Such is the desire of our political establishment to fully rehabilitate the reputation and legacy of the late Baroness Thatcher that nothing it seems is safe from the journalistic revisionist's currently employed by Britain's right-wing press, most especially those at the Mail, Express, Telegraph and Times. Only months after we were told that without our membership of the EU, the United Kingdom would be nothing more than an isolated, inconsequential backwater on the periphery of mainland Europe, suddenly we're being asked to believe that the former Tory Prime Minister, dubbed the "Iron Lady", had somehow made our country "Great" again, after almost single-handedly rescuing the nation from its inevitable post war, post imperial decline.
As part of her restoration of Great Britain and its downtrodden peoples, the modern Tory press would have us believe that not only did their dead heroine restore British pride and prestige from the gutter of international opinion, but also rescued the UK population from the scourge of unionised labour, who she colourfully referred to as the "enemy within". Such highly divisive language, setting class against class, worker against worker, was of course typical of the sort of authoritarian, libertarian capitalism that Margaret Thatcher believed in and was determined to see employed in Britain, which over time and through her political heirs she has succeeded in doing. Yes, she was aged and frail when she passed away, Yes, her intelligence was much dimmed by the ravages of dementia; and she had been more or less abandoned by those who should have been closest to her, her son and daughter. We all know that she was a notably strident and highly divisive figure who came to dominate British politics during the 1980's, being the lady "who wasn't for turning"; and a person who preferred to rule by dictate, rather than through consensus, but that hardly excuses the near deification of Baroness Thatcher, which seems to be the objective at present.
How sickening it is to see the great and the good of the British establishment recalling their fond memories of Thatcher, when many of these same people were either instrumental in her downfall, or wouldn't have given her the time of day when she was alive. The levels of sheer hypocrisy, insincerity and pretence that have surrounded the "Iron Lady" and her political legacy is not only utterly and shamelessly appalling, but largely untrue. She has been credited with saving our country from the worst excesses of trade unionism, protecting western Europe from the military threat of the Soviet Bloc, credited with improving the lives and the lot of the average British citizen, with creating the basis of a stakeholder economy, where those who strive or aspire to succeed can do so. Thatcher has been credited with rebuilding a broken Britain, creating a country that could once again hold its head up high on the international scene, a country that could begin to compete with its international competitors; and as they're fond of saying today, creating a Britain that was "open for business".
Unfortunately, in order to create Thatcher's new and reinvigorated Britain, there was a huge price to pay, with massive changes being wrought to the cultural, social and economic structures of the country, much of which continue to blight our country through to the present day. Although Thatcher and her policies may well have rescued us from being the "sick man of Europe", there is little doubt that her legacy has been to turn our nation into one of the greediest, selfish, most divided, intolerant and unhappiest countries in the world, which is hardly a political legacy to celebrate, let alone one to revere.
The Ridley Plan:
Right from the outset of her Premiership, Thatcher was determined not to suffer a similar fate to that of her political predecessors, by being brought down by the British Trade Unions, especially those that controlled the country's vital industries, such as transport, gas, electric, coal, rail and the docks, etc. It was reportedly Edward Heath who had ordered contingency plans to be drawn up to counter strike actions by the trade's unions, leading to the Ridley Plan, which Heath himself was reluctant to implement, but that Thatcher later enacted prior to her confrontation with the National Union of Mineworkers.
Fundamentally, the Ridley Plan could have been used to confront and defeat any of Britain's large trade unions, although it was primarily used during the bitter Miners Strike that took place between 1984 and 1985, largely because that was a time of the Thatcher government's choosing. By choosing the field of battle and identifying which unions were most likely to call a strike, the government could then develop strategies to deal with and offset the worst effects of any such industrial dispute. Using the maxim of "forewarned is forearmed", by anticipating the likely actions of the various union leadership's, Thatcher and her ministers were able to put possible solutions in place well before a single day had been lost through strike action.
