Thatcher's victories are too old and complete to help Cameron

Conservatives are winning a cultural campaign to nationalise their political bereavement and it will do them no favours in the end.

The late Baroness Thatcher is now the subject of two different categories of controversy, inseparable but in crucial ways distinct. One is about her life, the other about her death. The former is by far the greater argument. It is a debate that is triggered by her passing but not generated by it. Its contours have been visited, explored, surveyed and mapped many times already over the past decades.

There is a huge body of academic literature and memoir analysing the historical scale and moral implications of her victories – over the Labour party, over the miners, over the essential ambition of Socialism by state enterprise. Nothing new will be added in the days between her death and her funeral. Reviving the arguments now is the intellectual and journalistic equivalent of repeating on TV the great Hollywood performances of a recently deceased movie star. The over-familiar is made poignant by events but not changed by them.

The second controversy is much smaller and is, in adherence to the parochial laws of Westminster that amplify pettiness and shrink intellectual ambition, the more rancorous. It is the question of whether the unarguable historical significance of Thatcher’s accomplishments justifies their treatment as a subject of national reverence.

Most of the Tory party and the Conservative-leaning press appear to want this week to be a moment of culture war consolidation – expressing not just sadness at the death of an individual but recapitulation of an immutable moral-political axiom: the politics of Thatcher (and of any who tread in her footsteps) are salvation; Labour’s way leads to ruin.

The ceremonial funeral is a state function in all but name; many of this morning’s paper’s attack opposition MPs for not attending yesterday’s parliamentary tribute, although plenty did. The discussion of statues, memorials and minutes of silence is all meant as a celebration of the woman and her works but it is also hostile to rational appraisal of them. Sadly at this point it probably becomes necessary to interject a comment condemning celebrations of the death. I doubt I could put it better than Norman Geras, the Marxist academic and blogger, who said the following in his “six theses on the death of Margaret Thatcher”:

To publicly rejoice at the death of a democratic political opponent, talk of dancing on her grave, hold street parties for the occasion, and so forth, is contemptible. It says more about the morality inspiring those who engage in such activities than it does about the object of them. Consider that one day it will be you who are dying, and whatever you have done or failed to do in your life, you will deserve the love of those who feel it for you and something better than cruel glee from those who don't.

… And notice, too, that Thatcher's political legacy, the continuing influence of what she did in office, is not altered one way or another by her death. It will continue to make its way in the world, as also to be opposed there, for a good while yet. The expression of public enjoyment has no possible justification, therefore, on these grounds either.

The reasonable demand that dissent from the heroic interpretation of Thatcher be expressed with respect does not, however, resolve the question of whether that interpretation should be embraced as a kind of state doctrine.

The implication in Conservative expectations of collective mourning is that, since the changes Thatcher wrought turned out to be irreversible, they should also naturally be cherished by all. Plainly that isn’t true. They can be cherished by the right and lamented by the left. The centre can pick and choose. It is absurd to expect Labour MPs to acquiesce in the hagiography of their nemesis and it is to Ed Miliband’s credit that he didn’t do that in parliament yesterday, yet managed to fulfil every demand of respect that protocol required.

My instinct is that the Tories will win this little cultural skirmish and that it will do them no favours at all. BBC presenters will don black ties and put on their most solemn voices. The Queen will attend the funeral. None shall speak ill of the deceased, except in terms laden with caveat and leavened with praise. Some monument will be erected for sure. And then what? We will be back to the first of our two controversies, the one about Thatcher’s life, the one that was never going to be resolved by her death.

Meanwhile, it is Labour that will have been forced into an uncomfortable but necessary re-examination of its feelings and attitudes to Britain’s most potent post-War Prime Minister. It is the Labour leader whose position with relation to that leader’s legacy will be clarified and, by a small measure, enhanced given the smart calibration of his response. By contrast, the Conservative view will go back into aspic. It cannot much help David Cameron when his party drapes itself in the ceremonial robes of the unhealthy Cult of the Perfect Leader with its peculiar undercurrent of matricidal guilt.

The core presumption behind the Tory party hagiography of Thatcher is that her policies were so successful as to transcend politics. They entered the fabric of the nation and so became part of what it means to be British rather than simply what it means to be Conservative. Even though that is largely true it doesn’t actually help the Tories politically. The dispersal of Thatcherism into the cultural and social ether over a generation or two doesn’t make it a better weapon in today’s political debates. On the contrary, it diminishes its currency.

Specific policies of the period 1979-90 are, as a point of historical fact, obsolete. British Airways cannot be re-privatised. Bob Crow is not Arthur Scargill, neither is Len McCluskey much though many on left and right wish he would be. Only battles whose outcome was unclear can be re-fought. Thatcher’s victory was so comprehensive that craving re-enactment is a pursuit for hobbyists in fancy dress not a credible programme for government.

The renewable portion of Thatcherism is not its prescriptions for the economy but its spirit of political insurgency – the will to impose change; the capacity to turn a partisan agenda into an election-winning movement for national renewal. That element does not belong to any one party or wing of politics. Indeed, it is arguably hardest of all for modern-day Thatcher disciples to possess and re-animate it precisely because the Revolution they celebrate became an Empire to defend – as tends to happen with successful revolutions.

That which became the established consensus cannot, by definition, be the basis for anti-Establishment upheaval. Whatever the next Thatcher-style disruption in British politics may be, it is just as likely to go against the grain of what Thatcher achieved as with it. That is how history tends to proceed.

The problem that poses for the Conservatives is made all the greater by the confluence at the very top of party – incarnate in David Cameron - of the post-Thatcher economic consensus and a pre-Thatcher cultural and social class hierarchy. Cameron, a second-generation Thatcherite with patrician Shire Tory sensibilities and royal relations is about the least plausible candidate you might find to lead a transformative economic, social or political revolution.

Cameron’s strategy for re-election in 2015 relies not on an offer of epic change but of grim determination to continue as before – a steady-as-she-goes appeal to the stoical side of Britain that takes austerity on the chin, surrenders to its inevitability, makes do and mends. It presumes that, faute de mieux, when the Labour counter-offer is either scary or implausible, Britain defaults to Tory rule. That was true once. It clearly wasn’t true in 2010 otherwise Cameron would have won a majority. There isn’t any evidence it is true today, not before a week of national mourning for Margaret Thatcher and, in all likelihood, not after it.

A floral tribute outside Downing Street. Source: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.