9 April 2013

Joined at the hip

What would I write on Margaret Thatcher's headstone? British Prime Minister 1979 - 1990? The miner's nemesis? The City de-regulator? Galtieri's conqueror? The Tory's matron? The list could go on and on but history may not be as kind to Thatcher as the Establishment is being in the immediate aftermath of her passing.

Thatcher's outstanding achievement was the destruction of manufacturing and the re-creation of Britain as a service economy, an achievement which was quite confluent with the lessons that she learned on her father's knee. Thatcher came from the culture of shop-keeping - buy from here and sell to there whilst making money on the transaction. Thatcher's constituency were barrow-boys and global capitalists and, with Ronald Regan's help, she recast Britain as a street market where nothing is made and everything is for sale at the right price, even public housing.

What is astonishing is that much of Thatcher's success, and much of her reputation, was provided by that 'working-class hero' Arthur Scargill, who sacrificed his constituents, the miners, on the altar of his own ego. Instead of welding the miners into an effective industrial force, Scargill chose the wrong moment to go head to head with Thatcher using the miners as his foot soldiers, and he lost. In loosing he not only destroyed the miners, and many of their communities, but he cast Thatcher's reputation in stone. After she had dealt with the miners, Thatcher's position was secure and the model that she promoted, ship manufacturing to poor economies and turn the domestic economy into a street market, became the model that successive governments have slavishly followed. 

With her passing, its strange that I experience a profound sense of regret, not about what she did, although much of it is regrettable, but at her failure to exploit the opportunity presented to her. Rather than engaging with Scargill, Thatcher could have recast Britain as a manufacturing powerhouse on a parr with Germany. She could have recast Britain to provide an arena where finance and labour could work co-operatively rather than in opposition as had been the case for the previous two decades. But Thatcher was a shop-keeper's daughter who only knew about moving goods from here to there and making money on the margins. That was what she was good at and, in doing so, she condemned Britain to a slow and inexorable decline, a decline of which the financial catastrophe of 2007/8 is only a curtain-raiser.

Thatcher's enduring legacy will be to have squandered Britain's future for an all too brief period of excess. Margaret Thatcher's headstone should borrow from Gordon Gekko's speech in 'Wall Street' - 'Greed is good, greed works'.