Reshaping global capitalism

MARGARET Thatcher cast a long shadow over this island, from the days when she waved a big stick at men who were starving themselves to death, right down to the bonfire of the Celtic Tiger, which owed so much to her brand of economics.

Love or despise her, there’s no doubting her huge impact. She has the rare distinction of being a politician during the second half of the 20th century who actually effected profound change for her country and the wider world.

She garnered a reputation for being a conviction politician, but she never sacrificed pragmatism for her principles. A loathed figure in Republican circles, she was the British leader who signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, and sanctioned contact with the IRA a few years later, sparking the flame that led to peace.

She gave the impression of despising the EU, projecting herself as somebody who harked after the days when Britannia ruled the waves. Yet she signed the Single European Act in 1986, the treaty that created the common market. In these matters she had the knack of talking tough, demanding her way, yet ultimately tip-toeing down the road to compromise once the way ahead was well lit for her.

Her capacity to divide opinion is probably most notable in the fact of her gender. She smashed the glass ceiling of politics, both in Britain and on the global stage. Any other woman who bestrode the world in her footwear would have achieved iconic status among those who strive for gender equality. Yet you would have to look hard outside of Tory strongholds to find any depiction of the Iron Lady as a hero of the women’s movement.

There is no denying the credits on her career ledger. When she came to power in 1979, Britain had just endured the winter of discontent, when all manner of strikes had nearly rendered the country an economic basket case. The unions had gorged on their power, and in doing so set the stage for their own demise. Beyond labour relations, the British economy was tanking. For many, she was the perfect antidote for the country’s woes.

She took on the unions and won. She set about reconfiguring the economy, ripping the heart out of old industries like mining, while promoting Britain as a centre for financial services. Her philosophy was straightforward; low taxes, small government, personal responsibility, and light touch regulation. The cautious, grey bankers were shuffled aside while the brash yuppies barrelled into the City of London, scattering the seeds of the banking crisis to come decades later.

She gave voice to her philosophy in 1987, by which time she had been in power for eight years. “I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.

“It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”

Society had no place in her philosophy. Those who could least take care of themselves, or who were born into disadvantage, had to largely rely on the goodwill of the more fortunate. The state had no role in proactively attempting to deflect the slings and arrows of fate targeted at some from birth. It was a philosophy that opened up a huge chasm in British society, but politically, she managed to manipulate the division just on the right side of a parliamentary majority in three general elections.

The market was the guiding star of Thatcherism. The market must be allowed to get on with its work, sorting out the natural order of things. Today’s global economic problems can claim direct lineage to Thatcherism, and its bedfellow Reaganomics, the coupling that reshaped global capitalism on the altar of the market. Out of that philosophy grew the hubristic notions that informed the rise of the Celtic Tiger and all it spawned, right up to the collapse of the economy.

ON IRELAND, her main sins were of tone. Maybe it was attempting to over-compensate for any perceptions that might attach to a woman in a man’s world. She talked tough, showing no empathy or even basic sympathy for any mother’s son whom she regarded as the enemy.

Maybe it was all just too personal for her. In 1979, the INLA murdered her close friend Airey Nieve, and five years later they attempted to kill her. In public at least, she was never going to accept that republicans could be dealt with through any other means than militarily.

Ironic then, that it was her stance during the 1981 hunger strikes that ultimately led to republicans exploiting electoral success, moving forward for over the next decade, as Danny Morrison coined it, “with the armalite in one hand and the ballot box in the other”. Her intransigence was a key ingredient to getting Sinn Féin’s electoral strategy off the ground.

In this, as in her economic legacy, Thatcher’s politics has reverberated through the decades. But not in a manner she would have envisaged, and certainly not as she would have liked.

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