What we hold against Margaret Thatcher is not that she was “divisive”. We, revolutionary socialists, are “divisive” too — only we want to rally the worse-off to defeat the rich, while Thatcher rallied the rich to defeat the worse-off.
In a recent opinion poll, a clear majority (60%) thought that the taxpayer should not cover the cost of Thatcher’s funeral, and an equally clear majority, 59% to 18%, thought “Thatcher was the most divisive Prime Minister this country has had that I can remember”.
The thing Thatcher is most remembered for, according to the poll, is “curbing the power of trade unions” and “the miners’ strike”. We do not regret the miners’ strike: we think the miners should have won, and could have won if the TUC and Labour leaders had shown more solidarity.
Cameron and Osborne seem less divisive than Thatcher not because they are less malign, but because our side is not yet fighting back as hard as we did in the Thatcher years. As the thoughtful US billionaire Warren Buffet puts it: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning”. It is bad, not good, that the class war appears less divisive. It’s because the working class is not yet fighting back strongly enough.
Cameron and Osborne are converting the NHS from a public service into a marketplace softened only by the provision (for now) of money from the government for GPs (or, rather, contractors on behalf of GPs) to buy services. It’s a marketplace where many treatments are now in many areas not available without paying. Thatcher’s government made the start, but a small one by comparison. It cut back the NHS, closed many hospitals, and started to introduce the “internal market” (from June 1990, only a few months before Thatcher resigned in November 1990).
Cameron and Osborne are slashing welfare benefits on a scale never seen before. Over 27 million will be affected by the latest cuts starting this April. As they work through, the average person will lose £467 per year; people in poverty will lose an average of £2,195; disabled people, an average of £4,410 per year — this at a time when company chief executives paid themselves a 16% rise in 2012, to an average of £215,000 across companies large and small.
Thatcher cut welfare benefits, after a whole era in which expanded welfare was seen as a normal component of general economic growth. The sharpest impact was from her abolition of income support for 16 and 17 year olds, in 1988, which pushed a whole swathe of that generation of teenagers into homelessness on the streets.
Cameron and Osborne are cutting housing benefit (through the “bedroom tax”, the “benefit cap”, and otherwise) and council-tax benefit, which will push a whole new swathe of people into homelessness.
Cameron and Osborne as yet feel no need to bring in new laws restricting trade-union action on top of those which Thatcher and Major imposed in 1979-90 and which Blair and Brown kept in force. But they keep threatening that they will, if trade unions resist more.
Already they are cutting away at workers’ rights and union strength by changing the law to make it more difficult to sue over bosses’ breaches of health and safety rules, or over unfair sackings. In the public sector they are making pay more fragmented, more dependent on the individual boss’s favour than on basic union-negotiated scales. They are cutting back the time allowed for union representatives to do their union work, and edging towards outright cancellation of union recognition in some areas.
Today’s Tories are just as much class warriors as Thatcher’s. Only, so far, they face less resistance, and so can appear less “divisive”.
In the 1950s and 60s the Tories said they had a policy of “One Nation”, in which the working class and the worse-off would get improvements at a similar pace to the rich, though of course at a respectful distance behind them.
They could say that because the reorganisation of world capitalism after 1945, under US domination, had created a framework which allowed for steady growth, with relatively mild capitalist competition, for a sizeable time. They did say that because they reckoned that the concessions granted to the working class in 1945-8, for fear of revolutionary upheavals such as followed World War One, were so deeply-entrenched that it would be risky to revoke them.
Thatcher represented the wealthy classes in an era when the mechanics of world capitalism had changed. The financial architecture set up in 1945 had collapsed. World capitalist competition had sharpened and diversified. There were sharper ups and downs.
We are still in that era. Cameron and Osborne are still Tories of the Thatcher breed. What we need is more “divisiveness” on our side, the side of the working class.
With Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty, we’re in the business of encouraging workers in Britain to divide from British bosses and bankers, and to identify with workers in other countries.
We want more and rougher class struggle from our side, to counter and defeat the class warfare of the rich. We want it because it is the way toward taking productive wealth out of the hands of the top one per cent and into democratic social control, and creating a new society based on human solidarity and equality.