Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Tramping The Dirt Down

Although I usually blog about Spanish issues here, there are always exceptional cases. I was not even planning to write anything about the death of Margaret Thatcher, but the disgraceful and ideologically incoherent decision not to privatise her funeral and to turn it instead into an expensive and wasteful military jamboree has made me change my mind.

The armed forces presence in her funeral has of course been designed above all to pay homage to a military adventure only exceeded in its pointless absurdity by Aznar's dramatic capture of the goats grazing on Isla Perejil a few years back. The Falklands War was memorably described by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges as being like two bald men fighting over a comb. Nevertheless, we are still force fed a mythical account of democracy triumphing over fascist tyranny as one set of troops conscripted by unemployment overran the positions of another group of, often very young, untrained conscripts shivering in their trenches. 

Except that not too long before the Falklands War the UK was training Argentinian naval officers in Portsmouth. That's right, the same navy that was running one of the most notorious torture centres of the last 50 years. Why be surprised? Anyone who was such an ardent friend and admirer of Pinochet as Thatcher was would also surely be a friend of those who tossed their victims alive from planes into the sea? Operation Condor, bringing nasty vicious murderers together throughout the 1970's and 80's. Indeed, such was Thatcher's fierce commitment to liberty that she was also one of the most determined defenders of the apartheid regime, labeling the ANC as a terrorist organisation. For a while I was becoming concerned that she would outlive Nelson Mandela, thankfully we've now been spared that sorry and unjust outcome.

Meanwhile the fans of Thatcher's economics, of which there are many, have developed an understandable aversion to hard data. Because it's not a theoretical debate, not any more, after 34 years the results are in and it doesn't look good. Average economic growth in the 30 years following her election in 1979 has been significantly poorer than in the preceding 30 years. Then there is unemployment. Here things are even worse, high unemployment has become an almost permanent feature of the UK economy since 1979. Ironic when you consider that Thatcher used it as the main issue of her first election campaign. Even more so when you take into account the numerous changes made to the unemployment count that were designed to artificially reduce the figures.

Then there is oil. Many oil producing countries have been noticeably wasteful in the use they have made of their earnings from it. But even so it's hard to think of a country that has obtained absolutely no long-term benefit at all from it. That's the UK. Stupid Norway eh, with its sovereign wealth funds trying to use oil revenues to guarantee decent pensions and to invest in the future of their economy! What would they know? Idiots. Showing the way forward, the UK under Thatcher pissed away the country's oil wealth on corporate tax breaks and the like. Not even a balance of payments surplus to show for it. Nada, cero patatero.

I think of these things when, as I did in the days immediately preceding Thatcher's death, I travel on the finest Victorian public transport system in the world. I don't know what they did to make The Tube work during the Olympics but the sellotape and chewing gum has now fallen off again and you get plenty of time to think about all sorts of issues as the tannoy announces yet another delay or line closure. Cut long term investment for short term political gain via tax cuts and nobody notices the true effects for 15-20 years. Thatcherism in a nutshell.

It's a failure, an abject failure if you analyse the data. But the dogma survives in the form of "my theory must be correct so therefore something is wrong with the economy". We see it today with the slash and burn economics practised in the name of austerity. Indeed, the current crisis has its roots deep in the kind of economics advocated by Thatcher. The UK economy has been hollowed out and nobody has any notion of how to get it working again without generating yet another "your house is temporarily worth four times its real value so don't worry be happy" credit and property bubble. Of course we have to present the other side of the argument. There are some impressive statistics from the period since 1979. Inequality has increased enormously since Thatcher came to power. Poverty too. That deliberate redistribution of wealth to those that already had the most is what sustains the stupid, failed dogma. It works magnificently for those who wield economic power.

