The current BBC2 documentary series Thatcher: A Very British Revolution is worth watching for the film footage — interviews with Thatcher, old news reports of events, and other rarer clips. Beyond that, it won’t tell you much more than Wikipedia does.
Most of the talking heads are Tory ex-MPs and civil servants who served under Thatcher. Also Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s press secretary, who proves that reactionary pomposity does not fade with age.
After three instalments, I can say the first episode was the most interesting. It explained how Thatcher came to be leader of the Tory Party in 1975 almost by accident.
Tory MPs had not been pleased with how Edward Heath had failed to face down the miners and other unions during his tenure as Prime Minister (1970-74). Heath had called an election in early 1974 on the ultimatum “who governs Britain” (the government or the unions) and lost to Labour. Some Tory MPs wanted to give Heath a jolt. A leadership contest was called in February 1975. Heath was expected to win. Thatcher threw her hat into the ring. She was not expected to win, not least because she was a woman. But she engaged the Tory MP Airey Neave as her campaign manager.
Neave claimed to have only ever read Clausewitz while at university, but that came in handy during Thatcher’s campaign, where he employed divide and rule tactics successfully. Neave (famous for escaping from Colditz) was blown up by a car bomb in the courtyard of the House of Commons in 1979 by the Irish National Liberation Army (police have recently re-opened an investigation into the assassination).
Bit by bit, Thatcher established her authority over the Tory party. Her class outlook — petty bourgeois, a self-made person — drove her on. That was always much more important than her gender. That aspect of her identity was deeply conservative – she loved dusting! Heseltine describes her well. He says Thatcher was intolerant to the point of bigotry towards people she perceived to be lower on the social scale to her, if they could not or would not “help themselves”. But she was also never, ever, going to be part of the Establishment – one of the ex-Etonian gang. Her social position, combined with workaholism, freed her to take a different and more ruthless political trajectory than the old guard Tories.
The series does not define “Thatcherism” clearly and sharply in contrast to post-war “one-nation” Toryism. In truth, consensus bourgeois politics (mixed economy and welfare state) was breaking down before Thatcher came to power. She was more determined than her predecessors to crack that failing consensus.
She fixated on bringing down inflation (thus the “monetarist” experiment of her first two years), making huge cuts in public expenditure and direct taxation for the better-off, and increasing indirect taxation (VAT). Those policies facilitated a massive increase in inequality. Upward mobility (a cherished belief, perhaps shibboleth, of post-war Europe) now meant displacing someone else on the social ladder. British manufacturing went to the wall, and unemployment was ratcheted up – standing at over three million by 1982. Thatcher was very unpopular in her first two years in government after 1979.
1981 saw riots in Toxteth in Liverpool, Chapeltown in Leeds, Handsworth in Birmingham, and Brixton in London. Such events, and the all-pervasive social discontent, drew many people (including myself) into political awareness.
Then came the early 1982 war which followed Argentina’s military junta invading the Falklands/Malvinas – a tiny group of islands in the South Atlantic. Thousands of miles away from Britain, the islanders nonetheless saw themselves as British (and they were also 2000 miles from Argentina’s main population centres). Our political tendency supported their right to self-determination while opposing Thatcher’s war. Britain quickly won the war, and the victory saved Thatcher’s government. Thatcher was seen as a woman of courage, an Iron Lady, no longer the leader of a “clapped-out nation” as Ingham puts it.
The stage was now set for Thatcher to take on the miners in 1984-5, the people she described in her soft posh voice (the product of elocution lessons) and with overdriven right-wing rhetoric as “the enemy within”. She said that the miners, led by Arthur Scargill wanted the break down of law and order and the destruction of Parliamentary government. Unfortunately the film-makers interviewed Neil Kinnock (Labour leader in 1984-5) as a “balancing point of view” on the strike.
Kinnock, in fact, betrayed the miners. He condemned “all violence” and took a year to get down to a picket line. Socialists who were active in the early 80s will find themselves revisiting the bitterness and anger you felt then. Others will learn something from the film footage, but for facts and truth talk with people who were involved in the many fights against Thatcher and the class war she led.