Under Thatcher, the Poor Became Poorer
John Weeks: Thatcher and Reagan set out to crush the union movement and assert the power of capital
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher has passed away. And, of course, now her legacy is a matter of great debate. She is seen by many as the savior of capitalism, savior of the Western world, alongside Ronald Reagan.
Now joining us to talk about the history and legacy of Margaret Thatcher is John Weeks. He’s a professor emeritus at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies. He’s also the author of many books, including Capital, Exploitation and Economic Crisis, and more recently The Economics of the 1 Percent. And he writes at JWeeks.org.
Thanks very much for joining us, John.
JOHN WEEKS, PROF. EMERITUS, SCHOOL OF ORIENTAL AND AFRICAN STUDIES: Well, thank you for inviting me.
JAY: So why is the prime ministership of Margaret Thatcher seen as being of such importance? And what do you make of it?
WEEKS: First I should say I think think there are a lot of Americans who think that Margaret Thatcher may have been extremely conservative or reactionary. But she was actually sort of a major figure. These are probably people who went along and saw the film about her with Meryl Streep and so on.
First thing you have to realize is that Margaret Thatcher had no positive side. It was my son who said [incompr.] the Wicked Witch is dead. She was an unrelenting opponent of the working class. She took as her major task as prime minister of Britain the crushing of the trade union movement, which she was, I regret to say, extremely successful. The war with Argentina [incompr.] sideshow is terrible for the Argentines, but the main function of it in Britain was to get her reelected in 1983 when her ratings were very low. And she was, from beginning to end, as we say over here, a very nasty piece of work indeed.
JAY: So she comes to power at a particular time in the United States. It’s her–more or less the time of Reagan, and Canada it’s Mulroney. It’s a time when corporate and financial power seems to even assert itself more than it had previously. I mean, talk about sort of the general context we’re in at that time, and then more about what Thatcher did.
WEEKS: Well, I think that for my generation, when people talk about who saved capitalism, it was Roosevelt. And I think it’s useful to make that comparison. The way Roosevelt was supposed to have saved capitalism was that there was an uprising of the working class and of the progressive people throughout the United States and there were marches in the streets, and Roosevelt came up with a semi social democratic government, which then neutralized those popular protests–or at least that was the story–and then sort of institutionalized [incompr.] establishment [incompr.] then, you know, sort of saved capitalism, in the sense that there wasn’t something more radical.
Margaret Thatcher did something quite different. By the end of 1970s, the bourgeoisie, the capitalists in the United States, Britain, and perhaps elsewhere (but I don’t know the details in every country), they had a new strategy. Their strategy was: we don’t have to have this accommodation, we don’t have to have this deal with the trade unions–labor bosses, as they were called. We can actually get rid of them and we can rule alone. And I think that Reagan and Thatcher represented that faction of the bourgeoisie, which [incompr.] at first wasn’t necessarily the majority of it, but quickly became a majority when the other parts of the capitalist class saw that actually this was quite a success. You know, they said, oh, no, no, no, you can’t do that, you can’t just crush the trade union. Then they discovered that Thatcher and Reagan were successful.
And there is a parallel there that we discussed before, Paul, that Reagan broke the unions in the United States [incompr.] in Britain. The air traffic controllers, that was a very strategic defeat for the U.S. working class [incompr.] the coal miners strike in 1984, ’85 was in Britain.
JAY: Now, this wasn’t just a triumph of the ideas of Margaret Thatcher and Reagan. Was it not more a reflection of a change in the balance of forces in the world? I mean, one, the idea that the Soviet Union was some socialist paradise as an alternative for the workers had more or less been discredited, that, you know, the Soviet Union was weakening economically, and most people didn’t see it as a paradise by this time. So the idea that there was a real alternative to capitalism didn’t seem possible. And maybe even more importantly, the development of globalization that it’s really around this time that industry can start to manufacture in different parts of the world with much cheaper laber and can say to workers in Europe and England and North America, you know, either you make concessions or we’re just going to move your jobs offshore. So is it that change in balance of forces that gets reflected in Thatcher and Reaganism?
WEEKS: I think it is. But I think that that in itself [incompr.] the popular struggle [incompr.] that, I regret to say, and I think that the trade union leadership in Britain and the United States became further and further alienated from their base. It had been that base which the threat of a restive, you know, great unwashed, which had brought about the progressive [incompr.] in both Britain and United States, much deeper in Britain than in the United States. And by the late 1960s and into the 1970s, that role of the trade union movement was beginning to weaken. And there had been [incompr.] cliche [incompr.] but they no longer had a strong link to the base. So it became easy to defeat them.
Once you weaken the trade union movement, then things like moving offshore, which couldn’t have really been–it wasn’t a technical question. It wasn’t something that happened in the world economy that made it technically easier to produce offshore. What made it easier was that the working class was not in a position in the United States and Britain to oppose it and was strong enough to oppose it, and that the laws began to change to facilitate it. I mean, it’s quite clear.
So I think you’re right. There were fundamental changes. But I would relate it more to what was going on in the popular struggle or lack thereof than changes in the nature of our capitalism.
JAY: But in Britain the unions were stronger, more workers were in unions, and the unions were, I think, more progressive on the whole. There were some progressive unions in the United States as well. But Thatcher took on a union movement and a working class that was more, you could say, conscious and more powerful, and she was rather successful, too.
WEEKS: Right. It’s true. I think it’s hard for somebody who is in the United States in the 1980s to imagine what was going on here. I happened to be here in–when the coal miners strike of 1984, 1985 was going on. It was class war. I mean, it was not a question of the working class leaders capitulating. There were [incompr.] there were people who didn’t support the miners. But it was straight class war. Thatcher sent out the army. When Roger Scargill, the head of the miners union, who I think had a fatally flawed strategy, but at any rate, when he decided that the key was to shut down all the mines, Thatcher used the army, not just the police. People were beaten up, people were arrested, and it was a war. And the bourgeoisie won the war.
And that was–up until ’85, for the most part, the British working class, British labor leadership could confront Thatcher and prevent the worst changes. After that, [incompr.] weaker, and they just became weaker and weaker and weaker. And then you [incompr.] a Labour government with Tony Blair which was about as venal as you could get–not as bad as Thatcher, but certainly in the same league. And now there is some small hope for recovery, but it’s been pretty–I mean, to give a statistic, as I recall, I think in 1985 that something like–of the private sector in Britain, something like 60, 65 percent were in trade unions. We’re now down to 20 percent.
JAY: And if you look at today’s economic crisis in Great Britain, financial mess, unemployment is high, and such, how much of this, the roots of all of this, are with Thatcher?
WEEKS: I think that after probably–if she were alive today like she was yesterday, though I think she’s been pretty senile for quite a while, she laid the basis for it. She never dreamed, probably, of going this far. But she went [incompr.] she pushed it as far as she could. She said some extraordinary things which had never–. Neil Kinnock, earlier today–Neil Kinnock was leader of the Labour Party during the 1980s, during most of the Thatcher years. He was interviewed [incompr.] what is Thatcher’s legacy. He said Thatcher’s legacy was: for the first time in the 20th century, under Margaret Thatcher, the poor became poorer.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, John.
WEEKS: Well, thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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