A kind of class war has broken out on the streets of the UK over the last week or so since the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Since her death was announced, the media has been full of people either paying tribute to her for ‘saving the country’ or condemning her for reigning over unprecedented deindustrialisation. Among these sound bites, the one that has become a constant refrain from those on the right has been that she ‘saved us from the unions.’ One particularly depressing manifestation of this was on a TV political panel show when young male audience member – he looked about 16 – said ‘well, imagine where we would be if we still had the unions.’ I can’t be certain, but given his accent – still one of the best ways in the UK to tell someone’s social origins – he was almost certainly working-class himself. I started to think, yes, just imagine if we did have a stronger union moment . . . but maybe that’s for another blog.
Essentially what has been occurring here over the last week or so is a rewriting of history by the right – one where class is never far from the surface. Britain of the 1970s was portrayed as industrially backward with a terminal industrial relations problem. The right argue that the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 turned back this economic and social decline and created a brave new world.
Britain in the 1970s was, however, a complex place, not one dimensional as it’s being portrayed by the right. Although far from perfect, Britain was in this period a far more egalitarian society, in part due to near full employment, of course, but also because of a collective sense of fairness shared by both political left and right. This is encapsulated for me in British media writer Andrew Collins’s memoir of the period ‘Where did it all go right? Growing up normal in the 70s’. Collins spent his youth in the English midlands, and while he was undoubtedly middle class, he wasn’t that different socially, culturally, or economically from his working-class peers. They would have attended the same schools, lived on the same streets or at least nearby, and so on. In part because of the kind of egalitarianism that Collins describes, 1976 was recently identified as the year when the British people were statistically about as equal as they had ever been – and possibly ever will be. They were also the happiest. After this period, the post-war consensus began to be eroded most notably by Thatcherism, as director Ken Loach has recently shown in a moving and thoughtful film on the social and economic reforms of the post-war Labour Government and the later breakdown of the consensus.
While the Tories were elected in part because they tapped into worries about unemployment, by using an image of a long dole queue with the tag line ‘Labour isn’t working,’ instead of ending unemployment, they drove it up. Almost one million people were unemployed in 1979, but that rose rapidly in the early 1980s to 3 million and has never since fallen below one million. And who has experienced the most job loss since from the 1980s onward? Yes, you guessed it: the working class, who lost jobs in coal mines, factories, shipyards, and steel mills. These industries were closed as a result of either disastrous neo-liberal industrial policies, or, as was the case with the coal industry, simple political spite. But the right wants us to remember Thatcher for ‘saving us from the unions.’
As I watched the state funeral for Mrs. Thatcher on TV, the BBC’s helpful live internet feed of the tickertape scrolling at the bottom of the screen highlighted the latest labor market statistics: a 70,000 increase in joblessness this month and over 900,000 unemployed for over a year out of a total of 2.5 million. It was a fitting reminder of Thatcher’s gift to the working class.
But the right wing commentators have not been the only ones talking about Thatcher over the last week. Many on the left have celebrated her death, though much of the opposition has been dismissed in some quarters as either left wing political extremism or simply distasteful. The tee-shirt maker Philosophy Football produced a souvenir shirt with ‘Rejoice – 08.04.2013’ emblazoned on the front and urged would be purchasers to order quickly to ensure deliver in time for the day of the funeral. Others celebrated musically, organizing an attempt to place the song ‘Ding Dong The Witch is Dead’ at number one in the download charts. It narrowly missed climbing to number two! Impromptu street parties broke out in the centres of a number of British cities. In the Celtic fringes of the UK, Scotland and Wales especially, there has been a great deal of celebration at the news. But nowhere has the bitter, visceral hatred of Thatcher and her governments of the 1980s been more pronounced than in the former coal mining villages of the North of England. While 3000 of the great and good of the British establishment were attending the lavish £10 million funeral service in St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London, the places decimated by Thatcherism celebrated in a different style. In former colliery villages such as Easington in County Durham and Goldthorpe in South Yorkshire, effigies of the former Prime Minister were burnt with gusto.
The industrial and social changes that Britain suffered during the 1980s have left a lasting legacy that continues to impact the nation 23 years after she left office. Above all it is working-class communities that have paid the price of Thatcherism. The true story of Thatcher’s influence, in the 70s and beyond, must be heard. As one banner in the City of London proclaimed on the day of Thatcher’s funeral, ‘Rest in Shame.’