Capitalist decline: Thatcher in history
Jack Conrad explores the conditions which created Margaret Thatcher and takes issue with the great person version of history
One idea that the Tory establishment wants to project is that Margaret Thatcher was just an ordinary housewife - a grocer’s daughter from Grantham, Lincolnshire. That is true, but it does not tell half the story. She just happened to go to Oxford University, and then marry the millionaire oil executive and “honest to god rightwinger”, Denis Thatcher.
Her ability to operate in politics therefore first and foremost derives from privilege and institutional elitism. She married into money and became integrated into the bourgeois establishment - that was the key to her success. Yes, it was still a tremendously difficult path - nobody looking at British politics in the 1960s would have predicted that the first British woman prime minister would be a Conservative. It seemed much more likely that it would be a Barbara Castle, someone from the Labour Party. Instead it came as a surprise to everybody that it was the Tories who produced the first female leader.
Thatcher has been painted as a uniquely principled politician - someone who persisted in single-mindedly pursuing her ‘cure’ for Britain’s ills. However, it is essential to place her in historical context. To say that is not to deny the role that individuals play: there is no such thing as ‘History’ without people: people organised within parties, classes and nations.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s there can be no doubt that, economically speaking, Keynesianism was the dominant mode of thought. We were told at that time that capitalism and communism were ‘converging’; capitalism was no longer the genuine article because of the highly visible role of the state, while in the Soviet Union there was increasing talk of using the law of value, profits and other capitalist-sounding incentives to establish a modicum of rationality. It was said that, because of Keynesianism, there could be no return to the 1930s. Mass unemployment had been abolished, wage levels would continue to rise, working time would decrease and life would inevitably become boringly comfortable. Yes, there are still millionaires on the one side and people living in council houses on the other, but soon we will arrive at the ‘age of leisure’ - does it really matter that there are still millionaires when everyone is well-off, with all their needs more than catered for? Wealth and class were rapidly becoming irrelevant - that is what we were told.
Of course, we know why this particular ideological illusion was able to flourish. It was a combination of the post-World War II boom, the power of the working class and the existence of the USSR as an ideological rival to capitalism. But by the late 60s the post-war consensus was fraying and, coinciding with that, there emerged a loosely connected group of rightwing politicians, writers and commentators: eg, the so-called Austrian School. These neoliberals had undertaken a long-term intellectual campaign designed to undermine the basic assumptions of social democracy. They demanded budgetary responsibility, not borrowing; competition, not state intervention; the labour market, not full employment. Trade unions were denounced as some sort of monstrous aberration. Capitalism was equated with freedom, wealth creation and rugged self-reliance.
Working class power
In the 1950s and 60s workers were able to force up wages dramatically. Not through set-piece battles, but guerrilla warfare. The Peter Sellers film, I’m all right, Jack, gives the flavour. There were huge numbers of strikes that never actually made it to the official statistics because they were over within less than an hour; the shop steward would call everybody out, or, in the case of Ford’s, ring a bell, and the workforce would instantly down tools. The 60s television series, The rag trade, provides another window on those times. Of course, what happened in a comedy series did not necessarily occur everywhere, but it was sufficiently true to be popularly recognisable. So it was shop-steward power and the winning of countless micro-clashes over tea breaks, holidays, wages, hours and demarcations. It was a war of attrition that over the years had a transformative effect on living standards.
On a grander scale the ruling class felt forced to concede the welfare state, free education up to and including university, free healthcare and a situation where both Labour and Tory governments were committed to building council houses by the million - social housing. Everyone surely knows Ken Loach’s famous 1966 TV play, Cathy, come home. Cathy and Reg become homeless after he is injured in a workplace accident. They lose their house and are forced to squat and live in hostels. Eventually social services take the children into care. It was considered a national outrage that such a thing could happen. But today homelessness and sleeping rough is regarded as perfectly normal.
The fact is that during the 60s and early 70s working class power was palpable. However, Eric Hobsbawm not inaccurately called it “syndicalism without syndicalists”. The syndicalists upheld the idea of ushering in the new society through a general strike, but the union and shopfloor militancy of the 1960s was not accompanied by a vision of a new society. Of course, there were exceptions to that - the ‘official’ Communist Party, elements in the left of the Labour Party. But overwhelmingly shop stewards were concerned with day-to-day economics, rather than bringing about the end of capitalism.
Nevertheless, from the point of view of the bourgeoisie this was an utterly intolerable situation. Not only were the numerous wildcat strikes weakening Britain. There was also what Andrew Glyn and Robert Sutcliffe called the “profit squeeze” (British capitalism, workers and the profit squeeze London 1972). The ‘right’ of managers to manage was certainly much diminished. Decisions over hiring and firing, hours worked, general conditions and so on were no longer purely a managerial prerogative: such things were increasingly within the remit of trade union power.
