Union Jack: Thatcher’s oppressive legacy

April 11, 2013

In a press release as revolting as it is revealing, the White House rendered a two-paragraph homage to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on Monday, noting that “the world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty.” The Iron Lady, who fought against sanctions for apartheid South Africa, once called Nelson Mandela a terrorist, and palled around with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, was of course no such thing.

In the U.K., her policies of privatization and austerity bludgeoned the nation’s social safety net, brought the once-mighty labor movement to its knees, and ushered in the long and painful erosion of British social democracy that continues to this day.

In case the obvious whitewashing of Thatcher’s foreign policy record wasn’t enough, the White House press release took the additional step of celebrating her legacy in the same breath as former President Ronald Reagan: “Here in America, many of us will never forget her standing shoulder to shoulder with President Reagan, reminding the world that we are not simply carried along by the currents of history—we can shape them with moral conviction, unyielding courage, and iron will.”

At this point, the administration’s general hostility toward expanding the social safety net is no secret. But its starry-eyed paean to the Baroness underlines just how dramatically the American political environment has shifted to the right. That a president from the Democratic Party could so uncritically praise Reagan and Thatcher would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. In fact, Monday’s reaction from the White House stands as the ultimate testament to the long-lasting legacy of Thatcher’s famous dictum in defense of neoliberalism: “There is no alternative.”

Like Thatcher’s, Reagan’s policies aimed to tear apart his country’s social programs, neutralize organized labor, and radically shift the political consensus on the role of government in the economy. Although he famously won over some conservative elements of the Democratic Party, the party still offered a pretty damning condemnation of the outgoing president at its 1988 Convention.

The Democratic Party platform that year noted, “There is no good reason why the nation we love, the greatest and richest nation on earth, should rank first among the industrialized nations in output per person but nearly last in infant mortality, first in the percentage of total expenditures devoted to defense but nearly last in the percentage devoted to education and housing.”

Today, those kinds of views are effectively confined to a minority of Democratic legislators in Congress. By contrast, the Obama administration’s 2014 budget proposal provides ample evidence that it has taken Thatcher and Reagan’s economic vision to heart

The President’s budget includes $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years, including cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits. To be sure, Obama’s tone is typically less triumphalist than Thatcher’s or Reagan’s—he insists on the need to make “tough choices” and “not spend beyond our means” while extolling the virtue of compromise—but it conveys the same essential message: social programs and (non-military) government spending are unsustainable, irresponsible, and a far less effective way of allocating goods and services than the free market.

The implication, whether spoken or not, is that the ever-evaporating wing of the Democratic Party that remains committed to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other vaguely redistributive policies needs to wake up to the political and economic reality.

Thatcher’s passing predictably elicited cheers from some of those Britons most damaged by her policies. There were reports of small celebrations in places like Glasgow or Brixton, a working class area of London devastated by Thatcherism and marked by two major riots in the 1980s. And her state-funded funeral (a travesty in itself) is certain to bring out thousands of protesters.

But even her fiercest opponents have to concede the fact that she was terribly effective. How else is one to make sense of such backlash against someone who hasn’t been in office for over 20 years?


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