Did we make Thatcher?

While one part of the nation mourns the death of Baroness Thatcher, the rest of us are left ‘spitting tacks’, ‘dancing on her grave’ and bemoaning what she did to us – or are we?  It seems to me that its all too late for that.  The understandable anger of the mining and manufacturing communities and northern cities has come through the fog of biased reporting from the right-wing media  and establishment. However, I searched in vain  for a coherent, convincing analysis or thought-piece which put this right-wing icon into a perspective which I could come to grips with as a union and Labour person. Nor have I seen one either from union or Labour commentators.


As a young T&GWU negotiator on occupational pensions, I was introduced to her in 1983 and had a brief conversation/banter with her about the upcoming general election. I was brash enough to opine that she wouldn’t last and that Michael Foot would soon see her off! With surprising good humour, she said, ‘Oh, no,no,no – I’m here for some time yet’! I was also struck by her appearance – she was then quite a diminutive figure, not the high-powered media creation which she developed into.


I’ve reflected on that exchange many times over the years,  (it isn’t often you get to have one with someone so important) – both on my naiveté and on her being proved so right.  Having served as a national official and a Labour activist throughout her ‘reign’, I have formed the conclusion that it was we, both wings of the labour movement, which created the monster of Thatcherism. I mean this literally. If we hadn’t frustrated the efforts of one Labour government and a second Conservative, but by no means anti-union, Prime Minister (Ted Heath in 1974), in their efforts to reform our relationships, she would never have emerged as Tory Leader in 1975. Nor would she have become Prime Minister in 1979, after another debacle  – ‘The Winter of Discontent’ -  with such an anti-union manifesto.


That is not to say that those governments’ proposals were exactly right – though some of us might give ‘our back teeth’ for the mild ‘In Place of Strife’ or Industrial Relations Act 1971 framework of industrial relations law today. No, they were far from perfect and the accompanying incomes policies were also deficient in those inflationary times.  It was our stupid, ‘over our dead bodies’, response which did for us. In our brash overconfidence, we saw it as ‘audacity’ that even an elected  government could require us to change our ways. It was this which made ‘union power’ such a negative issue for Thatcher to exploit so skilfully. She did so, even with our own members, as the elections of 1979, 1983, 1987 and even as late as 1992, proved. And we can’t blame just Arthur Scargill for that obdurate stance.


The rest, as they say, is history. Even her toppling by her Conservative colleagues in 1990, did not change the climate she had created. By the time the pendulum had swung back to Labour, the unions had lost most of their power base.  – the huge loss of membership and collective bargaining coverage due to the Thatcherite switch to a service economy and global finance.  We in the unions, as well as the Labour Party were desperate to get back into ‘the game.’ As a result, we did not look too closely at the slick ‘New’ Labour prospectus from 1994 onwards. Some of it was clearly necessary, but I now deeply regret that we didn’t chew it more, as it proved a ‘thin gruel’ for thirteen years in government.


I think that we do now have another chance, as Ed Miliband is proving to be a much deeper Labour thinker than we’ve had as Leader for some time.  He has many of the characteristics which made Thatcher so formidable – courage, determination and a distinctive philosophical outlook, but one that is in tune with Labour values and people. Hopefully, he will seek to restore a shared outlook and philosophy for the two wings of the labour movement.  We are strongest together and a new-found social democratic unity would be the best reaction to Thatcher’s death.


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One Response to “Did we make Thatcher?”

  1. [...] The play starts with the downfall of the Heath Conservative government in February 1974, when he went to the country with a ‘who governs – us or the unions?’ election question. The Coal Board – a nationalised industry since 1948 – had to cave in to the miners’ union in 1972 at ‘Saltley Gates’ in Birmingham. Heath’s attempt to ‘reform the unions’ with a fairly mild but over-legalistic framework – like Wilson’s Labour government before him-  became a dead letter by 1973. This was in the face of one of the biggest TUC campaigns of civil disobedience ever. He had to release the ‘Pentonville Five’ London dockers or face a General Strike. In 19734, another national coal dispute and his attempt to counter a power workers strike, with a 3 day working week imposed on everybody, didn’t work either. Unsurprisingly, he got the ‘not you’ answer to his question from a bemused electorate. It was this that started the move, by a relatively unknown Tory woman MP from Finchley,  to remove him as Tory leader in 1975. [See my 'We Made Thatcher' blog] [...]

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