Margaret Thatcher: a carnival of reaction

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Writing on the eve of Mrs Thatcher’s resignation as Prime Minister in 1990 we said: ‘Political success and survival ultimately depend on economics. The deep, apparently insoluble crisis of British capitalism lay behind Thatcher coming to power and her failure to resolve that crisis, in the end, will see her off’ (Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 98, December 1990/January 1991). Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet colleagues turned against her and drove her out of office. Now Thatcher is to be given a ceremonial funeral service at St Paul’s Cathedral in London on 17 April at vast expense, with the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh in attendance. Parliament has been recalled to pay homage and the Union flag is being flown at half mast over the Palace of Westminster.

The British ruling class are paying their respects to a politician who served them by leading the attack on the working class and defending the interests of British imperialism in the midst of its crisis. The ruling class celebration of Thatcher’s life is an affirmation that the attack goes on and a warning to us of what we can expect. The Labour Party has called for people to be respectful of this person who ruined the lives of generations of working class people in Britain, has the blood of ten Irish hunger strikers on her hands, was complicit in the crimes of apartheid South Africa and was a friend to bloody dictators like General Pinochet.  

The chauvinism and arrogance that characterised her public personality may have been political strengths for most of the 11 years of her time as Prime Minister, but they were also her undoing; Europe and the Poll Tax made her a liability that had to be got rid of.

The strident anti-European statements Thatcher made divided the Conservative Party and forced her Deputy Prime Minister and former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe to resign. Howe condemned Thatcher for undermining government ministers trying to deal with their European counterparts: ‘It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only to find the bats have been broken before the match by the team captain.’ The question of Britain’s relations with Europe and the preparations for the launch of the single currency lay behind every Thatcher government cabinet crisis. Today, this question of Europe continues to hound and divide the British ruling class.

There remains a justifiable hatred for Thatcher in the British working class. The seeds for this were sown when as Education Secretary in 1971 she removed free school milk for primary school children over the age of seven: Margaret Thatcher ­ Milk Snatcher. Later, as prime minister, her government led the charge against the miners; she called them ‘the enemy within’ and she justified police violence against miners and mining communities during the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Thatcher’s government used the police to break the print unions on behalf of Murdoch’s News International at Wapping in 1986-87. In 1985 the Conservative government attacked local government with rate capping powers that placed central government restrictions on what local councils could spend, which have been in place ever since. The Greater London Council and six Metropolitan County Councils were abolished in 1986 – seen by Thatcher and her ministers as potential focuses of opposition. The Right to Buy policy introduced in 1980, allowing council tenants to buy council housing, paved the way to the social housing crisis that we have today – with council house building effectively ended by the Thatcher government and never resumed.

It was Thatcher’s Conservative governments that introduced the anti-trade union legislation behind which today’s union leaders cower. They privatised gas, water, electricity etc. They contracted out NHS and local government services. By 1986 Thatcher’s government presided over an official 3.1m unemployed.      

People did fight back: they mobilised and defeated the Poll Tax, the miners sent tremors through the ruling class and would have won but for the betrayal of the Labour Party and other trade unions. The youth rose up and fought back against police racism in Bristol, Brixton, Toxteth, Broadwater Farm, Handsworth and elsewhere.

While attacking the working class at home the Thatcher governments defended British imperialism abroad. In defiance of United Nations’ sanctions Thatcher promoted British investments in South Africa and trade with the apartheid regime. In 1987 Thatcher declared: ‘The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation...Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud cuckoo land.’ The Thatcher government sent British armed forces to capture the Malvinas/Falklands islands in 1982 after they were reclaimed by Argentina. Mrs Thatcher gave the order allowing a British nuclear powered submarine to sink the Argentine ship the General Belgrano, even though it was outside a British declared exclusion zone. 323 Argentine sailors were killed. The failure of the British Labour Party and labour movement to oppose that war contributed to the Conservatives re-election in 1983. In 1981 ten Irish prisoners died on hunger strike demanding political status which the British Conservative government, supported by the Labour Party, denied them. The sinking of the General Belgrano and the deaths of the Irish hunger strikers are crimes that will brand Mrs Thatcher with infamy forever.

At the end of her increasingly unpopular reign, Thatcher led the 1990 onslaught on Iraq in the first Gulf War. A warmonger to the last, she hectored the hesitant US President George Bush Senior ‘Don’t go wobbly on me now, George’, and committed 50,000 British troops to the invasion.

The ruling class may celebrate its figurehead. The Labour Party may pay its respects. We know that she is hated in the working class here in Britain and by millions of people around the world. The capitalists have no solution to the crisis other than attacks on the lives of millions of workers and poor people. We must organise to resist and go on to build socialism. That will be our reckoning with Thatcher, the class she served and her legacy.

Trevor Rayne