Iron Lady, Rust In Hell
As everyone here will be only too well aware, it was Margaret Thatcher’s funeral today: a publicly funded, pomp-filled ceremonious insult to working people in this country and beyond. Anyone close to central London was subjected to a salute to Thatcher by artillery used in the Falklands in 1982, in her dirty little war against Argentina’s Galtieri dictatorship over windswept rocks in the South Atlantic. In that conflict, Thatcher earned the title “Butcher of the Belgrano” for a war crime: She ordered the sinking of the Argentine battleship General Belgrano outside Britain’s own declared war zone, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of young Argentine conscripts.
The death of nobody but Thatcher could be celebrated by such a huge swath of the population in this country. Just look at the “death parties,” as the bourgeois press termed them with horror, in Glasgow, Bristol, Brixton and Trafalgar Square. Think of the toasts raised in the pubs of former mining and industrial areas across northern England, Wales and Scotland and in the Catholic areas of Northern Ireland. Surely the outburst of jokes makes some new record, from “Thatcher’s only been in hell half an hour and she’s already closed down three furnaces” to the Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle’s “I was all for a lavishly funded public cremation for Thatcher. Right up until she died.” Government officials sniffed that the celebrations are “puerile” and grumbled that some of the participants are too young to remember Thatcher. So what? They know she’s a big part of the reason there’s no education, no jobs, no future for them. Capturing Thatcher’s disdain for everything outside of that citadel of finance capital, the City of London, her biographer, Charles Moore, told Radio 5 that Thatcher was “reviled in parts of the country that are less important.”
Reformists point to British society today as proof that Thatcherism didn’t work: the devastation of the manufacturing base, insufficient and unaffordable housing, generations of unemployed and financial deregulation for the City. Well, Thatcherism did work for the capitalist class. This is why Thatcher is so celebrated, not only by the bourgeoisie’s Conservative (Tory) Party but also by Labour Party leaders: Opposition leader Ed Miliband professed to “greatly respect her political achievements” while Tony Blair offered this “towering political figure” his sincerest form of flattery, noting that his own government retained “some of the changes she made in Britain.”
Distancing himself from New Labour’s fawning, maverick Member of Parliament George Galloway objected to “spending £10 million on the canonisation of this wicked woman,” complaining: “The comparison of Margaret Thatcher with Mr. Churchill is utterly absurd. We’d be conducting this conversation in German if it was not for Mr. Churchill.” Galloway’s admiration for Churchill, a colonialist pig who engineered the starvation of millions of Bengalis during World War II, is based on the myth that WWII was a war for “democracy” against fascism. In fact, Churchill was defending the interests of British imperialism against its rivals, particularly Germany. Fundamentally it was the Soviet Red Army that smashed Hitler’s military.
The capitalist media talk about how, before Thatcher came into office, Britain was “the sick man of Europe,” crippled by strike waves and outdated industry. In fact, British industry had been in decline relative to its imperialist competitors such as the U.S. and Germany since the late 19th century. This was exacerbated by the loss of Britain’s empire and near-bankruptcy following World War II. The bourgeoisie needed to increase their competitiveness on the world market, that is, to ratchet up the rate of exploitation of the working class. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan tried to do this by cutting deals with the union tops over beer and sandwiches, through wage controls, strike ballots and a ban on secondary picketing, and when that failed by mobilising the police and army against striking workers.
During this period, miners, railwaymen, dockers and others waged strikes that shook the country, led by a powerful and militant shop stewards movement. However, while trade-union militancy was able to frustrate the capitalist system, it could not resolve the underlying conflict. There were two alternatives in the long term: either the bourgeoisie would be dealt with by workers revolution or the workers would be dealt with by the bourgeoisie. As it happened, the class struggle was derailed into electing a Labour government. When Callaghan’s Labour government proved unable to deliver for them, the bourgeoisie turned to Thatcher.
