmly than anything Delors had had in mind. 

There remains the Falklands war. It is true that Thatcher acted with great courage when she insisted on mounting a very dangerous mission to retake the islands from the Argentines. But it might have been even better if she had not lost them in the first place. Before March 1982 her administration seems barely to have been aware of the islands, and casually withdrew the patrol vessel that served them, Endurance, as a cost-cutting measure. The Argentine junta interpreted this as a sign of indifference. It was a tragic misinterpretation. Yet when they landed, they must have thought their optimism was justified; they found just 70-odd troops, 20 of whom were only there because they were changing shifts. Nothing can detract from the resolution Thatcher showed through that crisis. But the crisis had arisen from her own government’s neglect. The resulting nasty little war distresses people to this day, dividing British people from Argentines and from each other.

Last but not least, under Thatcher, the great nationalist, the United Kingdom was weakened from within. The conflict in Northern Ireland was not of her making, and was then at its zenith; it would be unfair to blame Thatcher for a cycle of violence that began before her birth. Nonetheless, there seems to have been little will to see shades of grey. One wonders whether things might have been different, not least because, within a few years of her departure, they were.  But perhaps Thatcher’s greatest blow to the unity of the UK was to introduce the deeply unpopular poll tax in Scotland a year before the rest of the country. Many Scots would date the beginning of the likely break-up of the United Kingdom to that tactless and inexplicable decision.

Margaret Thatcher wanted a country of hard-working, aspirational Britons who owned both homes and shares. She created a country where people have been crippled by the debt they have incurred in trying to own their own homes, and where wealth has been concentrated in the hands of those with an eye for the main chance. She wanted a strong, united Britain; she left a country on the verge of disintegration, and wholly at the mercy of market forces. She believed profoundly in democracy, or so she thought; she left an apathetic and cynical people deprived of the means to influence their future.

Nothing so much exemplifies Thatcher’s legacy as the manner of her death – in the Ritz Hotel. It must have been a very different departure from that of the residents of Hillcroft nursing home in Lancaster or Ash Court in London, where the abuse of Alzheimer’s patients has been alleged; or from the 250,000 vulnerable pensioners said by the Equality and Human Rights Commission to have been receiving “poor or very poor” standards of care from private contractors. It is an odious contrast. But it is one that Thatcher, who was neither cruel nor selfish, would genuinely not have relished. The real message here is of hubris, of a misplaced sense of one’s country and its people, and of the pursuit of ideology in place of common sense. 

On Wednesday, the current British Prime Minister, David Cameron, described Thatcher as someone who "defined and overcame the great challenges of her age". In fact, more than almost any other British prime minister of the 20th century (except, perhaps, Ramsay MacDonald), she was an abject failure in almost everything she tried to do.
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One day in 1987, I was sitting in a pub in London’s Farringdon, then a district of repro houses, platemakers, commercial photographers and other artisans. My companion, now a well-known journalist working in Scotland, was then a colleague of mine on Fishing News, the weekly journal of the fishing industry. She was a frequent drinking partner. I was trying to articulate something that I did not quite understand. The atmosphere in London, I felt, had changed steadily during the 1980s; not something one could define; a change in the way people thought and felt and behaved towards each other. 

“Greed,” she said. 

“Yes,” I said.

A few months later, I left. I went to work as a development volunteer in the east of Sudan. It was the start of a 25-year journey that was to take me to the baked-earth plains of the Horn of Africa, then the Eastern Himalayas, the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, the Amazonian headwaters of Ecuador, Moscow and Kyiv, the emerging nations of Soviet Central Asia, and Rome, Brussels and Washington. Finally, in August 2008, I came to rest in the oddly rootless yet rooted cosmopolitanism of New York. 

On Monday morning I left my sunlit flat and walked along the north edge of Central Park. It really was the first day of spring. The day before, we had walked through a cutting wind; today there was a gentle warmth to the sun and a green haze on the trees, but I wasn’t there. I can’t say why, but I suddenly remembered the Banbury road on a winter’s day, peering out through the small windscreen of a little Morris car at spectral trees that loomed through the early morning mists of a late-winter morning, a fug of cigarette smoke around us, a bare metal dashboard with no radio, the collar of my long coat turned up against the cold. I began to wonder if it was time to begin the long journey home.

Robbins's novel The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán (Third Rail) is available as a paperback (ISBN 978-0-9914374-0-5, $16.99 USA, or £10.07 UK) or as an eBook in all formats, including Amazon Kindle (ISBN 978-0-9914374-2-9, $2.99 USA, or £1.85 UK).

Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads


  1. This is an interesting and very thoughtful piece, Mike. I think this line "They were simply voting out a government they felt had failed, and choosing the alternative." can be applied to most elections in most countries.

    1. I think that's probably true. Mass media, by its nature, doesn't really encourage critical thinking; neither do the busy lives that most voters have - I've just had a long day, been delayed on the train, shopped for groceries etc., and if someone gave me a party manifesto right now, I wouldn't read it.

  2. Thoughtful article as always. MT was elected when I was a teenager and she cast a political shadow over all of my youth. Recently I read a great Kate Atkinson book where a character says of the UK 'this country used to be rich and now it is poor...' (I paraphrase). That - in a nutshell - is Thatcher's legacy. The wholesale selling off of the family silver, the privatisation of an entire nation and the inevitable pauperisation. Her life was, in fact, an act of betrayal of her own working class background. Self-hatred is always the worst kind. And as Brexit lays bare the horrible socio-economic UK reality, previously hidden or ignored, the MT legacy has never been more naked or more ugly.