By Dean Carroll
Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone despised her. British Prime Minister David Cameron worshipped her. It is even alleged that the Cameron generation of Tories referred to former United Kingdom PM Margaret Thatcher simply as ‘mother’. Most ordinary citizens also have strong views on the Iron Lady, which will no doubt be recycled on the upcoming first anniversary of her death in April.
Certainly, if you conducted a vox pop in the street not many people would respond by saying ‘I’ve never heard of her’ or ‘it’s just another faceless politician – a replicant member of the professional political class’. In contrast, most of today’s leading British politicians – the crumpled figure of Boris Johnson aside – would not register at all down at the Dog and Duck pub.
You either loved her or hated her. Very few souls were ambivalent towards “Mrs Thatch” as Ben Elton used to call her in his stand-up comedy. Indeed, the outpouring of ideological analysis since her death has proved what a divisive figure she was. Those for the free market and rolling back the state have given a standing ovation to her legacy of privatisation, deregulation and tough love.
Meanwhile, those on the left have put the blame at Thatcher’s door for the most prolonged recession in modern economic history – not to mention the loss of the British manufacturing base, a warped property market, massive youth unemployment and the wild west behaviour exhibited by the ‘masters of the universe’ in ‘the City’. Everybody can now afford a huge flat-screen television, made in slave-like conditions in China, but nobody can afford the spiralling costs of energy, transport, property, petrol and pensions – argue Thatcher’s anti-globalisation and anti-consumerist critics. The socialists speak only of opprobrium.
But although Thatcher was certainly an agent of globalisation and consumerism, she was not the architect of these societal changes – just as Ronald Reagan was not in the United States. Both politicians simply facilitated the business lobby in its unerring quest for bigger profits, investment bubbles, lower regulatory standards and fewer employment safeguards. It is probable that these tectonic shifts would have occurred whoever was British prime minister and president of America, given the powerful corporate forces at work.
Certainly, it could be argued that the continuous years of economic growth and the widening middle class – admittedly at the expense of a narrowing working class and burgeoning criminal underclass – were worth the downsides. After all, the world moves on and human nature is unrelenting in its desire for progress.
The real legacy of Thatcher, though, is the selfish society. Community spirit and strong moral fibre are, in the main, dead. Most people do not even know their neighbours. Consumerism in the form of religious devotion to gadgets – no names mentioned Apple iPhone – is rife. Talentless celebrities are among the richest people in the country due to the public demand for a diet of vacuous reality television shows. And those at the top resent those on state benefits just as much as those at the bottom detest the oligarchic elite, which rules over them. The UK may be ahead of its continental European peers in terms of free market reforms but its position on the happiness index ranks pretty poorly.
During her pomp in 1987, Thatcher said: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” She was, however, wrong. There is such a thing as society, even today. It is just an atomised, hollowed-out selfish society that cares little about the collective good but is rich in material possessions. Whether this was worth celebrating with the wall-to-wall television tributes to Mrs T that followed her passing last year is questionable. But the alternative to that period of mourning would have meant facing up to the darker side of British life. And nobody is quite ready for that.
Dean Carroll is editor of Policy Review. Follow him on Twitter @poljourno and follow Policy Review @Policyrev