Anti-Union, Anti-Soviet Crusader for the Bourgeoisie
By 1990, after eleven bitter years of confrontation, Thatcher would be ousted by her own party as protests against the poll tax swept the country. In Scotland, where the tax was first tested out, Thatcher was so unpopular that the Tories’ fortunes have never recovered. So it’s no surprise that in the 1979 election, the Economist noted that Callaghan stood on a “platform of middle-ground conservatism” but Thatcher was dangerously radical and confrontationist. The Economist came out for Thatcher anyway, for offering the best hope to revive the economy. The bourgeoisie gambled that the unions did not have a leadership to match Thatcher in hard class war, and that gamble paid off.
The coal miners strike of 1984-85 was the defining event of Thatcher’s rule. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) represented the most powerful and militant section of the working class. They had brought down Edward Heath’s Conservative government in 1974, and Thatcher was out for revenge. She decided to destroy the NUM in order to bring the trade-union movement to heel, and she destroyed the mining industry to smash the NUM.
Thatcher’s victory over the miners was not inevitable. The miners fought heroically against fierce state repression for 12 months. Their strike was supported by broad sections of the working class—there were plenty of examples of dockers and railway workers refusing to touch scab coal. But Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock obscenely echoed Thatcher, denouncing miners for “violence” on the picket lines against the strikebreaking cops. The leaders of some unions openly scabherded, while the “left” union leaders mouthed fine words but curbed the workers’ militancy. In the final analysis, it was not the capitalist state that defeated the miners but the fifth column in the workers movement, including the left-talking leaders of the dockers union, who sent their striking members back to work twice during the miners strike.
We called on all unions to refuse to handle scab coal and for a fighting triple alliance of miners, dockers and railway workers to strike together. This would have amounted to a general strike, posing the question: who was going to start things up again? Which class would rule? It was this perspective the reformist Labour politicians and trade-union bureaucrats hated and feared above all. As our paper Workers Hammer (No. 67, March 1985) put it after the defeat of the strike:
“The NUM leadership under Arthur Scargill took this strike about as far as it could go within a perspective of militant trade union reformism, and still it lost. Why? Because militancy alone is not enough. From day one it was clear that the NUM was up against the full power of the capitalist state. What was needed was a party of revolutionary activists rooted in the trade unions which fought tooth and nail to mobilise other unions in strike action alongside the NUM. But all Arthur Scargill had was the Labour Party, and it would rather see the NUM dead than organise to take on the bosses’ state in struggle.”
In 1983, on the eve of the miners strike, Scargill was witchhunted by the misleaders of the Trades Union Congress, aided by Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party, for telling the truth that imperialist-funded “free trade union” Solidarność in Poland was anti-socialist. The failure of any delegate to defend him signalled to Thatcher that Scargill was isolated and she could launch her attack. For Thatcher, the miners and other militant workers represented “the enemy within” while the Soviet Union and East European deformed workers states were the ultimate “enemy without.” Polish Solidarność had a programme for capitalist counterrevolution. This is why, apart from the Union of Democratic Mineworkers who scabbed on the miners strike, it was the only “trade union” Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan ever liked.
Those trade-union bureaucrats who were the most anti-Soviet were also the most hostile to the miners strike. And the anti-Communist “socialists” like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), whose devotion to capitalist “democracy” led them to support Solidarność, were far to the right of the majority of striking miners. The SWP had members in the steel plants who crossed miners’ picket lines. When we exposed this at a public meeting, their founder-leader Tony Cliff bragged about how many and where! Workers Power and (retrospectively) the Socialist Party supported the scab ballot Thatcher and Kinnock were trying to force on the NUM, with workers already on strike supposed to hold a strike vote. The miners had voted with their feet; their weapon was not the bourgeoisie’s strike laws but the picket line!
As for Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarność, during the strike he took a stand on behalf of his imperialist patrons, praising Thatcher as a “wise and brave woman” in the Sunday Mirror under the headline “Why Scargill Is Wrong—by Lech.” Walesa came to Thatcher’s funeral to pay homage with other Cold Warriors like Henry Kissinger. (Scargill, on the other hand, was laying low, reportedly responding laconically to a friend’s text of the news “Thatcher dead”: “Scargill alive.”)