It's hardly surprising in this context of economic failure that the inheritors of Thatcher's political tradition promote hatred and fear of the poor to mask their failure to deliver. If a millionaire member of the Bullingdon Club turns out to be a misogynist prepared to kill his children to take revenge on a woman who has spurned him then it's an isolated case you see. Shit happens. But if the misogynist in question happens to be drawing welfare benefits then we get the vile, repugnant attempts by the likes of George Osborne to use the case to smear all welfare recipients. Likewise, if you've promoted policies that mean a huge chunk of social housing stock has ended up in the hands of private landlords then obviously the only solution to a lack of housing for those on low incomes is to blame those who are still lucky enough to have a roof and a spare bedroom. So you make their incomes even lower. There are even more vindictive policies than that.

Ah, but you don't understand how terrible things were before she came to power is the last resort of the Thatcherites. But I do know how things were before Thatcher, and it seems I have a much better memory than her fans. I don't just remember strikes and tales of inexorable decline, I remember a country supposedly much poorer than it is now yet able to provide a whole range of reasonable public services that have now become perplexingly unaffordable. Pensioners weren't expected to live out their last years on the poverty line, a health service that kept people healthy without corporate sponsorship! Industries that made things. All terribly old-fashioned I know, but if I want to look for evidence of long term decline I don't need to go back into history to find it.

So I'm glad that she's dead and I hope the coffin is made of lead. All the better for it to sink slowly, but relentlessly, down through the sticky London clay until it reaches a point where return becomes impossible. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go and check that the cava I have in the fridge is chilling nicely and that I have the right music selection ready for such a solemn day.


Lee said...

Actually, she's being (or at this hour, has been) cremated. Which, as I've seen in a few comments in the press, is to make sure no one digs up her evil corpse and drags it through the streets to the merriment of many. Enjoy the bubbly!

Graeme said...

I was more inclined to go for the Bin Laden solution. Sea burial in an unmarked spot (say in the South Atlantic) to prevent the place becoming a shrine for fanatics.

Bill said...

I enjoyed reading your leftist propaganda, painting the horrid 1970s in rose-tinted hues; I remember that time too and yes, there were strikes and power outages on a regular basis and your so-called fine Victorian transport system was creaking with regular missing services, strikes and general filth. The whole country was grubby and being the "sick man of Europe" (which the UK was and now is not, even after the worst Tony Blair and Gordon Brown could do although they did manage to squander the economic legacy left them in 1997 - no change there then, it WAS Labour government) was unfortunately no myth.

As an earlier commenter observed, the [in]accuracy of you whole piece is high-lighted by the fact that you even got her funeral arrangements wrong as she is being cremated so sinking down through the London clay in a lead-lined coffin is not going to happen.

You didn't like her, fair enough, but your polemic is risible. She however had class and made very kind comments about Michael Foot on his death, even though he was probably not her favourite person - some might say it was hypocrisy, but for me it showed dignity and basic human decency. I loathe Gordon Brown, but should I outlive him and still be blogging then I will try and write a humane obituary. However, so far as Lady Thatcher is concerned she is now well beyond your barbed-tongue's reach, however much it may infuriate you and those who think like you (e.g. the awful Kevin Maguire).

Graeme said...

Bill, if you're going to accuse my piece of being inaccurate then you'll need something a bit more substantial than me being unaware of the precise nature of her funeral arrangements.

I've checked the figures you see (from that dreadful Marxist band at the Bank of England), and they don't match your account. I would be very careful about what you wish for concerning the supposedly terrible Labour years after 1997. If we remove those from the calculations, the economic record of the years after 1979 is not just worse than those preceding it, it's MUCH worse. Only the Blair/Brown boom gives the economic record from the 80's onwards a touch of respectability. The story is in the data.

As for me being infuriated about her being beyond the reach of my barbed tongue, I'm afraid that's also far from the case. I feel remarkably serene and content these days, perhaps the amount of cava I've consumed has helped - who knows? I'm off to Google Kevin Maguire, never heard of him.

Colin Davies said...

Fellow travellers? Sent to me by one of myreaders.


