Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Lady Margaret Thatcher

Lady Margaret Thatcher, the first woman Prime Minister of the UK, and a Conservative one at that, has been the focus of Michael Portillo in his documentary Portillo On Thatcher: The Lady's Not For Spurning. A look at why and how Lady Thatcher was ousted out of office in November 1990. Portillo interviews people like Kenneth Clarke, William Hague, Michael Howard and Norman Lamont, who all gave an insight into how they perceived Lady Thatcher and the way she ran the party.

Personally I thought her ousting was one of both betrayal by those who should have been loyal to her as party leader, and of the perceived feeling that she was out of touch with, and had an arrogance of, the realities of the country, the Conservative Party and her role as Prime Minister. She had, as one interviewee said, "Lost the plot". They feared that she was liability and would lose them the next election.

As a trade unionist at the time of Lady Thatcher political leadership I remember the bitternest and anger she stirred up. But modernisation of the role of the Government and it's relation to unionism was a much needed thing. But not for the reasons some would give. For a comparison of thought see Margaret Thatcher: The Downing Street Years (Harper Collins Publishers 1993) and A Very British Miracle: The Failure of Thatcherism (Edgar Wilson, Pluto Press 1992)

The impression of over powering union officials swaying the votes of the more realist workers, forcing their Marxist manifesto's upon the unwitting workers, is not something I observed. Nor were the so called 'shop floor' revolutionists usurping their union, if not their political, masters. Unionism in the UK was held up by those who wanted to keep the status quo of the Labour Party equals unionism, and by those who had seen that with unionism the workforce would not have had the benefits of being given things such as breaks to have a cup of tea or coffee - time out if you like, holiday pay, sick pay, maternity leave, the right not be sacked on a whim of an employer and the enforcing of health and safety measures in the work place. The workforce had been seen in the past a fodder for the machines, a commodity to to used and abused as thought fit by the elite and the upper classes, as indifferent employers imposed without forethought, or care, long hours in dreadful and sometimes dangerous conditions upon their workers. We had sweatshops in Britain too you know.

But like all institutions there will be corrupted leaders, in it only for themselves, and the power, status and financial gains, that go with such officialdom. And of course such leaders would not be wanting any change to their status quo of power and privilege and joining in with all the political and social elite in the process. Especially if power was delegated, or relegated?, to the so called shop floor by giving those who did not turn out to union meetings - for whatever reason - the chance to participate in voting for a set issue, be it a pay vote or a call to strike vote. Lady Thatcher gave the non-active union member a way to be active without having to go anywhere and listen to a real debate or actively take part in a trade union meeting of importance. She also resolved to take away the trade unions legal privileges because of "the assumption that the powers of employers and unions were unequal, trade unionists were given special legal protection in their pursuit of members' collective interests" (ibid) they were exempt from being prosecuted for certain actions in pursuit of their interests. She was also determined to sever the unions ties with the Labour Party, believing that the majority of members did not wish to have their money go to Labour, by changes in the law so that members of unions had to contract in to the Labour Party rather than contract out.

Lady Thatcher was both a benefit to the average shop floor worker as well as a danger. The danger was two fold, firstly her inability to see beyond the media and mass hysteria of strikes, both during Labour and her own party whilst in government, therefore she was always going to be at odds with the majority of working class people. Secondly, her failure to see that trade unionism was ideally about workers being represented, so they can at least have a say in their working conditions and about what their wages consisted of, and not about a call to anarchy. As Edgar Wilson put it, "Trade unions had since 1871 been recognised as the legitimate means of workers promoting their collective interests especially with employers" (Edgar Wilson).

In regards to society her mishandling of the notorious Community Charge - Poll Tax - fiasco could and should have been avoided. The riots that took place by outraged citizens, were met with virulent police control. The Poll Tax was replaced by the Council Tax, but how much revenue was spent on this costly paper and bureaucratic exercise as confusion and confrontation abounded?

Lady Thatcher was a phenomenon and a leader who led. Her influence on Tony Blair, leader of what has come to be known as New Labour, was for all to see. He saw the way forward was to ensure he was surrounded by those who would follow, or who had little difficulty in towing a party line they did not agree with, for the sake of their leader. Loyalty and honesty lost out to collective individualism of "tow the party line". There is a difference between being loyal to a leader and being sheep and just following the leader. The political politician was replaced by party line managers. For the better or the worse of the country. As the next General Election approaches it will be interesting to see who has learnt their history. We need brave and innovative leaders, we need politicians who understand the role of politics and we also need managers to manage policies. But one without the other is a detriment to society. Long live Thatcher. Quite.

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