During the miners strike, you saw how various minorities got behind the miners. They saw a powerful working-class struggle taking on their common oppressor: the Thatcher government and her brutal cops. Blacks, Asians, gays, Irish Republicans and Catholics championed the miners and gave them material assistance. In turn, the miners came to the defence of oppressed minorities, championing their cause even after the strike: participating in gay rights marches, for example. The miners were predominantly white and from rural areas, but the strike radicalised them. Many miners would say that before the strike they never knew what it was like to be black or Asian, or to be Catholic in Northern Ireland. After they had been on the receiving end of the cops’ violence, they could relate to that oppression.
The miners strike also impacted broader layers of the working class. In 1984, when the IRA set off a bomb at the Tory conference, a common joke was that the culprits should be shot because they missed Thatcher. A worker at a car plant in Birmingham quipped that the police had better get started rounding up suspects because there were 50 million of them. Ten years earlier, Irish workers had been physically driven out of this same plant after the criminal bombing of two city centre pubs was attributed to the IRA. During the strike, in the Catholic areas of Northern Ireland banners went up: “Victory to the Miners!” Large collections of food and money were taken up in Dublin. Irish trade unionists said they were repaying the miners for the support British workers gave them during the Dublin Lockout of 1913.
Thatcher personified the bourgeois onslaught against the working class and the oppressed overall. In 1981, Thatcher saw Bobby Sands and nine other Irish Republican hunger strikers die grisly deaths rather than discuss their demand to be treated as political prisoners. As support grew around the world for the men’s heroic struggle, Thatcher intoned: “Crime is crime is crime. It is not political.” Under Thatcher, British armed forces colluded with Loyalist death squads in the murder of Northern Irish Catholics, including Pat Finucane, a solicitor who defended Republican prisoners. As Labour’s Peter Mandelson recalls, when he became Northern Ireland Secretary in 1999 she advised him: “You can’t trust the Irish, they are all liars.”
Under Thatcher, the black and Asian youth whose parents had come to Britain in times of labour shortages were treated as a surplus population, left to rot in areas deprived of resources. They were at the mercy of racist cops that she spurred on. The Brixton police riots of 1981 and 1985 are hallmarks of the Thatcher years, when blacks who tried to protest police brutality were attacked by police and denounced by Thatcher as “criminal, criminal.”
Among the more nauseating claims about Thatcher is that by triumphing in the male-dominated world of bourgeois politics she struck a blow for women’s equality. Thatcher was a dedicated enemy of women’s liberation. She attacked single mothers and unashamedly campaigned to restore Victorian values. She openly maligned gays and managed to enact Section 28, the first anti-gay legislation in over 100 years, which prevented the “promotion” of homosexuality by school and local authorities. Moreover, the triumph of movements she supported internationally—such as the reactionary mujahedin in Afghanistan and capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union and East Europe—came at the cost of women in particular.
Thatcher spearheaded the British capitalists’ reactionary campaigns. But some credit for the dismal situation of the trade unions in Britain today must be given to the “old Labour” misleaders who isolated struggles, disarmed militant workers and supported the drive for capitalist counterrevolution in the East. When asked what her greatest achievement was, Thatcher reportedly answered “Tony Blair and New Labour.” And under Tony Blair the Labour Party earned its claim to the Iron Lady’s legacy, trampling on the working class and gutting social services. Working people need a party that will fight for our own class interests, a workers party committed to sweeping away the bankrupt capitalist system. But we’ll take what comfort this deeply unjust world has to offer. Eighty-seven years old, her last days spent in a suite at the Ritz: it’s not exactly Mussolini’s end. Nevertheless, we are glad to see the last of this exceptionally vile representative of the capitalist class, and finally be able to “tramp the dirt down.”