Baroness Thatcher, Britain’s former Prime Minister died on April 8, 2013 at the age of 87. She was the UK Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990 and the most influential Conservative politician since Winston Churchill. Her single-minded self-assured determination earned her the label of the Iron Lady, inspiring awe, reverence and revulsion from her supporters and detractors alike.

Thatcher grew up in a classical English petty-bourgeois family. Her father owned two grocery shops in Grantham. He preached the word of God, was staunchly patriotic, and became the town’s Mayor from 1945-6. His self-confidence derived from selecting food that commanded a good price and turned a good profit. His daughter, Margaret, also formed her intellectual outlook around the petty proprietor’s fetish for the magical qualities of prices.

The English aristocratic bourgeoisie suffered irreparable damage to their standing in society during the Second World War. They were tainted by the economic crisis before the war and by their common sympathies with Adolf Hitler, whose supporters had included the former King, Edward VIII. This led to a landslide electoral victory for the Labour Party in 1945, and socialist measures in healthcare, education, housing and welfare, were combined with a significant extension of public ownership.

Margaret studied chemistry at Oxford, but she lacked outstanding intellectual gifts or innovative entrepreneurial talent. The egalitarian spirit of the post war era provided the opportunity for this determined and forceful young woman to secure herself leadership over the University’s Conservative Association providing a plebian face within their circle. Margaret had to struggle within this ambient for recognition by hard work. This was greatly helped by her ability to go without sleep. She once said, “Marxists get up early to further their cause. We must get up even earlier to defend our freedom.” Of course by freedom she meant the freedom of the bossy proprietor.

Colin Davies said...

Part 2

Her marriage to Dennis Thatcher in 1951 elevated her into the ranks of the bourgeoisie. He had inherited his wealth and felt that business distracted him from dabbling in amateur military escapades. He was generally seen as a blithering incompetent buffoon to be shunted out of ears reach, in case some bigoted diatribe escaped his lips, but Margaret dearly loved him and treasured the life opportunities his wealth had opened up for her. Dennis funded her career change from studying the chemical composition of ice cream, to studying to become a barrister; the traditional pathway to acquire the rhetorical skills and mindset required for a career in Westminster politics. She won a parliamentary seat for the Conservative Party in 1958 and quickly made her mark by voting to reinstate beating people with sticks as a form of corporal punishment.

The increasing power of the working class within society was reflected in their ability to extract and win concessions through trade union activism. Workers were no longer willing to be pushed around, to bow down to “their betters,” or to work as servants and maids for the elite. The emasculation of the Conservative aristocracy made Margaret Thatcher appear to acquire the ideal characteristics of what a “real conservative man” would be like – obstinate, determined, bigoted, and proud of it. Lessons to deepen her voice followed – all the better to gobble up her wimpish male colleagues in the future.

The 1960s were characterized by an entrenched social-democratic consensus whereby social and economic development was widely seen as the product of an alliance between the classes. Employment was easy to come by and wages rose, and public housing, health care and education expanded rapidly. This all smacked of communism to Margaret Thatcher, who was allowed to bark vitriol against socialism to the gleeful cheers of her bourgeois-aristocratic colleagues in parliament.

Colin Davies said...

Part 3

The victory of the mineworkers against the Conservative government in two strikes in 1972 and 1974 led to an election, which the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, claimed would answer the question “who runs Britain?” He lost the election to a minority Labour government and Margaret Thatcher became the Conservative Party leader in 1975.

A deep economic crisis in the 1970s led the new Labour Party government, under orders of the International Monetary Fund, to attack the wages and conditions of the working class. Once again class conflict dominated politics, as the dead were unburied and rubbish piled up on the streets during bitter strikes. The 1979 election saw the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, swept into power. The era of the shopkeeper had come! The government presided over a collapse in productive employment, and social unrest took the form of riots, protests and strikes. The economic collapse had both real and manufactured roots, and it produced bitter social divisions.