In terms of international competitiveness, Britain went from a benign situation in the aftermath of World War II, where it could sell whatever rubbish its companies could produce, to one where the Germans, Italians and Japanese were outstripping what was once the workshop of the world.
The first statute-backed attempt to reverse Britain’s national decline was not undertaken by Margaret Thatcher. Rather it was Ted Heath. Heath was unexpectedly elected, defeating Harold Wilson and the Labour Party in the 1970 general election. Beforehand he had made his famous ‘Selsdon man’ speech, in which he called for the taming of the unions in order to restore competitiveness.
The Labour administration he replaced had been completely committed to Keynesianism - as embodied by Wilson’s phrase, the “white heat” of the technological revolution. That involved government subsidies for various pet projects, the most famous (and most stupid) of which was, I suppose, the Concorde supersonic jet. More importantly, there were mergers of car manufacturers, engineering companies and shipbuilders under heavy-handed state direction.
One of the main planks of Heath’s pro-market programme was the Industrial Relations Act - a class-war attempt to neuter the trade unions using a whole array of legal sticks and carrots. Ironically the Labour government had laid the foundations with its 1969 In place of strife white paper. Fronted by Barbara Castle - previously viewed as a leftwinger - the Labour government wanted to curb unofficial trade union power and use a supposedly neutral industrial board to enforce settlements. However, the cabinet was split and the Communist Party was able to organise a series of political strikes under the banner of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions. Up to half a million workers came out. This involved key sectors of the working class - mines, docks, engineering, etc. Here, amongst these ‘labour aristocrats’, the ‘official’ CPGB had its main strength. It was these same forces that ultimately brought down Heath and his Industrial Relations Act.
In 1972 there was an official miners’ pay strike that began with flying pickets, most famously at the Saltley Gates power station in Birmingham, where Arthur Scargill made his name as a national figure. In a memorable victory Saltley Gates was closed - the chief constable had to tell Tory home secretary Reginald Maudling that his men were unable to keep it open. Thousands of Birmingham engineering workers had come out on strike and turned what was a picket line into a blockade - in those days, it was not a case of heavily armed riot police, but ‘push and shove’. As a result, the miners’ strike won spectacularly - a humiliation for the government. Two years later there was another miners’ strike. Heath responded with the three-day week. There were power cuts and a 10.30pm limit on TV broadcasts. In February 1974 Heath called a snap general election - and lost. These two successful disputes took the miners from near the bottom of the pay table for industrial workers up towards the top.
According to The Times, Britain was becoming “ungovernable”. There were even rumours of coup plots - the Duke of Edinburgh was among those said to be involved. Frank Kitson had written Low intensity operations: subversion, insurgency and peacekeeping (London 1971). In effect an army manual for fighting not in Northern Ireland, but mainland Britain. And in the early 1970s the idea of the army being called in, or even the army carrying out a coup against a Labour government, was far from being a remote possibility. Chris Mullin’s 1982 novel, A very British coup, provides a left-Labour take on the period.
So the bourgeoisie was not only worried about profits. As a class it was also worried about ‘national decline’, brought about by the power of the working class. True, the unions did not know what to do with that power, but it was certainly real. That was best illustrated not by the two national miners’ strikes, which were essentially sectional, but by the Pentonville Five.
Five dockers’ shop stewards - Conny Clancy, Tony Merrick, Bernie Steer, Vic Turner and Derek Watkins - were jailed in July 1972 for refusing to comply with a court order banning them from picketing. The Industrial Relations Act, which became law in 1971 (Labour’s In place of strife never got to that stage), required all trade unions to register - otherwise they would not qualify for various legal immunities. The TUC had agreed a policy of non-cooperation and such was the extent of the opposition that only one major union registered: the electricians’ EETPU, under the communist turned anti-communist, Frank Chapple.
The five dockers were sent to Pentonville jail by the Industrial Relations Court. I remember as a young man going round various workplaces with other members of the Communist Party, calling workers on building sites and in engineering works out on strike in protest. There was a growing strike wave, called for and guided by the Communist Party and its LCDTU. The TUC itself was threatening to call a one-day general strike - which is technically illegal. (Interestingly, the forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party, the International Socialists, were arguing against a general strike at the time.)
Lo and behold, out of thin air there appeared someone with the title of ‘official solicitor’ - a post very few people had ever heard of before. Norman Turner declared that there were “insufficient grounds” for the jailing of the Pentonville Five and they were released. In reality this resulted from government panic when faced with the working class wielding its power as a collective - I vividly recall Mike Hicks, later to become general secretary of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, directing the demonstration outside Pentonville from the first-floor window of a nearby pub.
