A Margaret Thatcher Statue in Parliament Square?

Photo by R Barraez D´Lucca | CC BY 2.0

This week it was announced that London’s Westminster council, which has jurisdiction over the statues placed in Parliament Square, decided against having a statue of Margaret Thatcher in the square.

The reason given by the council was that her statue would almost certainly be vandalized, and that it was too soon after her death for this to be done.

Both the reasons given by the council are probative, but the council tactfully omitted mention of the elephant in the room when they made their decision– Thatcher does not merit having such a monument to her name (unless one believes parliament needs to be fronted by an array of statues of undeserving individuals, which of course is already the case).

As the years of her time in office move increasingly into the past, the release of public records and the publication of memoirs by her colleagues and advisers, confirm the view that Thatcher was probably the most destructive prime minister in British history.

The roster of British prime ministers shows the overwhelming majority to be undistinguished, a great many to be inept (some beyond belief), and even when deemed to be “distinguished”, to have so many failings that few merit having their statue in front of parliament.

Perhaps not even the vaunted Churchill, who was an unmitigated scoundrel in many ways not connected with the war that gave him his reputation.  Where the war is concerned, Churchill’s merciless carpet bombing of Dresden, a target of no military significance, should have brought him before an international tribunal for war crimes, just as Kissinger’s similar carpet bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam war warrants the same.

The case against Thatcher builds year by year.

She was of course a pal of Chile’s murderous dictator Pinochet, who embarked on Chicago School neoliberal experiments, which Thatcher was later to emulate, as soon as he seized power.

In her memoirs Thatcher said Pinochet had shown that “liberal economics works”.  It worked, but only for Chile’s economic elite, as was to be the case with the UK’s elite when Thatcher repeated the dictator’s experiments.  (The connection between Pinochet and Thatcher is described in detail in Andy Beckett’s excellent Pinochet in Piccadilly).

Thatcher’s experiments destroyed British industry, beginning with coal.  Resolved to defeat the miners’ union during its lengthy strike in 1984-85, Thatcher turned parts of the UK into a police state.  The miners’ leader Arthur Scargill was a poor strategist and played into Thatcher’s hands, though his intuition that her ultimate intention was to destroy the entire coal industry and not just defeat the strike proved to be correct– even those coalfields which opposed Scargill and broke the strike were closed down by Thatcher in post-strike “reforms”.  The UK now imports coal from Poland.

Thatcher, believing the UK could succeed economically on tourism and the financial sector with hardly any industry, implemented policies which wound-down British industries as if checking off a list (steel, car manufacturing, ship building, and electrical goods all bit the dust).

There is no denying that these industries were facing serious problems.  Robert Brenner and others have argued that the US and UK, with older capital-assets, were losing ground to Germany and Japan, flush with brand new more productive capital-assets generated by extensive postwar rebuilding.

The UK’s industries tried to keep up, unsuccessfully in the longer term, by upgrading what were basically prewar industrial resources and technologies.  The UK was exhausted economically after the war, but what it needed was massive industrial renovation, and this was not forthcoming.  The immediate postwar Labour government rightly focused on establishing the welfare state, but subsequent governments of both parties basked complacently in the improved living standards that followed the creation of the welfare state and the renewal of housing stock and infrastructure severely depleted and damaged by the war.  Thatcher, when it came to her turn, decided that the union-dominated industrial sector was not going to be a priority, and from then on an extensive industrial overhaul ceased to be on the UK’s economic agenda.  The collapse of this sector resulted inevitably.

Another outcome of Thatcher’s neoliberal experiments was a doubling of the unemployment rate.  Thatcher had campaigned on the slogan “Labour is not working” in the 1979 election, when unemployment stood at 5.9% (1 million) in 1978 under Labour.  Thatcher’s campaign effectively rebranded the Conservatives as the party of employment, and she won the election.

Once in office, Thatcher imposed her monetarist dogma, and unemployment jumped predictably to 3 million in 1982, despite constant massaging of the employment figures by her employment secretary Norman Tebbit.  Inflation, in double figures for most of the 1970s, did fall to 4% in 1983, but rose again to nearly 8% in 1985.

Thatcher had no interest in reducing unemployment, apart from the purpose of rebranding her party in order to win the election.   Her economic adviser Sir Alan Budd let the cat out of the bag in a future article:

The Thatcher government never believed for a moment that [monetarism] was the correct way to bring down inflation. They did however see that this would be a very good way to raise unemployment. And raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes. […] What was engineered – in Marxist terms – was a crisis of capitalism which re-created the reserve army of labour, and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since.

(An article by Carl Shapiro and Joseph Stiglitz, ‘Equilibrium Unemployment as a Worker Discipline Device’, The American Economic Review 74(1984), 433-44, provides the theoretical underpinning of the re-creation of the reserve army of labour, albeit without mentioning Marx.)

The Thatcherite Alan Budd is right– British capitalists have made high profits ever since, not so much by reviving British industry, but by focusing their efforts on the financial sector.  Here again Thatcher was instrumental.

In a sudden deregulation of financial markets on 27 October 1986 (dubbed the “Big Bang”), Thatcher abolished the distinction between commercial or high-street banks and investment houses, and made electronic trading possible.  This deregulation also made it possible for banks to “invest” their depositors’ savings, thereby putting these at risk.  Even Nigel Lawson, Thatcher’s longtime finance minister (Chancellor of the Exchequer), conceded that the “Big Bang” helped pave the way for the 2007-2008 financial crisis.  Overnight, the City of London (London’s financial district akin to Wall Street) started to become Rip Off City.