As Britain's mineworkers had proved to be the most pivotal strikers in earlier disputes, by causing fuel shortages throughout other essential industries, much of the Ridley Plan was thought to have focused on confronting and defeating this particular group of workers. As a result, Ridley suggested that Britain's coal stocks were secretly built up by all of the country's generating plants; and that plans were put in place to import foreign coal to supplement the nation's supplies. As part of this strategy, these supplies would be brought in through non-unionised ports; and non-affiliated haulage companies were approached to arrange for these coal stocks to be carried around the country, thereby preventing these supplies from being affected by secondary union action. Also, in order to reduce the nation's reliance on coal alone, the plan called for Britain's generating companies to invest in new gas, or oil generators, so that the country's electricity supplies were less dependent on coal, thereby reducing the power and influence of workers within the coalmining industry. Determined that every means should be used to discourage strike action, by any union, the Ridley Plan also called for strikers to be penalised through the benefit system, ensuring that no public money should be used to sustain a strike; and forcing the trade unions to use their own funds to support the striking workers and their families. Finally, the Ridley Plan called for the foundation and the equipping of mobile police taskforces, who would be used specifically to tackle the problem of "flying pickets", the groups of striking workers who travelled from area to area, to either support fellow strikers, or sometimes to intimidate non-striking workers, both of which outcomes were known to have happened during various industrial disputes throughout the 1970's and 1980's. A later addition to the Ridley Plan was the introduction of government legislation that not only forced unions to hold postal ballots before any strike took place, but also allowed the courts to sequester a union's funds, in the event that they contravened these new labour regulations. It was thought to be this, more than anything that essentially emasculated Britain's Trade Union movement more than anything else, to the extent that the UK's trade union bodies are now generally irrelevant to most British citizens, other than to the Parliamentary Labour Party that they continue to fund.
Of course it has been argued by many of Thatcher's supporters that she rescued the country from the evils of trade unionism, which had helped to make Britain the sick man of Europe; and that defeating the un-elected barons of the TUC was only ever done for the benefit of the nation. In reality however, the primary reason for her drive to defeat the Trade Unions was her own government's wish to survive the sorts of strikes and disputes that had either paralysed, or brought down the administrations of her predecessors. With the unions intact, it seems highly unlikely that many of her later policies, including the widespread de-industrialisation and privatisation of British industry could have taken place, whereas with the larger trade unions destroyed, or legally neutered, there was little to prevent the large-scale sell-off of the country's industrial base. The resulting 3 million unemployed that was the inevitable outcome of her policies; and the wholesale decimation of individual villages, towns and cities that had previously relied on these industries and businesses, were a price worth paying, just to see an end to the spectre of unionised labour that had cast such a shadow over most of the post war governments in Britain.
It's worth recalling that within days of coming to power the Thatcher government announced its plans to sell off the nation's shareholding in most of the nationalised industries, starting with British Petroleum. In November 1979, British Leyland announced plans to restructure its operations, which would lead to the loss of 25,000 jobs over the coming years, whilst in February 1980, some 11,000 steelworkers posts were lost in South Wales, as many of the nationalised industries were downsized and restructured in readiness for their eventual sell-off to the private sector, or in some cases in preparation for their closure. Around a year after the Conservatives came into office, British Aerospace was privatised and by August 1980, the unemployment figure had reached 2 million, as tens of thousands of workers were shed, either by the government directly, or by the newly appointed "hatchet men" appointed to bring those industries back to some sort of profitability.
In May 1981 the Talbot car plant at Linwood in Scotland was closed and the UK's unemployment figure was reported to have reached 2.68 million. In October 1981, 3 British Leyland factories were closed, leading to the loss of a further 3,000 jobs, whilst by the start of 1982 unemployment in the UK had reached the 3 million mark. Significantly, although Thatcher's popularity waned, fortunately for her she was rescued by the outbreak of the Falklands conflict, ultimately a small war that she herself was thought to have precipitated by seeming to withdraw Britain's military protection from those faraway islands. By September 1982, some 14% of the total working population was reported to have been unemployed, but in the following month the way in which these figures were collated was altered by the Thatcher government, even though this did little to hide the scale of the problem.
By November 1982, some 400,000 people had taken advantage of the "Right to Buy" legislation introduced by her government, but her refusal to allow the revenues from such sales to be reinvested back into new social housing, undoubtedly helped cause part of the housing shortage that the entire country continues to struggle against. In December 1982, it was announced that some 1200 jobs were being lost at the Round Oak Steelworks, just a fraction of the 1.5 millions jobs that had been lost since the Thatcher government first came into office. Worse still, by February the national unemployment figures was said to have reached 3.2 million; and in the following month all cleaning, catering and laundry services within the NHS were put out to tender, resulting in a fall in the workforce, a reduction in wages and working conditions, as well as the obvious decline in standards of cleanliness in a large number of hospitals, which became something of a national scandal.
The Miner's Strike:
By the beginning of 1984 and having ensured that all elements of the previously mentioned Ridley Plan had been put in place, the government announced plans to either close or privatise all of the remaining 174 coalmines within the UK, resulting in the NUM calling for and beginning a year long strike. Although some of the right-wing media would have us believe that virtually all mineworkers came out on strike, this in fact is untrue, as some regions opposed industrial action, were keen to minimise disruption; and hoped to keep their pits open in the long-term, although this ultimately turned out to be a forlorn hope. By June 1984 the UK's unemployment figure had reached 3.26 million, although by November 1984 almost half of the striking miners had returned to work, many of them forced back by sheer poverty, after the Thatcher Government introduced new legislation to cut a striker's family benefit by half.
