Monday, 8 April 2013

She Was A Crook (with apologies to Hunter S. Thompson)

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:
 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

As a humanist with little in the way of religious conviction, the preceding passage still resonates, and for the countless human beings whose well-being was sacrificed to suffer in the service of the late Margaret Thatcher's incalculable malice and greed I can only hope it comes to pass.

No doubt some will call the ululation from the sidelines - not just from those who strongly oppose her credo politically, but more importantly from those her government beggared, from their children and their children's children - unseemly and disrespectful.  Personally I feel some discomfort at the idea that this outpouring of catharsis is somehow celebratory.  But I feel just as strongly that the sanitised images and stories that will sally forth from our press and media - a hagiography which has undoubtedly been in the making for at least as long as "Tramp The Dirt Down" has been a rallying cry - is just as unseemly and disrespectful to those whose lives were made poorer by the ideology she championed.

She was a political animal of a dangerous kind - one that knew of the power inherent in dressing up policy which would have a high human cost with nostalgic longing and patriotic fervour.  Much was made of her supposedly humble upbringing as a grocers' daughter, but less attention was paid to her marriage to a millionaire who inherited a share of the family business and the power which that conferred in Tory circles.  But both she and her husband were also of a generation for whom the decline of Britain's imperial power and global status was taken as a personal affront to be fought by any means necessary.  This mentality formed the nucleus of the image she and her acolytes would project, but it was also the lifeblood of the dark, barbarous heart that beat below the surface.

When a person breaks into a home, holds a gun to another person's head and demands they surrender their valuables with the intent of selling them on for their own profit, it is considered criminal.  When financiers do the same to businesses it is called "asset-stripping".  If we take as read the well-known maxim that "War is a racket", then it's not too far a leap to conclude that Empire is a tool for perpetuating that racket by other means.  So let me preface where I'm going with the assertion that I am British, and there's a lot about the country I call home that makes me proud.  I do not feel the need to flagellate my home for the darker aspects of its history - even the more modern aspects of which took place before I was born.  However in the cold light of day and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it is impossible not to conclude that, prior to the Second World War, Britain's status as a world power was almost entirely dependent on appropriating the resources of the far-flung territories for a pittance and selling them off to make a fortune.  Now, the work that was done to add value to those resources was largely performed in the UK and with the decline of Empire came the decline of the advantages that cornering the market in those raw resources provided.  The business leaders of Britain in the post-war years were content to delude themselves that it did not matter, and that the ingenuity of British business was in itself a value proposition.  What followed the post-war years was a British industrial base where management were ill-prepared to cope with those changes and a workforce whose leaders did not understand - as well they may not have, because the hardships faced by those who worked to supply those materials were a world away.

Those who have a sympathetic view of Thatcher and the situation she faced when she took power tend to think only of the latter, and see the unions as having overstepped their bounds.  I have no doubt that the unions had developed a self-defeating myopia which not only proved counter-productive to the country, but also blinded them to the danger that Thatcher and her ideology represented.  Because what lurked underneath the flag-waving and "no-nonsense" patriotic invective was nothing less than a plan to apply the methods of acquisition that had worked in the imperial territories to the UK itself.  I'm prepared to give the late Baroness Thatcher the benefit of the doubt as to whether she realised this at the time - but I am equally certain that the cabal of very rich men who assisted her rise to power knew full well that this was the goal.  When old-guard Tories like Harold Macmillan admonished Thatcher for selling "the family silver", the Thatcherites crowed that he was a relic of the past and did not understand - but the truth was that he understood the consequences of what was happening all too well.  Like a fox in a henhouse, the Thatcher government laid waste to the industrial heartlands, selling off nationalised industries, utilities and resources left, right and centre.

But let us pause for a moment here, because that's not quite how it happened.  The initial moves between 1979 and 1982 were actually very tentative, and at the turn of the year there was a growing consensus of opinion building that whatever the Thatcher government was doing was not working.  The emergence of the SDP and the spectre of a coalition between the SDP, the Liberal Party and Labour combined to make Thatcher's foundations seem distinctly shaky.  What followed, with a twisted sense of serendipity, was the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands and a burst of patriotic fervour, fanned by the Murdoch press into a towering flame of misplaced triumphalism - ensuring the Tories a second term.  This technique would be used again to tragic effect nearly twenty years later, transforming what was expected to be a weak Presidency backed by a cabal of right-wing ideologues into a scorched-earth behemoth that would do more damage to the social fabric of the USA than nearly half a century of Cold War tensions.  But I digress...

Thatcher's Tories won that election not on the strength of their policies, but on what was at least a half-manufactured swell of nationalistic belligerence - a belligerence which dovetailed nicely with the Friedmanite/Hayekian view of economic policy which was then pursued with gay abandon.  The financial markets were treated as a deity whose rules were sacrosanct and inviolable.  Profit was the goal, and all other considerations were considered irrelevant.  Compassion was weakness, the social fabric of decades was nothing more than a hindrance and devil take the hindmost.  Industries which had sustained entire towns were declared anachronistic and destroyed, with the unions which held those communities together unwittingly playing into her hands by making a stand.  All those who could not "get with the programme" were considered an irrelevance, with no thought given to the human cost of such actions.  The gods of finance promised a new high-tech economy would rise from the ashes and they were believed - nobody ever seemed to question them on exactly how such a change would come to pass, or ask in detail what was required to do so.  The economy of the UK would have tanked at that point, and the Empress naked for all the world to see - had not a sudden injection of capital arrived in the form of exploiting the oil fields of the North Sea.

But with the financiers counting their billions from the sell-offs as the rest of the country wondered just what the hell was happening, it was a simple matter to claim that this one-off windfall was in fact the result of successful economic policy - and so we come to the 1987 General Election where enough of the public bought the spin to keep the Tories in power again:

The result was the final round of sell-offs.  A bargain-basement trawl through public utilities and housing from which a select few made a gargantuan financial gain, and left the shelves of UK plc. utterly and irretrievably empty.  It also left the people of Britain entirely dependent on the financial industry, which from then on would effectively be able to hold the country to ransom if its rapacious demands were not met.

What followed were nothing more than desperate attempts by successive governments to cover Britain's vulnerability - and all that was left with which to do so was the tattered flag that Margaret Thatcher once wrapped herself in.  There wasn't even enough left of that to cut up for rags to dry the tears of the communities she destroyed.

And as Britain's lights flicker on in the dusk of the evening she died, they will illuminate rooms containing everyone, from the small number of very rich people who will never have to worry about anything again - to the countless millions who wonder how they are going to get by in a country of ever-diminishing returns.