Shir Hever, Economist, Alternative Information Center: On April 8, Margaret Thatcher died of a stroke at the age of 87.
Thatcher was the first woman prime minister of Britain, and presided between the years 1979 and 1990. She was nicknamed ?the Iron Lady,? and held the title of baroness. The term ?Thatcherism? was coined with her name to describe a version of public policy.
Margaret Thatcher won the leadership of the Conservative Party in the U.K. in 1975 and assumed a hard-line right-wing approach, with which she won the 1979 elections and kept her position as prime minister for 11 years.
Thatcher’s rise to power signified a historic change which was paralleled in other parts of the world, for example, by Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the U.S. It signified an overt effort to scale down the benefits offered by the welfare state, using the argument that welfare discourages people from working hard to improve their lot. It was an effort to repress unions in the name of making the labor market more ?flexible,? and privatizing state assets in the belief that private corporations would be more efficient in managing these assets than the government.
Thatcher pushed for legislation to restrict unions, and passed employment acts and a trade union act in 1980, 1982, 1984, 1988, 1989, and 1990. This legislation weakened the bargaining power of unions, and unemployment has increased during her reign by more than half a million unemployed. Unemployment increased especially in Northern Ireland and in industrial areas of northern England and Scotland.
Thatcher pushed hard for large-scale privatization, a policy which she helped make commonplace and legitimate throughout the world. She promoted the privatization of British Aerospace and Cable & Wireless, Jaguar, British Telecom, Britoil, and British Gas. After 1987 she proceeded to privatize British Steel, British Petroleum, Rolls Royce, British Airways, and water and electricity utilities. The massive privatization has brought short-term revenue to the British treasury, but the long-term income that these companies have generated over the years reached the pockets of private-capital owners.
These policies had immediate and strong consequences for the British economy. The income levels of the richest 10 percent have increased rapidly, while the average income of the rest of the population remained stagnant.
During Thatcher’s reign, inequality has risen sharply. The number of children living in poverty has more than doubled.
Margaret Thatcher, UK Prime Minister: Now, once you compress the incentives from the top down and say, it doesn’t matter how much you earn, I’m going to take the lion’s share away from you, then they say, alright, I’m no longer going to do the lion’s part. And then they stop creating the extra wealth, which would both benefit them and benefit society as a whole.
Shever: These policies, which have become known as ?Thatcherism,? stem from the neoliberal ideology. When Thatcher said ?there is no such thing as society,? she demonstrated the extreme individualism promoted by the neoliberal economic school.This ideology enshrines liberty, and sees economic freedom (and the right to own property) as one of the most basic human rights.
But despite the seeming liberal morals of neoliberalism, Thatcher’s politics were very conservative. While cutting public expenditure on welfare, she increased military spending to arm the British army for the Cold War.
But these arms were not used against the Soviet Union, but rather against Argentina. When in 1982 Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, which Britain considered ?British dependent territory.? Britain retook these islands by military actions. Hundreds of soldiers have died (most of them Argentinian), and Argentina surrendered after 74 days of fighting.
The military victory earned Thatcher her nickname ?the Iron Lady? and boosted her popularity just when protest against her economic policies peaked, allowing her to win the 1983 elections and continue with her policies.
Thatcher opposed sanctions against South Africa during the days of apartheid. She referred to the African National Congress (ANC) as a ?typical terrorist organization? and said it was ?cloud cuckoo-land? to suggest that Nelson Mandela would ever rule the country.
She supported Israel, and was the first British prime minister to visit Israel, in 1986.
Thatcher: Of course the chairman or the president of the Commission, Mr. Delors, said at a press conference the other day that he wanted the European parliament to be the democratic body of the community, he wanted the Commission to be the executive, and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the senate. No, no, no.
Or perhaps the Labour Party would give all those things up easily. Perhaps they would agree to a single currency, to total abolition of the pound sterling. Perhaps being totally incompetent with monetary matters, they’d be only too delighted to hand over the full responsibility, as they did to the IMF, to a central bank.
Shever: Therefore, Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is not only one of right-wing economic policies in the name of individualism, but she was also one of those who forged the alliance between neoliberalism and neoconservatism, an emphasis on security, conservative values, and domination through force of arms, with an economic system that claims to be free but contributes to increasing social gaps.
Thatcher passed away this week, but the alliance of neoliberals and neoconservatives that she helped forge remains strong to this day, not only in the U.K., but throughout the capitalist world.
This is Shir Hever for the Real News.