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Margaret Thatcher: Divide and Rule

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The one Thatcher fact that all of the media have agreed on is that she was a 'divisive' figure. It doesn't take Pulitzer prize-winning journalism to work that one out, you might think, especially after the last week. But it's more than a statement of the obvious: in the hands of the right, it's quickly become part of the new mythology. Like some modern-day Hercules, we're led to believe, she slayed socialist monsters and saved civilisation. Divisiveness? Just the grumblings you'd expect from those who ended up on history's losing side.
I don't doubt that Thatcher was a fighter. I once had the privilege of seeing her in action in the Commons: she was a sensational performer, brilliantly pugilistic, and left quite an impression on the 12 year-old me. It's not hard to see where the urge to heroise comes from, particularly given the horrendously sexist world in which she forged her career.
But the idea that Thatcherism was rooted in ideological war with the left is wrong. Going on some of the last week's chatter, you'd think that the 70s and 80s were all about pitched battles with gangs of marxist ultras bent on revolution. There was of course a fair bit of socialist utopianism around, but I doubt it kept Thatcher awake at night. She was at heart a pragmatist, not an ideologue. The crisis she faced when she came to power was that state-owned industries were leaking money: she would have closed down the mines even if Rupert Murdoch had been leading the opposition rather than Arthur Scargill.
Thatcherism, like so many political innovations that take hold, thrived precisely because it couldn't be parcelled off into traditional left/right boxes. In fact, it was arguably an assault on the traditional values of the right as much as on those of the left. Despite what the new Tory mythologists tell us, the manufacturing industries that powered the UK economy in the 1970s weren't some socialist experiment, a red dragon waiting to be slain. State-run manufacturing was the fulfilment of the vision of those pioneering nineteenth-century industrialists who made modern capitalism. Visit a Victorian industrial village like Bournville in Birmingham or Saltaire in Bradford: they were mini-states, which offered workers housing, health and education. In the nineteenth century, free-marketeering often went hand-in-hand with a Christian, philanthropic 'socialism', a desire to better the lot of the benighted masses. The wets in Thatcher's cabinet were the heirs to this paternalist ideal of social responsibility, and many were deeply challenged by what they saw unfolding before them.
For Thatcher presided over the first British government in modern times that acknowledged no duty of care for its subjects. Got no job? Not our problem: on yer bike, go and find one. For her supporters, this was progress, weaning the citizenry off the teat of state dependence. But to those in areas where pits, shipyards or steelworks had closed, there was no chance of exercising that vaunted self-determination: there were more people than ever chasing fewer jobs, and in any case noone had thought to retrain traditional working people for the new economy. The unemployed were not the government's responsibility; they were just the eggs that needed to be broken to cook the economic omelette.
This is the real explanation for Thatcher's divisiveness: she governed not a nation of citizens, each with an equal right to protection by the state, but a kind of economic version of the Hunger Games, in which the odds were stacked heavily in the favour of south-eastern England. There is a reason why Tories still struggle to win seats in Scotland, northern England and Wales. It has nothing to do with persistent leftism, and everything to do with the simple truth that human beings need dignity and security. In many UK communities the anger stems from an understandable sense that they have been collectively devalued. To claim that this anger is the result simply of ideological pique, as so many on the right have done in the last week, is a grave delusion.