Today we bury a dead former politician. I can see why, for those who were directly harmed by her activities, this would be something to celebrate. If, for example, you lost family members in her Falkland Islands war, you may feel she’s responsible for that and be glad to see the back of her. If you suffered, and you feel relief in her demise, fair enough. Beyond the personal response though, I don’t think we have much to celebrate. We may be burying Thatcher, but we are not burying Thatcherism.
She changed the political landscape across the world, apparently. She changed it so much that allegedly-Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair considered her an influence. Thatcher did not believe in community, only in the selfishness and greed of the private individual. Her policies reflected that, and in turn served to make it more true. That’s going to take a lot of unpicking. The vibe is still with us – mistrust and envy your neighbour, begrudge them what they have, consider what they cost you in taxes, see the needy as an unwanted burden and expense. It’s all about the money. Under Thatcher, we sold our humanity to the highest, private bidder, or the person who could do the work we wanted for least outlay. Thatcherism means an absence of compassion. It means looking at the bottom line, not at value, or quality, or long term impact. You can see all of these ideas underpinning our short term, money orientated, environment pillaging twenty first century.
Now take a step back and look at our ailing economy. We don’t invest in innovation anything like as much as we could. We have an economics of bland mediocrity where ‘quality’ means ‘identical’ and no one wants to gamble on anything original. Our fashions, fictions, movies, TV, is mostly rehashing what is old and safe. Retro is in. Retro is that which we have done before, mostly, the sellable, the known market. Our economies dwindle. Could it be that we don’t want to spend our money on recycled ideas and old creations in barely new skins? Could it be that the drive of the bean counter is away from the desires of the consumer, not towards? This is definitely the case in the arts industries, and I suspect is true more widely, as well.
Thatcher was one of the founders of our almost religious devotion to free market economics and our wholly irrational beliefs that markets can drive everything to best effect. The worship of those Gods, Supply and Demand are hers. The prayer ‘let there be greater customer choice’ comes from the same place. Yet, we privatised the trains, and we don’t have a better service than before, ticket prices are high, and the government is still paying a subsidy. We do not speak of these things because they are tantamount to heresy. Thatcher championed privatisation. Well, we took energy out of the public domain, and the net result is that energy companies make huge profits while consumers struggle to pay bills. Of course that in turn takes money out of the rest of the economy. What Thatcher’s legacy gives us is not a thriving flow of energy and resources, but a tendency to draw too much money to too few people. It just doesn’t work, but in politics, that’s an unspeakable truth. We don’t go there.
There were problems in Britain in the late seventies. Yes, our traditional industries were ailing and failing. Yes some of the publically held resources, like British Telecom, were not working well. Thatcher told us there was one solution, and only one solution – free market, private enterprise. The magic wand to solve all ills. It wasn’t.
That we tried a thing and it hasn’t worked would not be a problem, had we not taken the concept on as indisputable truth. We sing the praises of free trade, and consumerism, even as they fail to deliver. In the last week or so, politicians have still praised her saying that what she did was the only way. I’m sensitive to the language of religious fundamentalism, and it is here, in Thatcherism, The One True Way.
Politicians like to tell us there are no alternatives to the solutions they offer, but this is ALWAYS bullshit. There are invariably other ways of tackling things. We didn’t have to ditch industry in favour of the banking sector, as Thatcher did. We could have made a bid for being a knowledge based economy. We have some of the best universities in the world. There are a lot more real jobs, real progress to make, real value to generate in a knowledge based economy. Banking is a make believe world of pretend money in which nothing of any real value is made.
I hope we manage to bury Mrs Thatcher quietly and with some dignity, and some good solid, responsible protesting alongside it. We should not be spending this much money on her funeral in the current economic conditions. The day I celebrate, however, will be the noisy burial of Thatcherism, when we collectively wake up and realise that, as in religion, so in politics: There is no one true way, there are always alternatives, we do not have to follow her lead.
(I wrote mine before I saw this – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/apr/16/bury-not-just-thatcher-but-thatcherism)