Anyway, Heath went to the electorate in February 1974 asking, “Who rules Britain?” The elected government or the trade unions?
Everything seemed to be going our way - the position of women was being revolutionised, as was the position of blacks and other oppressed minorities. Students were occupying their colleges and marching in the streets; there were even school kids’ strikes and unions. Internationally there had been Paris 1968, the Italian hot autumn and now the Americans were clearly just about to lose in Vietnam. Capitalism looked extremely unstable on a global level and radical change appeared to be a certainty.
How did it all change? Basically the trade union bureaucracy was incorporated into the state by the Wilson-Callaghan Labour government. Cleverly, Labour sold to the trade union bureaucracy the idea of the automatic deduction of union dues by employers: those dues were no longer collected by shop stewards. And senior stewards were merged into the bureaucratic apparatus too. They were made full-timers, or given plenty of time off work. It was true that union membership rose to 12 million as a result - there was a very high union density in key industries. But in return union bureaucrats were expected to sell their members’ interest for the ‘national interest’. However, inflation was allowed to rip and unemployment to rise. Towards the end of Labour’s ‘social contract’ wages were actually being squeezed.
In 1978, however, there was a rebellion - not because of, but in spite of, the union bureaucracy - in the shape of the largely spontaneous ‘winter of discontent’. Labour’s strategy had ended in failure and widespread disenchantment with the social democratic settlement. As everyone knows, the Tories were elected soon afterwards.
In essence Thatcher’s administration revived and sharpened the programme of Ted Heath, including, of course, his anti-union industrial laws (the Industrial Relations Act had been repealed by the previous Labour government). Nevertheless, Thatcher skilfully held off from launching a full-frontal attack. People such as myself expected a strategic confrontation: it was widely known that Thatcher’s aide and confidant, Nicholas Ridley, had been tirelessly preparing such a confrontation in the wake of 1974. And in government the Tories created a national police force, built up stockpiles of coal and put in place all manner of different administrative mechanisms which would be used to take on and defeat the working class. But in Thatcher’s first term the confrontation did not come. It seemed almost surreal.
In fact Thatcher was biding her time. Although there were various industrial disputes, they frequently ended with concessions being given - this was largely true even at the beginning of her second term. Then in 1984 the year-long miners’ Great Strike was deliberately provoked through the announcement of a comprehensive pit-closure programme.
After a heroic struggle the miners were defeated. But that result was not predetermined, despite the fact that the Tories had prepared meticulously, whereas the working class had hardly prepared at all. The Tories proved to be far more astute class fighters, much more able to think strategically than our side. That was certainly true of the ‘official’ CPGB, which was falling under the control of the Eurocommunist wing organised around Marxism Today. But it was also true of the revolutionary sects such as Militant, the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers Revolutionary Party.
When it came to the miners themselves, the fact that Scargill refused to ballot the members most definitely had a cost - the Tories exploited this weakness to the fullest advantage. Moreover, Scargill relied on bureaucratic ‘solidarity’, not a class-wide strategy for rolling back Thatcherism and readying the working class for state power. Scargill took money from the TUC and the big unions, but did nothing to challenge the lethargy, the complacency, the passivity of the trade union bureaucracy. And the sad fact of the matter was that working class consciousness was being eroded.
Ten years earlier it was virtually unimaginable for TGWU lorry drivers to cross picket lines. But in 1984-85 not only did lorries take deliveries of coal: they did so from working pits. Tragically many miners were prepared to cross picket lines in 1984-85. The historically established morality which says ‘Picket lines mean don’t cross’ was crumbling in the face of Thatcher’s property-owning democracy, the right to buy, the promotion of selfish individualism, privatisation and shares, the lure of consumerism, etc. Whereas in Kent you could count the scabs on the fingers of one hand, in Nottinghamshire, even at the beginning, only a minority joined the strike. In terms of trade union leaders, there was a lot of rhetoric, but little or nothing in the way of action. But Scargill did not want to challenge the bureaucracy - after all, he was part of that bureaucracy himself.
Eurocommunists like Beatrix Campbell and Martin Jacques more or less lined up against the strike. Not openly, of course. But in the first weeks and months the Eurocommunists noisily talked about the “macho violence” of the miners. The women of the pit communities answered this particular crap in their own inspiring way. There was a famous incident when the establishment tried to turn a miner’s wife who shot at Arthur Scargill with a water pistol into a folk hero. Back in the 60s, women’s marches against strikers - so-called ‘petticoat protests’ - would be organised with the encouragement of the print and electronic media. But during the miners’ Great Strike overwhelmingly the women stood alongside their “macho” men - a huge boost from our angle, but a defeat for the Euros, who wanted to paint the strike as an aggressive stand-off between stupid male dinosaurs. Thatcher was not a ‘real woman’, according to their ‘socialist’ feminism.
