Yes, it is time for an honest debate on Thatcher

Jonathan Freedland makes the important point that Conservatives are seeking to ‘rebrand’ Thatcher as a national figure rather than a partisan one in a similar way to the approach taken by Republicans at the time of Ronald Reagan’s death:

“He was hailed as a secular saint,” says Jonathan Martin, a reporter for Politico. After his death, the focus became not his ideological programme but “his optimism, smile and the way he exuded a mom-and-apple-pie American spirit”, says Martin. The end result was to reforge Reagan into “an apolitical marble man”, a national monument rather than political flesh and blood.

Nearly a decade later, something similar seems to be at work now with Reagan’s former dance partner…

In similar tone, Alastair Campbell rightly argues that MPs should feel free to express honest opinions about her time in Downing Street and offers a timely reminder that the Tory party was often embarrassed to be associated with her:

Remember the poster that helped do for William Hague? A picture of him with Margaret Thatcher’s hair and a slogan … ‘vote Labour on Thursday, or they get in.’ It worked because whatever good Thatcherism did, it did a lot of bad too, and people did not want it back.

All absolutely true. And the centre-left should not tire of reminding younger voters (and those with short memories) about the callous approach taken by the Thatcher government to mining communities, a policy that left many communities devastated. Likewise there is a need to point out the shameful support of Thatcher to Pinochet, her woeful words about Nelson Mandela, the madness of the poll tax and the ‘dog whistle’ racism and homophobia of her governments.

But there is a danger in the left focusing purely on the nasty, unpopular side of Thatcherism and portraying themselves as the righteous fighters for real British values. An honest analysis of the politics of the 1970’s and 1980’s means just that and surely should also reflect how Thatcherism’s electoral success showed other things that people didn’t want back once her time in power was over.

The response to Tory hagiography should not be a bout of left-wing romanticising, ignoring the uncomfortable truths about the success Thatcher enjoyed.

The right have a point when they ask – who wants to go back to 1970’s levels of strikes, to closed-shops and flying pickets? Who seriously thinks Britain would be better off with a state-owned, tax-payer funded monopoly telecom company? Would you like a nationalised BT, with waiting lists that working class people were always at the back of, to be the only way of accessing the internet? Would you be happy to pay higher taxes to the government to run an international airline that lost millions?

In a broader sense, how many Labour supporters would feel that their aim is for a government which brings about “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”? A clause in the constitution which was so easily exploited by Thatcher to highlight how out of touch the Labour Party was?

And if we are to have an honest debate about 1980’s politics – how many Labour Party members would like to see the likes of the Stalinist Arthur Scargill and gangsterish thugs like Derek Hatton hold prominent positions in their party? How easy they made it for Thatcher and the Tories to label the entire left tradition in Britain as alien to the decent instincts of ordinary families…. How many seriously think that the ludicrous policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament was really worth clinging to, at the expense of thousands of working class votes that were lost to the Tories?

With the benefit of hindsight – was the Euro-scepticism of many Thatcherites really so misplaced? And would you feel better if the population of the Falkland Islands were now living in council houses in Portsmouth?

Blinded by a justified hatred of the callous and uncaring way in which Thatcher approached modernisation and reform, the labour movement clung loyally, but stupidly, for far too long to a politics that large sections of their potential voter base rejected.

As we know, Kinnock and John Smith belatedly realised a clean break was needed with the Labour Party of ‘comrades’ but it took Blair and New Labour to draw the necessary conclusions. A debate about Thatcherism, from the left, which dismisses her entire era as one of hated policies is not an honest one and while Freedland is right to warn about letting the right redefine Thatcher as some beloved national matriarch, there is as much, if not more, danger in the left mythologising the 1980’s as some period in which Labour stood as champion of the people against the hated tyrant.

Thatcher’s success was achieved, in significant part, due to Labour’s great failings. New Labour’s success, a legacy which also needs to be fought for, was based upon an acknowledgement and understanding of what parts of Thatcherism had appealed to the working class and middle class voters who abandoned Labour – and the party forgets that at it’s peril.

Thatcher, achieved one of her main personal goals – she changed attitudes towards capitalism. She once noted that the main difference between U.S. and British politics was that in America there was a choice of two parties that both believed in capitalism. That criticism of Labour could not be made now.

When we look at the appalling situation of Europe’s Roma communities, as this blog does frequently, is there anyone who seriously believes that a programme of public works would be the main answer to helping those poverty afflicted communities prosper? We can argue about the best ways for governments to help with education and investment but fundamentally, most of us know that it will be businesses, real jobs and private investement, careers and wealth, that will be the only lasting way those communities change for the better.

So there are two dangers in the Thatcher ‘legacy’ debate. One is, as Freedland warns, to allow the right to recast the Thatcher period as a golden era when Britain became great again under the beloved Margaret. The other is for the left to romanticise the 1980’s in to a fairytale of the Wicked Witch and the heroic struggle against her by the people of principle.

It was neither. As well as being a Victorian moralist, she was a right-wing moderniser whose government talked about transforming communities but in reality did little to stop the sorry decline of so many of them, especially outside of the Tory’s southern English heartlands. And Labour made a total hash of trying to defeat her, only belatedly learning, painfully, how to connect with the voters they needed to win and do something to help those communities.