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Mrs T – a depreciation

The New York Times epithet machine used to describe Margaret Thatcher for American readers as “the prime minister who privatized the loss-making state industries.” Of course she did no such thing. The enterprises she sold off made huge profits for the Treasury. BP was, after all, the state-owned creation of Winston Churchill and kept a constant flow of petropounds going into the Treasury. Selling it off to her friends in the City of London benefited its executives and shareholders but hardly the British public, let alone the US citizenry around the Gulf of Mexico.

Mark Twain said that while he wished no man dead, he sometimes read obituaries with great pleasure. I rather suspect that I will be denied even that enjoyment with the oleaginous brown-nosing that will surround the demise of Margaret Thatcher.

The woman contrived the collapse of Britain as an industrial power, squandering the windfall find of North Sea oil in the process and perhaps most reprehensibly helped erode the ideology of common welfare and concern that was consummated by the Labour government after World War II, which was after all, for most British people, the most significant achievement of that titanic struggle.

Less of a self-made woman than most obituarists will admit, she married well, to a millionaire who could support her in her political ambitions. To give her her due,  she carved her way into an all-male chauvinist milieu with scrotum-crushing teacnity. She was determined and resolute in her ambitions. I was going to say strong-minded, but that would inadvertently have given her more credit than she deserved. Although undoubtedly more clued in than Ronald Reagan, with whose name she will be linked in death, I suspect that much of what the right see as ideological correctness was no such thing. Her motivation was not to dismantle the state so much as to ensure her continuing control of it.

She sold off public housing and stopped the programs to build more, not because she had deeply neo-liberal feelings that were offended by this intrusion of the state into the housing  market but because she believed that doing so would break open what she saw as a Labour Party vote bank of council tenants, and convert them into property owning conservatives. In this and other respects she displayed a materialism and crude economic determinism that resembled the diehard factions of the Leninist left!

It was similar reasoning that I suspect impelled her break up of the great state-owned enterprises.   Coal, steel, railways, electricity and gas, were the stronghold of unions who not only had their fingers on the jugular of the nation but were the financial and political base of the Labour Party.  From her point of view,  one cannot help but suspect this was a double whammy perpetrated on her political opponents, since the sale of the shares, she hoped, like the sale of public housing to its tenants would create a huge new voting population of conservatives.

It is worth remembering that she also introduced a poll tax to replace the local government property taxes, almost certainly with the aim of driving poorer, and as she saw them, natural Labour voters off the electoral rolls.

To her credit, in the same astute political vein, she forbore to privatize the National Health, not because she was attached to socialized medicine, but because she knew her own voters were, just as they liked British Rail, which was left for John Major to privatize with disastrous fiscal consequences.

Despite all these measures, and despite the florid encomia now covering her pall, Margaret Thatcher never won a majority of the popular vote. Her arrival and stay in Downing Street owed much to her opponents. The Labour Party was tied up in sterile political arguments with ambitious politicians defecting to found the Social Democrats who later merged with the Liberals. It was that bloc of popular votes which deprived opposition Labour of the votes necessary to win elections. In each election a clear majority voted against Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party.

On foreign policy, it was her pennypinching, withdrawing niggardly sums from, for example, the British Antarctic Survey, which sent the wrong signals to the Junta in Argentina and led to the invasion of the Falklands. She did indeed display courage and resolution in repelling that invasion, but fixing something she broke herself should dull the glow of that triumph. Indeed her defence cuts would have made the same operation impossible a year later!

That obduracy could be ugly – as when she gloated that she had bullied the Commonwealth’s and other heads of state into accepting only the most rudimentary token sanctions against Apartheid. On the other hand, she deserves considerable credit for persuading Reagan that Gorbachev was serious about detente. There were few others with the conservative credibility to do that.

She was not nice, not popular and a person of narrow but tightly focussed vision. But her flawed legacy lives on, mesmerizing, for example, Tony Blair.  Apart from the pious politicians, one suspects that sackcloth and ashes will he hard to discern on the streets of London, that in pubs across the former industrial heartland of Britain, many pint glasses will be raised in tasteful celebration.

Ian Williams teaches at New York University and writes for the Guardian, Tribune and the New Statesman amongst other publications.


  1. Chris Brennan says:


  2. Peter Rowlands says:

    Can the previous disgraceful comment please be taken down.
    The most pressing issue is the funeral, which is a state funeral in all but name, not accorded to any PM except Churchill since Gladstone in 1898. The left should make the point that Attlee did not have a state funeral, despite having led a government that was far more radical and significant than Thatcher’s, and whose measures were subsequently largely accepted.

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