The shopkeeper insider her, meant she automatically gravitated toward economic theory based on price. Her ideology imagined a world of free and unrestricted competitive pressures where atomized individuals replace organized workers. The pathway to this free market utopia involved selling off state resources and public housing at prices that were absurdly low. This created a significant constituency within the working and middle classes who suddenly acquired money from nothing. In this way the shopkeeper’s delusion, that an economy is simply a nation of buyers and sellers, was materially anchored in the minds of those who suddenly had loads of money. In this way a significant minority acquired a material stake in Thatcher’s “property owning democracy.” Making goods and services was replaced by selling second hand bricks; producing coal, steel, ships, trains and cars was replaced by speculative instruments conjured up by a Thatcherite tribe of arrogant barrow boys who were encouraged to take over the trading floors of the City of London, elbowing aside the “toffs” in bowler hats, and revolutionizing financial markets in a cocaine fueled speculative orgy

Colin Davies said...

Part 4

So severe was the economic dislocation and the scars of social conflict that the government was thrown into deep crisis. However, luck was on the side of Mrs. Thatcher, as President General Galtieri of Argentina used their nation’s historical conflict over British occupation of the Malvinas Islands to launch a war to take them by force. Thatcher dispatched the British fleet and reconquered the Islands, whipping up a wave of jingoistic flag-waving. Riding a new tide of popularity, the real war began. Its objective was to smash the central core of trade union strength, the National Union of Mineworkers. Huge reserves of coal were stockpiled, the police were militarized, and war was declared on millions of British workers. Thatcher proclaimed the miners’ union to be agents of the Soviet Union. When she described them as “the enemy within” she had the look of hysteria in her eyes. The strike lasted a year and was defeated. This was a result of Thatcher’s determination and an impotent response by the majority of Labour and Trade Union leaders. The defeat of the miners union led to greater control by capital over labour and a long period of passive industrial relations.

The greatest nonsense is spoken about Thatcher’s significance in the struggle against what she called “the Evil Empire” of the USSR. The role of the U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was insignificant and peripheral. Even though the Soviet press had given her the name, “the Iron Lady,” of which she was so proud. The collapse of the USSR was a result of internal disintegration and not external pressure.

What finally brought about Thatcher’s demise was a policy to redistribute the local government tax burden onto the poor, via a Poll Tax based on household numbers, rather than property value or size. This backfired, producing ferocious riots and civil disobedience.

After so many years of fighting the poor, and generating ever more wrenching social divisions, the Conservative inner circle decided to ditch the shopkeeper. Her own cabinet colleagues hatched a secret plot to oust her. She had become so divorced from reality that she was completely unaware of the scale of intrigue against her within her closest entourage.

On November 22, 1990, a tearful and resentful departure was announced from the steps of number 10 Downing Street. This is the last most people recall of her political life before she was driven off into political oblivion.

Her inability to be able to distinguish between prices and real wealth is an appropriate analogy to the incapacity to distinguish between her legacy and reality.

In recent years, she suffered from a mental decline into a hallucinatory state of mind. Unfortunately, the nation that she changed continues to suffer from ideological delusions that her policies helped to implant.

Sadly, the present Conservative government is once again scapegoating the poor and the working class, and bitter social conflict is back on the agenda. As conservative England mourned her legacy, in some part of Britain celebrations spontaneously broke out on news of her death.

No doubt her legacy will continue to provoke a sharply contested debate. May the Iron Lady rust in peace!

Graeme said...

Thanks Colin, I like the bit about Dennis and amateur military escapades - presumably that's the genetic influence that led Mark to try and topple the government of Equatorial Guinea? At least with Mumsy's inheritance he won't need to make a career out of failed mercenary coups - although presumably he'll continue to live in tax havens.

Lenox said...

You remind me a bit of the Republicans in the USA, or the Tea Party people. Only from the other extreme. It always seems to be about hate (well, desprecio, anyway).

Graeme said...

Lenox, 'desprecio' is something truly Thatcherite. You don't even think about the consequences of your policies because those affected by them are not worthy of your consideration.