Paul Foot

Thatcher: class warrior

(February 1985)

From Socialist Worker, February 1985.
Reprinted in Paul Foot, Words as Weapons: Selected Writings 1980–1990 (London: Verso, 1990), pp. 3–4.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Thatcher-worship, which goes on all the time in a continuous Mass in T, will rise to a crescendo in the next few weeks. A new excuse to sing the praises of the Prime Minister in otherwise difficult times comes with the tenth anniversary of her becoming leader of the Conservative Party.

A suitable prelude is an article in the Mail on Sunday’s colour magazine by the reactionary critic, Anthony Burgess. His piece, gloriously entitled The Sexuality of Power, ends by comparing Margaret Thatcher to Venus de Milo. He makes the subtle point that whereas Venus had no arms, Mrs Thatcher has plenty.

Grateful and sycophantic press barons will be eager to impress on their readers that Mrs Thatcher is a wonder woman, her political intelligence and grasp far greater than anything else seen in Britain (or any other country) in the postwar period. Above all, she will be heralded for her convictions and her passions, which, it will be argued, contrast magnificently with the dull pragmatism of her two predecessors, Heath and Macmillan.

When I try to read all this, I remember an evening in Plymouth some sixteen years ago when I first appeared on the BBC radio programme Any Questions. A Labour government was in office with a majority of 100. A Labour MP and I were ’balanced’ on the right by Malcolm Muggeridge and Margaret Thatcher MP.

When, after the programme, I said that I thought the Labour government was behaving rather like a Tory one, she blithely agreed. But, she insisted, in a very maternal way, there was a crucial difference between the two parties: in the people they represent.

When I next came across her, she was speaking as minister for education at the Tory Party conference in 1970, declaring with tremendous passion that the school-leaving age would be raised to sixteen, and that much more money would be spent on the state sector.

She is not someone who fights when she thinks she may be beaten. The miners’ strike of the winter 1980–81 is a very good example of that. She withdrew a pit closure programme at once.

Mrs Thatcher’s real skill comes from her deep sensitivity to the ebbs and flows in the fortunes of her class. She is a class general, who knows no sentiment in the struggle.

The old aristocratic leaders of the Tory Party believed they were superior to the lower orders chiefly through divine intervention or God’s will. They were therefore inclined to dilute their class passions with occasional bouts of compassion, doubt or hesitation.

Margaret Thatcher and her arrivistes, people whose parents had to hang on by their fingertips to stay in the ruling class at all, believe that they are superior because they are superior. There is, therefore, in their class war strategy not a hint of doubt or guilt. They have a better sense of the state of the battle, and a stronger will to win it.

Unlike Macmillan, Thatcher was deeply suspicious of the Keynesian economics and full employment of the postwar years. She sensed that although these things could not be reversed at the height of the boom, they were fundamentally corrosive of her class. Long before most Tory leaders she sensed an ebb in that confidence, and she seized the time.

She knew that mass unemployment breeds despair in workers, and that that despair would breed its own confidence among her people. She knew that trade union leaders were only powerful as long as they were allowed to seem so. She sensed the union leaders’ special weakness, their suspension between the two classes, and their unwillingness to side with either. She reckoned that if the union leaders were expelled from the corridors of power, they would be reduced to pleading to be allowed in again.

Mrs Thatcher is not an intellectual giant, nor has she risen to such heights through her beauty or her oratorical skills. She is a new-fashioned two-nation Tory who understands the simple truth, which evades far too many of us: that class confidence comes out of class strength, and that her class can win only if the other class loses.

Last updated on 2 September 2014