Born under Thatcherism

April 18, 2013

James Illingworth describes the neoliberal transformation of Britain that he witnessed growing up under Margaret Thatcher and her successors.

I WAS born six months after Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, and I had just had my 11th birthday when she finally left office. Since she died last week, I've been thinking about what it was like to grow up in Thatcher's Britain and what her legacy has been for people of my generation.

I was born and raised in South Yorkshire, an industrial region in the northeast of England. Few parts of the country felt Thatcher's hand as heavily as these coal- and steel-producing towns.

My first real political memory is of the miners' strike of 1984-85. We lived close to Barnsley, the heart of coal-mining country and the power base of Arthur Scargill, the leader of the militant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). I can clearly recall being in the car with my mother as we drove past Dodworth pit, about five miles from our house, with the massed pickets on one side of the road and the ranks of police on the other.

In hindsight, the miners' strike was a decisive turning point in British politics. Thatcher's victory in that struggle smashed the most radical and combative section of the working class, giving new confidence to the bosses' offensive and opening the door to the wholesale privatization of the British economy. The labor movement has yet to recover from the blow.

The half-demolished pithead to a coal mine in Barnsley during the 1984-85 miners' strike
The half-demolished pithead to a coal mine in Barnsley during the 1984-85 miners' strike

But for Barnsley, the changes were even more profound than that. Some of my classmates in high school had parents who lost their jobs in the mines after Thatcher's triumph over the NUM. By the 1990s, the pit villages--small towns whose entire economies had been centered on the mines--were blighted by unemployment and drugs.

Even the physical landscape changed. All that remains of the Dodworth pit is the slag heap, which these days resembles nothing so much as a small hill covered in young trees and bushes. An industrial park and a couple tacky "modern" pubs and restaurants have replaced the rest of the mine.

The miners' strike is just the most famous of the set-piece battles between Thatcher and the British labor movement. As a shop steward in the public sector union NALGO, my father was involved in another: the campaign to save the Greater London Council (GLC) and the metropolitan county councils.

These local government structures were only a few years old when Thatcher's government put them on the chopping block. The Conservatives targeted them not because they had proven to be inefficient or expensive, but because they were under the control of prominent figures from the left of the Labour Party, like Ken Livingstone in London and David Blunkett in South Yorkshire.

The campaign went down to defeat, and my father lost his job. David Blunkett went on to be a cabinet minister in Tony Blair's right-wing New Labour government. Ken Livingstone held onto his radical image for a little longer, but he is now a fairly gentle shade of pink compared to the fire-breathing "Red Ken" of Conservative Party nightmares.

The militarism and petty nationalism of the Thatcher years also stand out in my memory. I was too young to remember the Falklands War or the height of the "Troubles" in Ireland very clearly, but I was raised on stories of the cowardly and unnecessary sinking of the Argentinean ship the General Belgrano, which killed more than 300 sailors, and the gross mistreatment of IRA political prisoners in the Maze.

SADLY, EVERYONE born in Britain since 1979 has grown up under Thatcherism. Neoliberalism and militarism survived Thatcher's fall from power because they became the consensus of mainstream British politics--including within the Labour Party.

On May 1, 1997, I stayed up all night with my parents watching the election results coming in. It seemed like the dawn of a new era--after 18 years of Conservative Party rule, the Labour Party was finally returning to office with a landslide victory.

But Tony Blair's Labour government departed from Thatcherism more in style than substance. New Labour accepted many of the neoliberal orthodoxies of its Conservative rivals. Indeed, in his 2010 autobiography, Blair claimed, "Britain needed the industrial and economic reforms of the Thatcher period."

Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown, continued the Thatcherite policies of privatization, "welfare reform" and subservience to the big banks. The gap between rich and poor continued to widen under the Labour governments of 1997 to 2010. When the financial crisis erupted in 2008, Brown bailed out the banks at public expense, setting the stage for the harsh austerity program of the current coalition government.

Perhaps New Labour's most direct inheritance from Thatcher was its foreign policy in the Middle East. Blair will go down in history as the prime minister who took Britain into the hugely unpopular Iraq War in 2003. In 1990, just before being ousted from office, Thatcher had encouraged U.S. President George Bush Sr. to consider a military confrontation with Saddam Hussein. More than a decade later, Blair and Bush Jr. attempted to complete what their predecessors had begun.

Looking at British politics today, it's hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu. Under Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, the coalition government seems determined to finish what Thatcher started. It is using the ongoing economic crisis to destroy what remains of the British welfare state and using the tried-and-tested Thatcherite politics of demonizing the poor and working class to do so.

Over the last couple of years, there have been signs of mass opposition to Thatcher's political legacy. Millions of people were inspired by the revolutions of the Arab Spring. Tens of thousands took part in the mass strikes against pension reform or participated in the Occupy movement. In the summer of 2011, British cities were engulfed in riots provoked by racism and inequality.

But the left and the labor movement have never recovered from the Thatcher years, and the fightback is still nowhere near the levels necessary to genuinely challenge austerity, neoliberalism and militarism. Until the resistance grows, British kids will be still be growing up in Thatcher's shadow.

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