A Miners' Strike rally in 1984. Photo: Wikipedia
The death of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher last week has prompted a predictable stream of condemnation from her opponents and praise from her political allies. In order to ensure people don’t get the wrong idea about the former PM, the British public have been subjected to a turbo charged and rampant propaganda offensive which is all designed to do one thing: produce conformity.
There have been gushing tributes from the world of big business and the prime minister, 'sincere condolences' from the opposition Labour leadership and glowing personal tributes from sycophantic liberals who will caution that she was a 'divisive character' but someone who nonetheless should command respect.
In order to achieve this middle of the road consensus, the most extreme 'Thatcher Haters' are quoted, their 'celebrations' of her death taken out of context and genuine debate over her lasting legacy reduced to one liners, mudslinging and arguments over whether a certain song from the Wizard of Oz should be aired.
So what is the Thatcher legacy? Destruction, death and fascist appeasement. She supported fascist dictator Pinochet. She labelled ANC leader Nelson Mandela a terrorist whilst refusing to put sanctions on the South African apartheid regime.
However she will be most remembered for her famous battle with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). It was a purely ideological struggle which even in capitalist terms made no economic sense, destroying Britain’s industrial base forever and laying waste to communities up and down the country.
The announcement of 20 pit closures in March 1984 was a deliberate provocation of Britain’s most militant and well organised trade union. Billions of pounds of taxpayers money and the proceeds from North Sea oil were squandered to beef up state and security forces to crush the miners strike and achieve the pit closures. Striking miners Davey Jones and Joe Green both paid for the strike with their lives with questions remaining unanswered over their tragic deaths during the dispute.
While striking miners showed courage to defend British industry, community spirit was showcased by their wives who set up support groups providing food and support for the strike which lasted a year.
Thatcher on the other hand introduced anti-trade union laws around secret ballots which have been built upon. Today they are used to shackle workers from taking effective strike action making it very difficult to ensure employers properly negotiate during trade disputes.
Veterans of the miners’ strike who I have interviewed over the years regularly point out that Britain is 25 years behind the rest of the Europe in terms of clean coal technology. Domestic coal reserves could power Britain for 100 years. Instead we have been left with an energy crisis while continuing to import over 40 million tonnes worth of coal annually today.
But away from statistics and big politics, there is a deep social destruction that engulfs the country, in the industrial ghost towns and hollowed out factories, particularly in my home town of Wolverhampton. Anyone who has taken a train into Wolverhampton from the North can have a front row seat on the ‘tour of destruction’ that is a direct result of Thatcher’s neoliberal economic policies.
Once a productive centre of industrial strength, well paid and highly skilled employment, the area is now a wasteland of storage depots and decaying former factories. The local 79 bus route which runs for a good few miles was once famous for employing 250,000 workers. Not any more.
Thatcher’s brand of ‘Laissez Faire’ economics where market forces are allowed to run riot, puts the state as a willing partner in crushing anyone who stands in the way of private profit. There is no thought to long term investment or the social cost, all of which lives on in Britain today.
Personally I am not a fan of celebrating anyone’s death. But to ask people to show respect to someone whose whole world view caused their relatives to lose jobs, to suffer mental health issues as a result of long term unemployment or drug addiction due to increased poverty in the former mining heartlands of North Wales and South Yorkshire, is asking the impossible.
Thatcher’s funeral is an opportunity to tell the victims’ story; the story of Davey and Joe, the miners’ wives and ultimately the story of the modern day working class in Britain. They have all been burnt but they are not broken.
John Millington is a freelance journalist specialising in industrial relations and social movements