Good riddance at last

Phil Gasper explains why the death of Margaret Thatcher was greeted with celebration.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visits with Ronald Reagan in 1984 (White House)British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visits with Ronald Reagan in 1984 (White House)

WITHIN HOURS of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's death on April 8, people were cheering in the streets of cities across Britain in a series of spontaneous celebrations.

By the next day, there were commemorative T-shirts, and the song "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead" from the Wizard of Oz had been downloaded so many times that it broke into the UK Top 10. Organizers of a Facebook page encouraging people to buy the song hoped that it would go to number one by the weekend.

Nothing like this has been seen before in Britain after the death of prominent political figure. The reaction was even more remarkable considering that Thatcher resigned as prime minister more than 22 years ago and left parliament over 20 years ago.

But where Margaret Thatcher is concerned, the bitterness is still fresh. The response shows the depth of hatred for Thatcher and everything she represented among a large section of the British population.

Thatcher's record as prime minister from 1979 to 1990 was summed up in a scathing statement from the musician Morrissey, lead singer of The Smiths during the 1980s:

Every move she made was charged by negativity. She destroyed the British manufacturing industry, she hated the miners, she hated the arts, she hated the Irish freedom fighters and allowed them to die, she hated the English poor and did nothing at all to help them, she hated Greenpeace and environmental protectionists, she was the only European political leader who opposed a ban on the ivory trade, she had no wit and no warmth, and even her own cabinet booted her out.

She gave the order to blow up The Belgrano [an Argentinian cruiser] even though it was outside of the Malvinas Exclusion Zone--and was sailing away from the islands! When the young Argentinean boys aboard The Belgrano had suffered a most appalling and unjust death, Thatcher gave the thumbs-up sign for the British press.

The revulsion felt about Thatcher and her legacy even found expression in Britain's feeble opposition Labour Party.

The current leader Ed Miliband instructed Labour members of parliament to be respectful of Thatcher during a special session of the House of Commons called to pay tribute to her on Wednesday. But though Labour has moved far to the right during the 1980s and 1990s in response to Thatcher's victories, a majority of the party's MPs voted with their feet and refused to attend the debate.

Several Labour MPs who did speak refused to be diplomatic. The actress-turned-politician Glenda Jackson said Thatcher had "wreaked the most heinous, social, economic and spiritual damage upon this country."

But the most passionate response has come from the most direct victims of Thatcher's policies--like the miners who waged a bitter strike during the heart of her reign in the 1980s. The general secretary of the Durham Miners' Association, David Hopper, turned 70 on the day Thatcher died. "It looks like one of the best birthdays I have ever had," he told the media. "There's no sympathy from me for what she did to our community. It's a great day for all the miners."

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THATCHER FIRST came to prominence in the early 1970s as Minister for Education in the Conservative Party (known as the Tories) government of Edward Heath. Her decision to end free milk for most school children led to chants of "Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher" around the country.

Heath attempted to undermine the power of British unions, but was eventually driven from office himself by a series of strikes in which the National Union of Mineworkers played the leading role. Afterward, Thatcher became the new Tory leader, with the goal of reversing the defeats the Conservatives had suffered during Heath's period in office.

The mid-1970s were a turning point in British politics. The Labour government that succeeded Heath in 1974 abandoned the radical program it had campaigned on in the face of an economic crisis. It accepted an IMF loan on the condition that it would cut public spending and hold back wage increases.

By the end of the decade, many union members had had enough. Strikes by public-sector workers left the Labour government in disarray, and Thatcher was able to win the general election in May 1979.

Her goal as prime minister was to solve Britain's economic problems on the backs of the working class and the poor. Labour had begun cutting public spending as a proportion of gross domestic product, but Thatcher pushed the cuts much further. Tight monetary policy and high interest rates led to mass unemployment and riots in poor and minority communities in the summer of 1981. The government met the discontent with brutal police repression.

Thatcher pushed through a program of privatization, deregulation and tax cuts for the rich that came to be known as neoliberalism. She provided the model that Ronald Reagan enthusiastically followed when he became president in the U.S. after the 1980 election. Reagan and Thatcher soon became close political allies.

Thatcher never came close to winning the votes of a majority of the British population, but because of the country's winner-take-all electoral system, a divided and ineffective opposition and Thatcher's cynical use of racism and nationalism, she was able to stay in power for more than a decade.

In the run-up to the 1979 election, Thatcher stoked anti-immigrant racism with her notorious comment that Britain was being "swamped by people with a different culture."

By 1981, she was already unpopular, but the following year, the economy began showing signs of recovery, and Thatcher launched a ruthless war against Argentina to recapture the irrelevant Falkland Islands--known in South America as the Islas Malvinas--and whip up nationalism at home. Every part of Britain's war was a fabrication, but Thatcher posed as a heroic war leader--much as Ronald Reagan would do when he sent Marines to invade tiny Grenada the next year. For Thatcher, the Falklands were enough to ensure reelection in 1983.

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PROBABLY THE defining moment of Thatcher's time as prime minister was the 1984-85 showdown with the National Union of Mineworkers.

Thatcher had spent years preparing to reverse the working class victories in the 1970s struggles. Eventually, her government provoked a strike in the summer of 1984 with the announcement of widespread pit closures.

A decade before, in the battle with a Tory government in which Thatcher had been a minister, the miners had enjoyed the solidarity of other unions. But in the 1980s, their allies had been bought off or scared off, and the miners were left to fight alone. After a bitter 10-month strike, in which the police imposed martial law in the main mining regions, using military-style tactics against mass pickets, the miners were forced back to work. British unions never fully recovered from this defeat.

Thatcher's single-minded defense of privilege at home was matched by her support for authoritarian rule abroad, including the fascist regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile and the white minority rulers of apartheid South Africa.

Thatcher was finally driven from power in November 1990 after her introduction of what amounted to a poll tax was met by huge demonstrations, riots and a mass non-payment campaign. Fearing her growing unpopularity would lose them the next election, her fellow Conservative MPs removed her as party leader.

She left Britain a much more unequal and polarized society than when she first came to power. The poverty rate, 13.4 percent in 1979, had climbed to 22.2 percent by the end of 1990.

But while Thatcher left office long ago, Thatcherism survived her. Her Conservative Party successors unsurprisingly continued her neoliberal policies, but when the Labour Party finally returned to power in 1997, Tony Blair and "New Labour" had also embraced the framework that the free market knows best.

Today, the same dynamic is at work: Britain is suffering under the austerity policies of a coalition government led by the Tories, but Labour under Ed Miliband is committed to a kinder, gentler version of the same policies.

The current prime minister, David Cameron, has seen his popularity plummet over the past year, but the left in Britain remains divided and weak. Perhaps, though, the mood seen in response to Thatcher’s death will help lead to a revival of struggle. If that happens, then Britain may be able to say goodbye not just to Thatcher but to Thatcherism, too.