Former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s death will sadden some who knew her, but as a public figure her policies brought misery to many, and laid the foundation for some of the most damaging policies of the present UK government.
A damaging inheritance
Nicknamed the Iron Lady, she ran the country from 1979 to 1990. Despite being the first woman in this role, respect for diversity was not her strong point.
For instance she introduced the notoriously Section 28, repealed by a later Labour government. This left many local authorities unsure whether they could combat discrimination against lesbians and gays in schools and other public services. In contrast, current Prime Minister David Cameron supports equal marriage.
In other ways, however, she made some of the current leadership’s more harmful policies possible, enabling them to go even further in targeting the most poor and vulnerable. Nor did she do so alone: favourable winds allowed her to pilot the ship of state in her chosen direction.
It is noteworthy that more conciliatory Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour party have only patchily opposed ‘Thatcherite’ policies. It could be said that, on the positive side, she helped to bring sometimes hidden class interests and antagonisms into the open. However the impact was harsh.
She was a strong believer in ‘free markets’ (though in reality major corporations get considerable help from supportive governments), at home and abroad. This did not always mean freedom for ordinary people.
So she protested against repression of citizens of the Soviet bloc yet backed brutal dictators such as General Pinochet, whom she later thanked for “bringing democracy to Chile” by overthrowing the elected government in a bloody coup. She passed laws to weaken trade unions and unleashed police violence on striking miners.
The current government too criticises some dictatorial regimes while supporting and sometimes helping to arm others, depending on whose economic and political interests they promote. At home there are plans for more secret court hearings and increased surveillance, and talk of repealing the Human Rights Act. Legal aid has been withdrawn for various types of cases, leaving many more people vulnerable to arbitrary and unjust decisions by the state.
Thatcher encouraged the shift to ‘casino capitalism’, in which expanding opportunities for a largely unregulated finance sector took priority over the manufacture and sale of tangible products. The ‘Big Bang’ of the deregulation of the City of London in 1986 helped to pave the way for the economic crisis from 2008 onwards.
Despite the harm done, this government has been publicly critical of rich bankers but largely resisted vigorous measures to bring the finance sector under control, perhaps not surprising since Conservative Party funds largely come from the finance sector and those who work in it. (The Labour party leadership has also tended to indulge the City in office.)
Unemployment soared in the early years of the Thatcher era, though had gone down somewhat towards the end, and whole towns and villages were devastated as large numbers lost their livelihoods. There was much bitterness afterwards among those reduced to living on meagre benefits or taking low-paid and insecure jobs.
Cameron has gone one better. Sizeable numbers have lost their jobs or failed to find work because of disastrous economic mismanagement (and worse may be to come if refusal to regulate results in further crashes). Many people are angry – but at the jobless rather than the government! Sick and disabled people have also been subjected to abusive practices which would have been politically unacceptable in Thatcher’s day. However there are signs that this may be changing.
Privatisation of public services was also a feature of the Thatcher era. Despite expensive failures, this is now going further than she would have dared, for instance by opening up core functions of the National Health Service to enable private healthcare firms to profit.
She also ensured that large numbers of council homes were sold off and not replaced, resulting in a serious shortage of social housing. More families were forced to pay very high rents to private landlords, which also meant that, when the country was in recession, the housing benefit bill soared.
The present government is set to take this further with measures such as the 'bedroom tax', which is likely to drive out many tenants living in not-for-profit housing. Housing associations are being allowed to set rents for 'affordable' housing which are 80 per cent of market rents in the area - more than many full-time workers' entire net wages.
Over the years, in a more atomised society in which the value of solidarity has been downplayed and dreams of a more just future have faded, injustices which would previously have been politically unacceptable can now be put into practice. But there are risks.
Whips and scorpions
1 Kings and 2 Chronicles in the Hebrew Bible tell of a new king, Rehoboam, coming to power after the death of his father, whose reign the people had found oppressive. A deputation urges him, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you.” He agrees to consider this and asks them to return in three days.
He asks for the views of an older generation at the court who had advised his father, and they answer, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants for ever.”
However he takes the advice of a younger generation who have grown up alongside him: to tell the people, “My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins. Now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.”
By doing so he sparks a rebellion. The popularity of the ruling dynasty associated with the much-loved king David is over. In the words of 1 Kings 12, when the nation:
saw that the king would not listen to them, the people answered the king,
“What share do we have in David?
We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse.
To your tents, O Israel!
Look now to your own house, O David.”
The current UK government may have persuaded large sections of the public to believe that there is no practical alternative to its policies and that anger at economic and social problems should be turned against people receiving benefits, migrants, the European Union or some other target. But, as increasing numbers find their standard of living and freedoms eroded, such attempts to displace blame are becoming less credible.
In Thatcher’s era, the ‘poll tax’ triggered huge protests. It is not certain at what point large numbers of people will feel they have no share in the UK that this government, and the section of the ruling elite it serves, are seeking to create. But, sooner or later, the day will come. Cruelly unjust regimes, however mighty they may seem, are built on sand.
© Savitri Hensman is an established Christian commentator on religion, theology, welfare and politics. She is an Ekklesia associate and works professionally in the care and equalities sector.