Thatcher’s Long Shadow and Red White and Blue Labour
The shadow of Thatcher still casts itself over British society and over Scotland and England in different ways, as the response to Starmer’s comments praising her has showed. Thirty-three years after she left Downing Street in tears she is still evoked and weaponised – as Zoe Williams put it: “Starmer was just doing what Gordon Brown did in 2007, when he invited Thatcher into Downing Street … using Thatcher emblematically to project to the commentariat just how non-scary and non-socialist he intended to be.”
But that’s not how it was perceived north of the Border where she remains a source of sustained hatred, a powerful talisman evoking the worst of her era. Hatred of Thatcher, and Thatcherism is not exclusive to Scotland. I remember Yorkshire Miners visiting Edinburgh to lend support to their comrades at Bilston Glen in 1984. They will not have forgotten her. Nor will those portrayed on Boys from the Blackstuff (1982) or I, Daniel Blake (2016) – the dramatic portrayal of her most lasting legacy: mass unemployment and a punitive ‘welfare’ system. But the response to Starmer’s comments tell us much about politics north and south of the border today.
Keir Starmer praised Margaret Thatcher for effecting “meaningful change” in Britain in an article directly appealing to Conservative voters to switch to Labour. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, the Labour leader said Thatcher had “set loose our natural entrepreneurialism” during her time as prime minister. He said:
“Across Britain, there are people who feel disillusioned, frustrated, angry, worried. Many of them have always voted Conservative but feel that their party has left them,” he said. “I understand that. I saw that with my own party and acted to fix it. But I also understand that many will still be uncertain about Labour. I ask them to take a look at us again.”
It’s a plaintive plea, but why? Labour has had a 20% poll lead for months now and has been way ahead for the past year. These are not voters he needs these are voters he wants. As John McTernan (of all people) has said: “Labour party’s relentless pursuit of Tory switchers is in danger of backfiring badly. Keir Starmer’s praise of Margaret Thatcher in the Sunday Telegraph is a double danger – it wins over no wavering voters but risks losing the goodwill of a wide range of his supporters, old and new.”
But if Starmer is alienating even people like McTernan within his own party, he is putting his party in Scotland in severe jeopardy. Anas Sarwar was surprised to be confronted on this, here by a journalist from The National – where he seems to pivot and deflect on the issue – trying to make out that the problem was with Alex Salmond (?) – or with The National. The truth is that Starmer’s rightward drift is a problem for Labour in Scotland, as recent polls show (though others are less favourable to the SNP). More on this here.
It may be that Starmer is making an even stranger calculation that will put further stress on the relationship with the party in Scotland. At the New Statesman, Ben Walker asks: who is leading in Scotland? He writes: “Recent polls suggest results could be more mixed for Labour. One Ipsos poll on House of Commons voting intention gave the SNP a lead of ten points, while a Redfield and Wilton survey put them two behind. Both reinforced the ambiguity over who’s leading in Scotland.”
He continues: “In Scotland, as in England, tactical voting is likely to play a key role at the next election: traditional Scottish Conservative supporters may lend their support to Scottish Labour – now confirmed as the SNP’s biggest rival – with fewer Labour voters moving in the opposite direction in Tory-SNP contests.”
“One of the joys of Scottish local elections is that they operate according to a preferential voting system, allowing us to see how many Scottish Tory voters have been willing to give Labour their second-preference vote. Analysis of recent by-elections shows this applies to as many as 20-30 per cent of Conservative supporters (with 10-20 per cent of Labour voters second-preferencing the Tories).”
“For logged-on activists in England, Labour voters willingly going Tory and vice versa may seem baffling. But in Scotland, proportional voting systems and divisions over independence have promoted “unionist fluidity”. Since Labour’s poll ratings make it the SNP’s strongest opponent in a majority of seats, enough Tory voters may back Starmer’s party to hand it overall victory.”
This is a dangerous gamble. It depends on a calculation that enticing Tory voters to vote tactically for Labour in Scotland can be balanced with the problem of the party moving so far to the right that it alienates Labour voters, who will either be put off voting at all, or will support the SNP. Perhaps, with the wind behind him, he has made this calculation? As we know, despite the recurrent lie, he doesn’t really need Scotland to win. Tory voters in Scotland know that voting Conservative is a wasted vote, and having worked so closely with Scottish labour for so long, it is not the massive event it might once have been to vote Labour. Added to this, the motivation is to defeat the hated-SNP, and the easiest way to do that is to vote Labour.
Equally, if you are a Scottish Labour voter dismayed at Starmer’s right-turn, his position on the war on Gaza, or his dog-whistle politics, never mind his praising of Thatcher, you may be able to turn a blind-eye with the motivation of ‘getting rid of the Tories’ and giving the SNP a kicking, But it’s not a certainty. Ben Walker states that “Redfield and Wilton records Labour attracting 21 per cent of the Tories’ base”. The question is – is a political campaign based on Tory votes going to appeal to the wider Labour voter? Can this hold? How much have Labour and Conservatives aligned in Scotland?
Almost daily we see Labour abandon previous pledges, commitments and ideals. Politicos say this is clever, tactical and reassuring, the rest of us wonder out loud what the point of such a denuded and hollowed-out Labour government will be. This week Starmer abandoned the ten pledges he made when he was elected. These have now been removed from his website:
It would be wrong however to see Starmer’s government-in-waiting as purely a tactical act, an opportunistic void. They have real politics. As I explain here they aim to be ‘economically radical and fiscally conservative’ – ‘stop patronising socially conservative voters’ – and address ‘legitimate concerns’ on crime and immigration. Their aim is “a new politics grounded in providing ‘security’, in the form of secure work, safe streets, and a strong nation.”