Along with deregulation of the financial sector came privatizations of public utilities and the railways (the latter was Thatcher’s aim, though the implementation was left to her successor John Major).

The available evidence shows that the privatization of state enterprises in the UK has brought few if any economic benefits.  Excessively high commissions and fees were paid to private banks to oversee the privatizations in what many describe as a boondoggle.

State monopolies became private oligopolies or cartels after privatization, now mostly owned by overseas firms.  The civil servants who ran the state monopolies on relatively modest fixed salaries gave way to CEOs and managers who lavished upon themselves exorbitant bonuses typical of the private sector, regardless of the performance of their enterprises.  Underperforming enterprises still required taxpayer subsidies, and with no price controls, consumers now got stiffed as well as taxpayers, as prices are raised above the prevailing rate of inflation.

Massimo Florio, in The Great Divestiture: Evaluating the Welfare Impact of the British Privatizations 1979-1999 (MIT Press), concludes that “the changeover to private ownership per se had little effect on long-term trends in prices and productivity in Britain and contributed to regressive redistribution”.

A 2015 poll by Survation showed that only 17% of respondents wanted to keep privatized railways, as against 40% who want renationalization and 23% who want to some franchises brought back into the public sector.

Polls for the other Tory privatizations yield consistently similar results to the Survation poll on the railways, and renationalization of the railways, postal service, and utilities is now a central feature of Labour’s manifesto for the next election.

Another disastrous step take by Thatcher was her sale of council or social housing to private buyers.  Much taken by the notion of a “property-owning democracy”, Thatcher allowed social housing to be bought by tenants at rock-bottom prices.  Tenants who did not buy their rented dwellings were forced out by steep rent increases.

What followed in the course of time was anticipated by critics of Thatcher’s policy.  These properties would reappear on the market when their owners died, or moved into assisted living, or simply traded-up in the housing market.  Once on the market, first-time buyers seeking to buy these properties would be outbid by well-heeled private landlords, who would then rent out the “investments” they purchased at “market values”.  Rents skyrocketed, as did property prices.  Diminishing housing-market affordability and housing supply shortfalls meant the Generation Buy of the baby boomer generation was supplanted inexorably by the Generation Rent of recent decades.

Thatcher’s housing legacy is not a “property-owning democracy”, quite the opposite, but a series of house-price inflation bubbles.

Her own personal housing was not a problem for Thatcher– on her retirement she ensconced herself in posh multi-million-pound Central London mansion.  When the terms of her will were disclosed after her death, it turned out that the mansion was registered in an offshore tax haven.  The Mirror newspaper, which reported this, carried the story under the caption “This lady’s not for taxing” (a riff on the Iron Lady’s own self-regarding “This lady’s not for turning”).

Thatcher’s dolt of a son Mark was always a problem for her and her husband Denis.  Mark acquired sudden and conspicuous wealth while she was in office, largely by being “an intermediary” in trade and arm’s deals she made with foreign countries.  In ways analogous to Ivanka Trump and her father, Mark would accompany his mother on official trips, to undertake his responsibilities as an “intermediary”.

It was reported this week that government records relating to Mark Thatcher will be withheld from the public until 2053—despite the fact that under the 30-year-rule the National Archives are now releasing records of cabinet meetings from 1986-88, when Thatcher was at the peak of her influence as prime minister.

One news outlet reporting the delay in releasing these records, thelondoneconomic.com, said:

Charles Moore’s biography of Mrs Thatcher quotes Robin Butler, her private secretary at the time, [who] commented Mrs Thatcher’s involvement ‘conveyed a whiff of corruption’. Coming from her own private secretary that raises even more questions as to why her son’s files are not accessible to the nation.

Cynics will doubtless have ready answers to these questions about the withholding of the Mark Thatcher files until 2053.

The afore-mentioned Lord Robin Butler was not the only Whitehall mandarin in the news this week.    The former head of the Diplomatic Service, Sir Patrick Wright, is about to publish his diaries, and made a number of newsworthy claims about Thatcher’s time in office in extracts published in a national newspaper.   According to the Independent:

Sir Patrick also said that Ms Thatcher “loathed” Germans and wanted to “push” Vietnamese boat people into the sea.

In the diary entry, Sir Patrick writes the conversation [on South African apartheid] took place over a lunch he was invited to with Ms Thatcher. “She opened the conversation by thrusting a newspaper cutting about Oliver Tambo [ANC president] in front of us, saying that it proved that we should not be talking to him… She continued to express her views about a return to pre-1910 South Africa, with a white mini-state partitioned from their neighbouring black states.”

When Sir Patrick questioned the desire and said it would be an extension of apartheid, he said “she barked: ‘Do you have no concern for our strategic interests?’”

Thatcher’s support for a “whites only” mini-state was entirely consistent with her other positions on South Africa:  she had always opposed sanctions against the apartheid state, and described Nelson Mandela in public as a “terrorist”.

A statue of Mandela already stands in Parliament Square.  If the British Establishment erected a statue of Thatcher in the same location, it would be a supreme testimony to its cynicism or “value free” relativism.  It would be akin to the US putting up statues of Robert E Lee and Frederick Douglass in the same square.

Thatcher’s children, Mark and Carol, could perhaps have a subliminal sense of this possible incongruity (Mark Thatcher has been living in South Africa, and Carol in Australia, for a while) — when asked by Westminster council if they wanted a statue of their mother in front of parliament, they failed to reply.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.