The death of Thatcher has opened up a lot of old wounds and a lot of old debates. The news narrative was dominated by North Korea and IDS claiming he could live on £53 a week, then all of a sudden we were dragged back to the 1980s to debate the miners’ strike and the poll tax riots. Again and again, I have heard the same justification for Thatcher's actions: that the unions controlled the country in the 1970s, and that they used collective bargaining to bring the country to a standstill.
Clearly there was public outrage following the Winter of Discontent, which Thatcher effectively harnessed to pursue her own political agenda. Even many of those who disagreed with her cure for the problem agreed that ‘something had to be done’. Most politicians are opportunists and this was a once in a generation chance to change the agenda. Thatcher's success leads me to ask: why are we so bad at this on the left? Could we not use the banking crisis in the same way to achieve our aims?
Anti-banker sentiment is at an all high. Bankers are derided across nation, from cartoons in broadsheet newspapers to Carling commercials. Their popularity is located on the scale somewhere below politicians and above benefit claimants - firmly near the bottom. However no-one is making a strong attempt use this anger to effect any change, unlike the Thatcher government was able to in the early ‘eighties when it capitalised on anti-strike sentiments.
Essentially, the main reason for this is the entire political establishment is broadly in favour of letting the banks off the hook. Neither side wishes to be publicly viewed as in the banker's pockets, but the general consensus in Westminster is that we need the elitist, tax dodging money swallowing black hole that is the City of London more than it need us. This is of course not true, and will remain untrue until the Square Mile takes off and flies above us in a disgusting parody of a Douglas Adams novel. Britain isn’t the Isle of Man. We have an economy that exists outside the Square Mile and anyone who works in chemical engineering, software development, games & high tech arts, aerospace or any of the other industries in which Britain is a world leader should be greatly offended by the idea that we dependent on the bankers.
It doesn’t have to be this way. ‘Bashing the bankers’ is just tabloid stuff – in and of itself, rhetoric doesn’t achieve much. What it could do, however, is provide the ground work for creating a broad consensus for more intelligent regulation, and above all an end to the morally redundant idea that rampant inequality is somehow good for everyone. Anti-banker sentiment could be a starting point for a debate challenging the assumptions of our pro-greed, anti-collectivist consensus, just like Thatcher challenged the political consensus of the post war era. It’s a debate we badly need to have, but neither the Labour Party nor anyone else in mainstream politics seems willing to have it.
Thatcher, for all her innumerate faults, stood for a clearly defined ideology. She had a vision for what society should be liked and set about making it so, manipulating anti-union sentiment and patriotic feelings over the Falklands war whenever public confidence in her plan faltered. Thatcher genuinely believed that the whole country would be better off if labour markets were less regulated and the unions were less powerful. At the time most of the country did not believe this as strongly as she did (although now it is now an almost universally held political opinion) but popular anti-union sentiment allowed her to pursue her ideological objectives. The reason the same thing is not happening to the bankers today is that it is no longer consider appropriate for politicians to have strong ideological view points. Instead both sides tend towards varying degrees of acceptance of the neo-liberal hegemony.
The Conservative Party under Thatcher’s leadership were not united in their support for her policies and she had to fight off a few leadership challenges before eventually be ousted in 1990. Still to most people she stood as a strong unifying figure bringing together a diverse movement around a single set of goals. This is something the left sorely lacks. After the banking crisis the left is more divided than ever. This is especially true when discussing how we respond to the problems presented by this new era of capitalism. The left has always been fractious and divided but there is no consensus on how to best use the popular dislike of bankers to achieve any political goals.
Thatcher was an astute politician who used the public’s anti-union sentiment to great advantage in order to accomplish her political goals. The Left could learn a lot from her in how to respond to the banking crisis and in finding a way to snap out of this ideological paralysis we find ourselves trapped in. The public hates the banks almost as much as they hate benefit claimants. This is because most people who work hard resent people who they feel have got something for nothing. The Right is expertly using this feeling to roll back the welfare state. The left should be thinking the same if they want to make a dent in the power of international banking conglomerates.