Margaret Thatcher

by Phil Scraton*


For years I anticipated my emotions and reaction to the day of Margaret Thatcher’s death. I remember being in Liverpool’s Royal Court at an Elvis Costello gig, knocked out by his Tramp the Dirt Down…, but this was at the height of the ferocious ideological and political activation of the “New Right” agenda: the relentless “clampdown” on welfare; the destruction of trade unionism; the gerrymandering of boundaries; the war crime that was the sinking of theBelgrano; the war on the poor; the privatization of social housing; the determination to use the police to put down the uprisings of those in our inner cities, particularly the criminalization of our Black communities fighting institutionalized racism; the engineered confrontation against the miners as a lesson to strong unions and the exploitation of apartheid’s coal to undermine the true price of working the seams; the callous shedding of responsibility for the deaths of 10 Republican prisoners in the H Blocks; the poll tax; the acceptance of the deceit that was Hillsborough; the courting of Rupert Murdoch, Ronald Reagan, and Chile’s Pinochet in equal measure; the attempted destruction of the National Health Service and public broadcasting; the reaffirmation of a class-based, tiered system of education; and the anti-gay section/clause 28 of 1988.

In an essay in the edited collection entitled Law, Order and the Authoritarian State, I discussed the transformation of reactionary “law ‘n’ order rhetoric” into regulatory reality, noting that the “many right-wing voluntary pressure groups and advisory organizations set up in the mid-1970s as the political and intellectual backbone of the New Right had found a champion in Margaret Thatcher.” In its emergence and consolidation, Thatcherism was the outcome of a longer-term political, economic, and ideological project derived in the bitter memory of the 1974 defeat of the Heath Government. As Stuart Hall eloquently argued in his 1980 pamphlet, Drifting into a Law and Order Society, it progressed a “deep and decisive movement towards a more disciplinary authoritarian kind of society.” “Authoritarian populism,” reflected a “regression towards stone-age morality,” initiating and sustaining a “blind spasm of control.”

In November 1984, at the height of the coal dispute, Thatcher set her sights on the “enemies within” with missionary zeal, locating the targets to be eliminated on a spectrum ranging from “the terrorist gangs within our borders and the terrorist states which arm them” to “the hard Left, operating inside our system, conspiring to use union power and the apparatus of local government to break, defy, and subvert the laws.” The “mantle,” she railed, had “fallen” to her party “to conserve the very principle of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law itself.” This unrelenting program reversed the great postwar socioeconomic advances and caused irreversible damage to the fabric of social democracy, at so many levels.

So, what were my reactions upon hearing that Thatcher had died? Joy? Satisfaction? No. Celebrating her death demeans us as the flip side of celebrating her life. This is precisely the polarization she sought to achieve, one that succeeded in mobilizing support for her neoconservatism, the free-market dogma of Hayek. It succeeded in gaining middle- and working-class support for policies across the board that reinforced the privilege of a two-thirds society — marginal inclusivity through marginalizing the claimant, the migrant, the foreign national, the “single mother,” the “terrorist,” the trade unionist, the feminist, the antiracist. In naming and targeting the “enemies within,” she set “us,” the insiders, against “them,” the outsiders.

Thatcher, however, did not achieve her objectives, and over-personalizing Thatcherism grants all involved — in her governments, the state, its institutions, in private corporations (including the banks), in the media, in local politics, in divided communities, all who supported and reproduced the political, economic, and ideological programs associated with New Right dogma, and what came after, including New Labour — a form of amnesty for their complicity and their personal advantage.

Having observed the slow, personal suffering of this aged woman, her diminishing mind and frail body, I neither want to accommodate the vengefulness she sowed, nor give her followers the opportunity to point judgmental fingers as I tramp the dirt down and dance on her grave. Nothing would have given her and her ideologues greater pleasure. While detesting her legacy with an anger that will burn in me forever, as a “moment” in time I am indifferent to her passing. Yes, the painful memories have been revitalized, not by her death, but by the spiteful agenda of a government of class privilege whose neoconservative objectives are taking Thatcherism’s legacy to a new level. We must address the present.

* Phil Scraton is professor, Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice, School of Law, Queen’s University, Belfast, Ireland (email:

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