While the remaining striking miners were confronted by rank upon rank of mounted police; and mobile taskforces from outside the coalmining regions, elsewhere, in December 1984, both British Telecom and the Trustees Saving Bank were privatised, helping to off-set the escalating costs of paying for the growing ranks of the unemployed and the thousands of police officers who were earning a small fortune from protecting those coalmines still in production. By the beginning of February 1985 and with their resistance broken, virtually all of the remaining coalminers returned to work, having achieved none of the concessions that they had demanded from the Thatcher government; and that left a lasting legacy of bitterness between them and the police and other working miners that continues to exist through to the modern day, having easily passed from one generation of a family to another. Never in the history of modern Britain have the actions and policies of a serving Prime Minister so divided individual communities, let alone the country at large; and yet for some deluded supporters of Margaret Thatcher, it is precisely this divisiveness that they consider marks her out as a "great" leader and therefore deserving of a ceremonial cum state funeral?
At the beginning of 1984, when the miners strike began, there were 174 working pits in Britain, many of which were thought to have been perfectly viable, but expensive to operate. With an excess of cheap imported coal available, along with the introduction of both oil and gas generation, just the actual availability of coal below ground was not sufficient justification to maintain a working coal industry within the mainland UK. In 1985, the year the bitter strike came to its almost inevitable conclusion, some 25 of the remaining 174 pits were closed and between the end of 1985 and 1992, an additional 97 coalmines were closed or mothballed, with virtually all of the remainder closed in the years since. The economic thinking of the Thatcher years, which paid scant attention to the social costs that such pit closures would cause to each of the affected communities, ensured that the devastation wrought in these regions was simply ignored, or off-set by wasting billions of pounds of oil money, rather than using these same funds to create new modern industries that might usefully employ many of these former miners. Instead of work, most of these regions were simply offered platitudes, boredom, waste and the prospect of their once proud communities becoming run down, drug affected backwaters, which would slowly empty of people, as the desperate and the aspiring would "get on their bikes" to look for something better elsewhere. But perhaps more importantly for all of our main political parties, never again would any national government, of any persuasion, have to take any serious heed of unionised labour, to the extent that they had between 1945 and 1985. From the Thatcher government's point of view, not only had the "enemy within" been well and truly crushed, but the days of Britain being the "sick man" of Europe were truly over and the traditional working class would never be the same again.
Even though Margaret Thatcher's revolution didn't bring a complete end to trade unionism, as she may have hoped, with large-scale industrial manufacturing now generally extinct in the UK; and those union's that continue to exist so fettered by legislation, the likelihood of their widespread return is remote. As full-time manufacturing work has now largely been supplanted by part-time retail posts; and most worker's rights generally protected by statute, neither the need, the circumstances, or the facilities seem to exist for any such powerful representative body. Although large groups such as local government workers, teachers and railwaymen still cling to the idea of individual strength through numbers, these are very much the exception, rather than the norm, with most employees nowadays being un-represented in the workplace and therefore susceptible to exploitation or discrimination. Apart from their funding of the Parliamentary Labour Party, which for the most part appears to be entirely symbolic, the days of the Trade Union Movement's active participation in the political life of the country now seems to be firmly over, save for being involved in the election of the Labour Party leader, which seems to count for little in everyday terms.
Apologists for and supporters of Thatcher, much as they do today, point to the fact that the 2 million manufacturing jobs thought to have been lost under her regime were subsequently replaced by service sector jobs, forgetting to mention of course that many of these posts were part-time, low paid jobs, assuming that they existed in the first place; and weren't just training schemes designed to deliberately fudge the figures. Escalating benefit costs caused by high levels of unemployment and part-time, low-paid working were relatively easy to absorb, when one bears in mind that billions of pounds were coming in the Exchequer from the privatisation of the previously nationalised industries, the sale of council housing and from the vast revenues being generated by the oil and gas bonanza's from the North Sea. Rather than these monies being invested in Britain's schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, housing and jobs, instead they were used to invest in unemployment and wasteful job schemes, helping to make the rich even richer, by not only providing them with a cheap workforce, at a direct cost to the British taxpayer, but also by lowering the wealthiest citizens tax liabilities, whilst the poorest in the country continued to suffer.
(CONTINUED) Thatcher's Sick Man To Cameron's Laughing Stock II