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Margaret Thatcher Dies – celebrate, agitate, organise!

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Any expressions of sorrow for the death of Margaret Thatcher, or praise for her qualities or achievements from any representative of the workers’ movement, are a sure sign of past or future betrayals. Doubtless her self-admitted disciple, Tony Blair, will fawn over her memory. After all, he shamelessly flattered her in life, praised her anti-union laws as the most draconian in Europe and preserved them intact.

He cleansed his own party of the last vestiges of the “socialism” she so detested, with a brutality modelled on hers. He even outdid her Falklands exploits in Serbia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Our model, by contrast, should be the unrelenting hostility of the South Wales mining communities for that other Tory icon, and Thatcher’s own model, Winston Churchill. Because of the troops he sent to the pitheads in Tonypandy to strikebreak in 1911, they would not praise him either in the Second World War or when he was buried in 1965. That is the true intransigent spirit of the working class. We know who our enemies are; we accord them no chivalrous courtesies, just as they accord none to us.

1970s: already an enemy of the people

Thatcher was a bitter and unrelenting foe who did all the harm she was capable of to working class people and their communities. Margaret Roberts, the grocer’s daughter from Grantham who graduated from Oxford and married a millionaire, combined the narrow-minded class hatred, characteristic of the petty bourgeoisie, with the resolute pursuit of the new strategy adopted by the millionaire class she married into, aptly named Monetarism.

After the humiliations that the bosses and the Tories were forced to endure in the 1970s at the hands of militant trade unionists, especially the miners, a faction coalesced around Thatcher and her creepy intellectual mentor, Sir Keith Joseph. Certainly, they were bent on revenge but, even more importantly,they were determined to drive up the dangerously fallen rate of exploitation and profits, sucked from Britain’s workers.

They also wanted to overthrow the workers' post-war gains in terms of social reforms. Thatcher saw the spectre of socialism in council housing, nationalised industries, British Rail and the welfare state. She famously said: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”

It was the greatest misfortune that, after 1975, the militant shop stewards' movement and the 12-13 million strong union movement had at their head not a seasoned class warrior like Thatcher, but the most softheaded, craven leaders you could imagine. They let the ruling class off the hook, and disarmed and demobilised the workers’ movement. Alas, the so-called far left let them get away with it by not doing all they could to build a powerful rank and file movement, or anything approaching a revolutionary party, able to offer an alternative leadership at the critical moments of betrayal by the union leaders and the Labour Party front bench.

Slump politician

The Tories’ new class war strategy, carefully prepared in opposition between 1975 and 1979, set as its objectives the breaking of the strength of the trade unions by a deliberately induced sharp deflation and an increase in indirect taxation which, together, created mass unemployment. Faced with the terrible social consequences of her policy, she positively exulted; her one-line reply to all critics was: “The Lady’s not for turning!” After all, this was exactly what she wanted. She was, like Osborne today, a slump politician.

At the same time, she introduced, year-on-year, an incremental series of anti-trade union laws, which stripped away the legal immunities that do poor duty for positive rights in Britain. Unemployment, fines and prosecutions weakened and divided the unions, whose general secretaries had no stomach for a fight, and who actively wished to weaken and break up rank and file organisation, which had caused them sleepless nights in the 1970s.

The Thatcher cabinet set about engineering the closure or dramatic downsizing of entire staple industries, especially those in the public sector or with a record of militancy; the steel mills, the car plants, the mines, the printing industry and the docks. Workers fought back in long and bitter strikes. The deprived youth of Britain’s inner cities; St Paul’s, Toxteth, Brixton, rose up in 1981 and again in 1985. Black youth, victims of racist police harassment under the SUS laws (stop and search), were particularly to the fore in the fight back. But yet more repression was the answer to the misery her policies created, and the police were pampered and paid more and more for the job.

Margaret Thatcher was equally as reactionary in her foreign policy as on the domestic front. When Ronald Reagan was elected US President, she ardently supported him in launching the Second Cold War and welcomed US cruise missiles to Britain, leading to the Greenham Common protests. She defended Apartheid in South Africa as long as she could; calling Nelson Mandela a “communist terrorist”. But she would qualify for a high place  amongst war criminals on account of her atrocities in Ireland and in the South Atlantic alone.

The Irish War

Thatcher inherited the Irish war from her Tory and Labour predecessors and with it the large number of Republican detainees in the British concentration camps in the North, the infamous H-Blocks. The 1970-74 government had accorded those originally detained without trial “special category” status; effectively recognising them as political prisoners. In 1976, the Labour government, to its everlasting shame, withdrew this concession and imposed prison uniforms. Republican prisoners went on “blanket protests”, that is, they refused to wear the uniforms meant to proclaim them as common criminals. In 1978, this turned into a refusal to “slop out” their cells, the so-called “dirty protest”.

