On the day Margaret Thatcher resigned my brother was stuck in the London Underground. The dispatcher informed them over the intercom that there train would hopefully be moving in another few minutes. The carriage groaned. Then he informed them of the prime minister’s resignation. Two thirds of them started cheering and clapping.
With the exception of the immediate aftermath of the Falklands war, Thatcher was never a massively popular politician. She never won more than 44 percent of the vote, though in Britain’s winner-takes-all parliamentary system that was enough to secure massive majorities. Her reign over the country was partial. She left her party decimated in Scotland, the North of England and most urban centers, relying on her electoral fiefdom in the South, the Midlands and rural areas. She was divisive, apparently revelling in the acrimony engendered by massive strikes, riots, hunger strikes and economic upheaval for which she was in no small part responsible. She was authoritarian, abolishing the city’s elected authorities because they opposed her agenda and banning Sinn Fein representatives’ voices from the television because they advocated armed resistance to the British occupation of Northern Ireland. (For six tedious years they would be shown with the lips moving, the sound of their voice turned down and their words read by actors). She was a crude majoritarian who never had the support of the majority and became a liability even to her allies. Her political career perished when she was shot by her own troops who tired of her leading them into reckless battle.
But while she was never popular she was a populist. She had a keen understanding of and affinity to some of the least appealing impulses in the British psyche. Her petty nationalism in Europe and post colonial nostalgia played out in the Falklands War; her monocultural racism, expressing sympathy for Britons who “fear rather being swamped by an alien culture”; her appeal to material acquisition over class solidarity or even class mobility; her ability to equate the private and privatized with freedom and choice and the public and nationalized with constraint and imposition.
Her achievement in this regard was phenomenal. And for all the criticisms that can and have been levelled at her from the left the one question few seem to want to ask is how she managed it. Given all the ways in which her agenda ran against the interests of ordinary working people, how did she get so many of them to continually vote against their own economic interests?
I saw this firsthand in my home town of Stevenage. A new town, 30 miles north of London, created by the post-war Labour government around the same time they nationalized the health service with the same municipal-socialist zeal. It was built with close to 100 percent social housing, primarily for Londoners bombed out of their slums. “People from all over the world will come to Stevenage to see how we, here in this country, are building a new way of life,” claimed the minister for town planning at the time. Needless to say they didn’t. But the town did thrive for several decades on the notion that there was indeed such a thing as society and that government had a central role in nurturing and sustaining it.
But Stevenage’s long run of voting Labour ended with Thatcher, who was guided by the opposite philosophy, and in time those things that made it liveable and loveable atrophied and died. Legislation allowing people to buy their social housing and forbidding councils from building new houses until they had cleared their debt left individuals feeling wealthier and the town poorer. While mining communities fought and the industrial north festered, Stevenage thrived on its proximity to London and a growing service sector. My friends eschewed university for jobs. A popular comic figure at the time was a builder called “Loadsamoney” who waved wads of cash at his detractors. They voted for Thatcher every chance they could and were rewarded with a period of private affluence and public squalor. When the inevitable bust came, my friends had faced their first redundancies before they were 21 and their parents were struggling to pay their mortgages.
A partial explanation for how support was galvanized for Thatcher’s agenda can be found in the British media in general and Rupert Murdoch in particular. His tabloids, the Sun and now defunct News of the World (closed after its involvement in wiretapping and other alleged criminal deeds were exposed) became the foghorns of distortion, using layman’s language for her pernicious programs.
But they were pushing at an open door. There was an ambivalence if not antipathy to money militant trade union bureaucracies that failed to reach beyond their workplaces and a Labour party that whose tepid reforms were not working. Thatcher rode the wave of ideological, electoral and organizational demise of organized labor and then danced on its grave while reviving what Paul Gilroy has called a sense of “post-colonial melancholia” that would put the Great back into Great Britain.
The day she resigned I was ‘studying’ in Paris. I took the day off the little work I had planned because I could barely concentrate. Thatcher was elected when I was 10 and ousted when I was 22, casting a formidable shadow over my formative political years. While I loathed her presence I could barely conceive of her absence. As I turned out I didn’t have to. First John Major, then Blair and now David Cameron entrenched her market-led reforms into every crevice of society. As recently as early April the Conservative-led coalition government implemented punitive welfare reforms that she could only have dreamt about. Thatcher is dead. But Thatcherism is fighting fit.