With that language and with the praise of Thatcher and his careful cultivation of the Tory vote it’s impossible to shake-off the ‘Red Tory’ allegation, or rather they are Red White and Blue Labour.
The question remains can Labour run the same campaign north of the border and win? Many people are appalled not just at the general state of abandonment of progressive social policy – but at the Labour leaderships disgraceful position on the attacks on Palestine. For many people this is akin to Blair’s actions on Iraq.
A Culture of Violence
So, what was Thatcherism and why is she still reviled? What of Starmer’s claim that she “set loose our natural entrepreneurialism” during her time as prime minister?
One of the many lasting legacies she has left, in my opinion, and one of the reasons it’s astonishing to praise her, is a culture of violence. The very first thing she did was raise the pay of the police, a force she knew she’d have to rely on to push through her political programme. She brutalised the miners and their families, she oversaw a country rocked by race riots, she took Britain to a bloody war in the Falklands, she actively supported the apartheid regime, she violently repressed the travelling community, but more than this she instituted the financial violence, the social violence of mass unemployment.
Of course above this are her economic policies, many of which endure and have become orthodoxy despite historic failure: mass and unquestioning privatisation, suppression of trade unions and human rights abuses, and the cultivation of the cult of the individual. The idea that you can cherry-pick from this desolation and keep your eye on ‘entrepreneurialism’ is absurd.
As David Clarke, former advisor to the late Robin Cook put it: “The most troubling thing about Starmer’s comments on Thatcher is that he panders to the myth that she halted or reversed the UK’s decline. It’s clear from the perspective of time that she did no such thing. She laid the foundations for our current malaise.”
The reality is Thatcher led a Tory Govt with a hostile, cruel, dangerous track record of lies and cover ups, political interference and state sanctioned police violence (such as Shoot to Kill in Northern Ireland). She criminalised strikers and protesters and destroyed communities and decimated whole industries. She was the driving force that led to Scottish Devolution more than anything else.
This culture of violence is everywhere during Thatcher’s era. To take just one example on 1 Jun 1985, British police attacked people visiting Stonehenge in the “Battle of the Beanfield“. Policed smashed vehicle windows and dragged people out through the broken glass, and then beat them.
Margaret Thatcher sent her police against peaceful civilians in what became known as “The Battle of the Beanfield”. It is still the largest mass arrest of civilians since World War Two.
There were over 537 arrests resulting from what they called ‘Operation Solstice’. One commentator noted that “In a spiteful coordination, social services were on hand to take the children of the travellers into care. The last child was returned to their family in the early 2000s.”
State-sponsored violence was the hallmark of Thatcherism, not entrepreneurialism.
In this sense this is the week that we can see more clearly now than ever that Sir Keir Starmer is the ultimate victory of Thatcherism. The Labour Party now openly promises nothing other than a future of austerity. Thatcherism is alive and well and being promulgated by the Labour Party. That’s where we’re at.
And in the public sphere – to point this out – to point to the absurdity of a Labour leader praising Thatcher – is to open yourself to howls of derision.
So why is there such a difference north and south of the border? One suggestion is that in Scotland there is an alternative (though you would have to question how genuine, radical or – alternative it actually is). The other is that the Overton Window in England has narrowed and shifted so much that any Labour leader has to appease not just the Tory voters, but the billionaire press…
George Monbiot: “Keir Starmer was not trying to woo conservative voters, he’s trying to appease the billionaire press… it’s a profoundly undemocratic situation that this handful of billionaires have got their fingers around the throat of politics in this country”#PoliticsLive pic.twitter.com/HBqWzIIAHk
— Haggis_UK 🇬🇧 🇪🇺 (@Haggis_UK) December 4, 2023
Starmer’s evocation of a ‘strong nation’, his appeal to ‘legitimate concerns’, his euphemisms of ‘safe streets’, and ‘fiscal conservativism’ mark him out as the inheritor of Thatcherism far more than Tony Blair. Blair had all these undercurrents but he managed to make them recede into the background as he applied a patina of constitutional change. Starmer has none of that. There are other emerging parallel’s. In a report today by the Resolution Foundation called ‘Ending Stagnation’. You can download it here: Ending stagnation – The Inquiry (resolutionfoundation.org)
The reality of post-Brexit Britain has real similarities to 1970s Britain. ITV’s assessment from Tom Bradbury is brutal:
“Picture a country going backwards, where workers haven’t had a decent pay rise in 15 years, public services are on the verge of collapse, and the gap between rich and poor grows year on year” “That is how Britain was described today in a bleak and damming assessment of its economy. The failure to achieve all but negligible growth has left the average worker, a simply staggering, £10,000 a year worse off” “And we’re now lagging way behind countries we used to think of as equals. In Germany, middle income households are 20% richer than their peers in the UK” “We’d be here all night if we listed the failings identified in the 290 page report. But put simply, in almost every sector, the UK is just not productive enough”
Tom Bradbury, “Picture a country going backwards, where workers haven’t had a decent pay rise in 15 years, public services are on the verge of collapse, and the gap between rich and poor grows year on year”
“That is how Britain was described today in a bleak and damming… pic.twitter.com/kk8GnWVMnY
— Farrukh (@implausibleblog) December 5, 2023
This reality gives the backdrop to Starmer’s arrival, and a stunning parallel to Thatcher’s emergence in 1979. Such epic failure, such dark and dire conditions set the scene for the coming politics.