After Thatcher was elected, the first hunger strike took place from October to December 1980 when, with one hunger striker on the verge of death, she appeared to concede their demands. But, no sooner was the strike called off, than she perfidiously withdrew the concessions. The second hunger strike began in 1981 and, in this, despite huge protests in the North, the Irish Republic and in Britain, too, 10 Irish Republican prisoners were allowed to fast to death. During the strike, their leading figure, Bobby Sands, stated: “I am a political prisoner, a freedom fighter. I have been stripped of my clothes and locked in a dirty empty cell where I have been starved, beaten and tortured … but I have the spirit of freedom that cannot be quenched.”

From his prison cell, on 9 April, 1981, he was elected to the British House of Commons with 30,492 votes to the Unionist candidate’s 29,046. Bobby Sands MP died on 5 May on the sixty-sixth day of his hunger strike. Margaret Thatcher showed not the slightest remorse, telling the House of Commons that, “Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life.” Over 100,000 people lined the route of his funeral. Bobby Sands, and all the other hunger strikers, indeed all the victims of British imperialism, will live forever in the history of the Irish freedom struggle. Thatcher’s deeds in Ireland will forever head the list of her infamies.

Malvinas war

When Argentina occupied the Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas) in April 1982, Thatcher’s government was already massively behind in the opinion polls and an election was due the next year. Had Labour opposed the idea of sending a task force 8,000 miles to recover a tiny piece of territory with just over 2,000 inhabitants only 350 miles from Argentina, it is likely there would have been no war. Thatcher’s humiliation in front of her own right wing electoral base would have further undermined her.

Instead, Labour, under the leadership of the hapless Michael Foot, a traditional Bevanite left and a veteran of the CND Aldermarston marches, but nevertheless a fierce patriot, thought it was a good idea to taunt Thatcher in parliament with having lost the Queen’s territory and surrendered 2,000 of her subjects to the “fascist Junta”. This goaded “the Iron Lady” into a farcical, if bloody, imitation of Churchill and the “war against fascism”.

The British victory helped her win a landslide victory in 1983 (she increased her majority by 100 MPs) and left her ready to take on the miners, famously saying: “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.”

And nobody will forget her demand that people “Rejoice! Rejoice!” over the sinking of the Argentine cruiser, the General Belgrano, in international waters, when it was outside the illegally imposed “exclusion zone” and, in fact, steaming away from it; an atrocity in which 323 sailors lost their lives.

The Great Miners’ Strike

The most historic act of resistance to Thatcher, and the one that presented the greatest opportunity to bring her down, was the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. A dock strike in the summer of ’84 looked as if it might cut off coal supplies from abroad and trigger a general strike. Thatcher, according to her cabinet colleagues, wept (tears of rage and despair, doubtless) at the thought of having to surrender. But the TGWU (predecessor to Unite) officials saved her bacon by accepting a short-term concession on their dispute. They acted like the hidebound trade union officials they were, not like the tribunes of the working class they could, and should, have been.

The miners, like all the other sections who resisted Thatcher, were isolated from any industrial solidarity action. All evoked massive sympathy, all were supported by collections and delegations to the battles on the picket lines, and all suffered defeat. After these defeats, the whole trade union movement suffered a loss of numbers (halved) and a loss of strength. In addition, it wore the shackles of the anti-union laws it wears today.

No wonder Thatcher is receiving the fulsome praises from the entire class of parasites and exploiters and their media flunkeys. But she deserves nothing except curses from the devastated mining villages and former industrial centres that she laid waste to.

Still, the working class did score one important victory over her and one that drove her, but unfortunately not the Tories, from power. The Poll Tax was her act of overweening pride. The mass anti-poll tax movement was her nemesis. Everyone alive then will remember with pleasure her tearful departure from Downing Street. Would that all her poisonous legacy had been loaded into the removal vans, too.

Thatcher’s legacy and our tasks

Thatcher’s legacy is still with us in the form of the anti-union laws that still cramp and restrain the class-wide solidarity action we need to win. The unions remain reduced in numbers and in shop floor strength. The merger mania by the general secretaries is no replacement for that.

Unfortunately, her heritage still inspires those attacking us. Cameron and Osborne are attempting to complete the job she left unfinished; destroying the National Health Service, the public education system, and the welfare state. Fighting them is fighting everything she stood for.

But the year of her death could be a year of rebirth for a fighting labour movement. That would be the best testimonial and tribute to those who fell in the battle against her and her like.

So, it is great, and right, to “dance on her grave”. But the job will not be finished till we have put Cameron and Osborne in there alongside her. What a dance that will be.