There’s no time more apt for murmuring the ending of Brutus’s speech in Julius Caesar than the week of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral: “The evil men do lives after them/the good is oft interred with their bones.” No time better, either, to add that the “evil” that, in this case one woman, did is little examined by her detractors, who prefer to stick to a diabolical version of her 12-year rule.
Margaret Thatcher (narrowly) won the 1979 election because the Labour government of the 1970s, under Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, had unsuccessfully tried to make a contract with the trade unions. In such a contract, pay would have been calibrated to productivity, and increases would be low in order to bring down high rates of inflation and to keep up investment in the socialized education, health and welfare institutions that disproportionately benefited the lower classes. It was the kind of social deal that the Germans and the Scandinavians had and still – in part – have: one that produces economies that, not by chance, have escaped the worst of the economic buffeting of the past five years.
But the attempt failed. The turn of 1978-79 was called the “Winter of Discontent” – another Shakespearean tag, this time from Richard III. Power failed; transport was constantly disrupted; hospitals and ambulance services closed. Most memorably, some gravediggers in Liverpool struck, and bodies piled up in a factory. All that Labour had held out as its usefulness to the nation – the ability to bring organized workers into a lasting, productive and stable agreement – was shattered. The party lost, but so did working men and women.
Thus, Britain’s large problems were given the free market, rather than the social democratic, treatment. That meant withdrawal of subsidies and widespread closures and unemployment. That was the prompt for much of the bitterness toward Hatcher, since not just jobs were lost but whole communities were rendered rudderless. Yet a victorious war against Argentina for possession of the Falklands, and a chaotic Labour Party, which had lurched to the left, saved Thatcher – and let her grow in stature, as the economy improved, and flourished.
This is not the story today’s Thatcher haters will listen to. Their dancing on her grave has disfigured public life in the UK since her death last Monday. I went to see a planned demonstration against both the present government cuts and her memory in Trafalgar Square over the weekend. It numbered in the hundreds, rather than the thousands, on a dank and cold day. Many there were drunk, and some turned the old cry, “Maggie Maggie Maggie; Out Out Out!” into “Maggie Maggie Maggie; Dead Dead Dead!” Although virulent, it also seemed lifeless, as if the malign chants took up all the energy there was.