The Euros also tried to turn class solidarity into charity-mongering - let’s collect toys for the miners’ kids at Christmas. The last thing they wanted to admit was that it was class war. And in Wales and Scotland the Euros treated it as a national question. Communist Party members like Scottish NUM president George Bolton called for the protection of ‘Scottish coal’. He gave special dispensation from picketing to the steel industry in Scotland.
Why did Thatcher fall? There were two factors. The first was the poll tax - although to reduce it to that question alone would be a fundamental mistake. The poll tax was not just about clobbering ordinary people: it was an attempt to make the Labour Party unelectable at the local level.
This was the era of the so-called ‘loony left’ in charge of local government, so the poll tax was designed to ensure that, if a left Labour administration were elected, local voters would be penalised financially. But there was a rebellion because this was indeed a ‘poll tax’ - a levy raised not on the basis of income, but a flat charge for everyone, from the pauper to the millionaire. And who was more likely to elect a ‘loony left’ council - the pauper or the millionaire? The poll tax showed, however, that Thatcher faced widespread popular opposition and as a result the Tory establishment began to express doubts about her leadership - certainly when there was the riot in Trafalgar Square in March 1990.
But the main reason for Thatcher’s demise was Europe, an issue which still divides the Tories - basically between nationalism and the cosmopolitan orientation of big business towards the European market. Thatcher seemed to embody this contradiction - on the one hand signing up to Maastricht, but on the other saying, ‘No, no, no’ to centralisation and demanding a refund on Britain’s contribution.
Thatcher’s death has presented an opportunity to promote the ‘great person’ version of history. That is what the countless obituaries, recollections, tributes and accolades amount to. Her funeral was a state occasion in all but name. The presence of Elizabeth Windsor was a break with precedent. So the Iron Lady’s send-off was not unlike the 1852 funeral of the Duke of Wellington. A vulgar attempt by the Tory establishment to transform a despotic prime minister - he unsuccessfully opposed the 1832 Reform Act - into a national hero. Interestingly, Charles Dickens denounced his funeral as a “form of ugliness, a horrible combination of colour, hideous motion and general failure”.
According to rightwing Tory grandees, Thatcher was a determined woman, a woman who talked common sense, whose attitude to the economy was the same as her attitude to her household budget. Almost single-handedly, she saw off ‘communism’ through her part in the collapse of the Soviet Union. She overcame the all-powerful unions, rescued Britain from terminal decline and cleared the way for New Labour and the ‘big bang’ in the City. That is how they want her to be remembered. We, on the other hand, will remember her mean-minded philistinism, her promotion of clause 28, her role in the devastation of the mining communities, the poll tax, the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, the Falklands deaths, etc. The Thatcherites will surely not succeed in making her a national hero.
It is quite clear that individuals make history. Yet they do so in circumstances not of their choosing. For example, did John Paul II play a part in the collapse of ‘official communism’? Yes, of course, as did Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher. But the idea that without them the collapse would not have occurred is absurd. It might have occurred in a different way, according to a different timetable, but the eventual collapse of ‘official communism’ was inevitable. It was more pertinent to ask in the late 1970s why this economically and morally bankrupt system had not collapsed before.
The USSR had run out of workers. In the 1960s and 70s Moscow seemed to be awash with building sites, but many projects simply went unfinished. There was no surplus labour to tap into - in fact the USSR boasted the highest proportion of employed pensioners and women in the world. Khrushchev not only recruited the army at harvest time, but schoolchildren too. Nor was there any possibility of constantly revolutionising the means of production. Under those circumstances it could be predicted with certainty that the Soviet Union had to collapse.
We cannot agree with the ‘great man’ or even ‘great woman’ version of history. Thatcher played a role. But if she had not performed it, others would have done so. Yes, the Tories might have lost the miners’ strike, just as they might have lost in the Falklands, but if our side had won the 1984-85 strike, the bourgeoisie would have come for us again, and with grimmer determination.
Had that happened, would we have been able to reorganise in the necessary manner? With the bankruptcy of the revolutionary left, of ‘official communism’ and the British road to socialism, of ‘third world’ liberation movements, we have to answer in the negative. The crisis of the left was part of history - history that is shaped by individuals, yes, but individuals who react the way they do because of particular social causes and political circumstances.
Thatcher’s apparent superhuman powers lay not in some unique personal attribute: no, her very limited ideas were in tune with the narrow, grasping, greedy interests of the dominant sections of the capitalist class. They were in tune with the needs of a capitalism that is in decline, but cannot yet be superseded - the working class is not yet ready to carry out its role as gravedigger.