Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Eulogy for a welfare state arsonist

Margaret Thatcher, arch-Conservative British Prime Minister during the 1980s, died Monday. I'd like to pause and remember the "Iron Lady," who crushed British coal miners, attacked the unions, mortally wounded the social wage, bolstered apartheid, invaded the Falkland Islands, inaugurated a Brave New World of corporate globalization, created the poll tax and declared a class war that has spanned most of my life.

In a sense, Maggie helped to make me who I am. I am one of generations of activists who were forged in the fires of the burning welfare state. What we fight to defend now is but a shadow of what once was.

But this week Margaret Thatcher is being canonized. In death, her sins are washed clean. There are tears and even recriminations for those who recite her curriculum vitae. Remembrances are offered of brave confrontations with the British old boys club. Barack Obama mourns the passing of a 'great defender of freedom.' CBC's the Current plays a clip from her 1979 speech to the Conservative Party where Maggie proudly claims the Soviet moniker of "Iron Lady" to laughter and cheers.

But I remember someone different. A cold warrior with a fierce helmet of blonde hair, class fighter of the first order, grim reaper of social democracy and catalyst of punk rock rage.

Thatcher and her ideological ilk wanted to turn back the clock to a time before "the nanny state" -- a golden era when one would pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps. But at the same time, the UK became more watched than ever before. London's ubiquitous electronic surveillance system is rooted in Thatcher’s 1980s paranoia. Her response to Northern Ireland has shaped anti-terrorism legislation around the world.

"In Ireland they'll put you away in the Maze
In England they'll keep you for seven long days
God help you if ever you're caught on these shores
The coppers need someone
And they walk through that door." – the Pogues

The conspicuous consumption yuppie Roman vomitorium of the 1980s was the lovechild of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The pair made a virtue of being absurdly rich, and a moral failing of poverty. This dystopian, every-man-for-himself, Wild West, laissez faire capitalist future shook people into action.

She and her comrades won the Cold War. Those days made it, in Slovenian sociologist Slavoj Žižek's words, "much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism."

 It was from this demolition of the social and heralding of the End of History where punk scorched its way across the cultural landscape. I was easily able to identify with the fury that movement engendered. The world I was just beginning to grasp, that had survived decades of nuclear stand-off between super-powers, was being dismantled before our eyes. We would be the inheritors of nothing.

 Punk was full of angry political criticism but also the self-destructive nihilism of a future destroyed. There was at least some comfort in finding that I was not alone at the end of the world, that there were others here too, angry at what was being stolen from us and refusing to tuck in our shirts and wait for the apocalypse in an orderly fashion.

My high school era mix tapes were full of anti-Thatcher / Reagan anthems -- by the Clash, Billy Bragg, the Beat, the Specials, Dead Kennedys and CRASS -- manifestos on 7" vinyl. Bands played gigs to underage binge-drinking debate societies, amplifying simple solutions and ignoring the fractal splits and internecine conflicts of the traditional left, and the post-modernist intellectual malaise of the academy. But anger only gets you so far, and self-destruction takes what's left.

Few who were young and progressive during that time cannot fail to recall the full, heartfelt rejection of everything Maggie; an individual who came to epitomize, and champion, a world that did not include us.

Margaret Thatcher created the world we've come to know, even shaping many views of what is possible within it. Thatcher's project was not only to kill the welfare state in the UK in her own time, but also to make its future reconstruction impossible. Reagan shared her vision and was as successful in its bitter implementation.

Maggie redefined poverty, measuring not relative inequity, but caloric intake. If you were still alive, you must be getting enough to eat and were thus not poor. With the stroke of a pen, poverty in England was virtually wiped out. On paper. Across the pond, ketchup was reclassified as a vegetable, thus magically transforming school lunch programs across America into balanced meals.

Hers was a brand of conservatism that changed government policy, but also changed what would be possible for future governments. Thatcher put limitations on politicians that were not even born when she came to power. In some ways, she was the architect of New Labour, moving the goal posts to the right, making the British equivalent of the NDP just another manager of the free market rather than the tool to cut against its brutal edges it had once been.

But in slamming the door on social democracy, the welfare state and trade unionism, Thatcher made many of us look beyond the limits of state reform, seeking worlds beyond her reach.

It was finally a popular uprising against the Tories hated Poll Tax (a flat tax on every adult in the UK regardless of income) which cost Maggie her job as PM. Mass mobilization and protest built across Britain in 1990. Angry chants of "Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!" echoed across the UK. It all culminated in a brutal police crackdown of a protest in Trafalgar Square. Under increasing pressure from inside her own party, Thatcher resigned.

People gathered to celebrate outside of No. 10 Downing Street popping champagne corks, cheering and holding signs that read "now get the rest!"


Last week I saw the 1980s ska band The Specials play in Vancouver. They played "Ghost Town," a portrait of the desolate London landscape under Thatcher's rule. Rock critics commented that it was surprising that they’re still around. Why not? We're still fighting the same fights to save what's left of the social safety net after Thatcher and her contemporaries.

Every time people rally to defend a social service or prevent a deportation, they are fighting her legacy. Now we'll be fighting her ghost too. So if your leaders start fiddling the retirement age, outsourcing jobs, or distracting you with wars abroad, you can thank the first Spice Girl, Lady Margaret Thatcher.


Garth Mullins is a writer, long time social justice activist and three-chord propagandist living in East Vancouver. You can follow him @garthmullins on Twitter.


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