Wednesday, April 17, 2013

On Thatcher's funeral

I didn't find anything to disagree with what Norm wrote on the subject and in the same vein I have two thesis, for neither of which would I claim any originality:

1) My maternal grandfather, who was as old as the century, had in peacetime been an opponent of Winston Churchill, on account of the latter's penchant for using the army to break strikes.  But with the outbreak of war, he - like many other British socialists - backed Churchill in the war against the Axis powers.  If I tell you my grandfather was a miner, you'll understand the point I am making.  It's not original but I do think it is important to stress that this has nothing to do with assessments of legacy or the 'verdict of history' and everything to do with what we already know.  What we already know is that while Churchill was personally a Conservative, in wartime he led a National Coalition; in peacetime, Margaret Thatcher did not.  It is entirely inappropriate, therefore, for Her Majesty's armed forces - and for the Queen herself - to be so closely-associated with such a partisan political figure.  Elizabeth did not attend the funerals of any other of the peacetime Prime Ministers and she should not be attending this one either.

2) There are ways of expressing one's disapproval of this, and her legacy more generally, but staging protests at a funeral should not be something anyone with any sense of decorum should even consider.  While it could conceivably be argued that there exists a right to do so - to imagine this is also a duty would be a perversion.  Are there people planning such events and if so, do they really want to become some kind of secular left version of the Westboro Baptist Church?  One would hope not.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Thatcher's unintended legacy

Around the time of the miners' strike, I was convinced Thatcher was a fascist and Britain was turning into a police state.  It was about the time that I was thought that sitting in Kelvingrove park listening to bands whilst smoking hand-rolled cigarettes was going to help rid the world of nuclear weapons.  I trust I take a rather more grown-up view of these matters now.  Whilst I'm still not a fan, in keeping with the convention that one shouldn't speak ill of the dead, I'll restrict myself to a couple of the consequences of Thatcher's term in office that were unintended and which she herself wouldn't have welcomed.

One is that Scotland is now a graveyard for the Conservative and Unionist Party.  The last winter I spent in Edinburgh was the Winter of Discontent.  In the run-up to the 1979 election, our house was the only one in the street that had a Labour poster in the window, whereas those supporting the Conservatives were more ubiquitous than younger readers would imagine possible.  Then when we moved West, Glasgow still had a Conservative Member of Parliament, something inconceivable today.

You want a rational debate about Thatcher's legacy in Scotland?  You'd have a better chance having a cordial conversation about the Israel-Palestine question, such is the strength of collective loathing there is for Thatcher and her legacy north of the border.  As Torquil Crichton points out, some of this has fallen out of history and has entered the realm of myth.  It was the Scottish Conservatives themselves who pressed for the early introduction of the poll tax, wrongly believing it would be more popular than the rates system.  And some of the most dramatic episodes of de-industrialisation like the closure of Ravenscraig happened after she fell from power.

Nevertheless, while she was in power, places like Ayrshire and Lanarkshire became post-industrial wastelands.  Without discussing whether and to what extent any of this was inevitable I think it would be fair to say that at the very least the British Conservative Party did too little to avoid the impression that they were at best indifferent to the fate of families and entire communities who had been ruined by the demise of those traditional industries that had dominated the central belt of Scotland.  This is why were are where we are: as noted in the piece linked above, Scotland is further down the road to self-determination than it would have otherwise been without Margaret Thatcher - and if the nationalists win in 2014, I trust the more historically literate among them will acknowledge their debt to the Iron Lady.

The other point is related to this: the British Conservative Party is now a regional party that cannot command support across the British Isles and I am wondering whether Thatcher might not be remembered as the Prime Minister who oversaw the demise of the Tories as an election-winning force in British politics.  It seems counter-intuitive, given that her election in 1979 was the beginning of 18 years of Tory rule.  But since then?  It's easy to forget that the Conservatives, Western Europe's most efficient election-winning machine in the 20th century, have not won a Parliamentary majority for over 20 years.  It has been suggested that it was her injection of ideology into the famously pragmatic party that is responsible for this.  Thatcher was supposed to have swooped into a meeting of the Cabinet, dropped Freddie Hayek's the Constitution of Liberty on the table and announced, "This is what we believe!", to a bemused audience who were rather unaccustomed to the idea that they were supposed to believe anything in particular.

Now we have a generation of politicians who have bought into this.  The public sector always 'crowds out', unions are always the enemies of progress, and the way to efficiency is to give the rich more and the poor less.   But the difficulty for the Conservatives is that this kind of thinking is no longer confined to the Tories because if it was, they would not be in coalition today.  Perhaps the legacy that Thatcher has left the Conservatives is to be a victim of her success?


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