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The enemy within

Cuinbattle by Joseph Christian

The enemy within

In his reflections on Margaret Thatcher, Sean O’ Shea demonstrates how the theatre of the mind as much as the theatre of political economy informs decision making in affairs of state.


We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.
1984 miners strike.

I don’t mind how much my minister’s talk, as long as they do what I say. 1980

I am not a consensus politician. I’m a conviction politician.  1979


When I heard of Thatcher’s death, April 8th 2013, I vowed not to watch the funeral. As a man of the Left I saw no reason to celebrate her life and works. She had done me and the working class no favours. Let me be more specific when using a contentious term like “working class”. For the purpose of this article I mean this term in its orthodox Marxist sense i.e. to designate all those who are obliged to sell their labour in the market place in order to live, and who have little or no control over the means and relations of production. I am not referring to how people “feel” about what class they belong to or if they like opera or listen to hip-hop/rap, own their own home, have friends around for dinner, go to the theatre, go to a gym, drive a particular kind of car, holiday in specific places or keep up with the latest fashion.

Some people were understandably dismayed by the level of expenditure on a ceremonial funeral with military honours; money which, in an “age of austerity”, they felt could have been allocated to more worthwhile causes. The family, it was reported, paid for the flowers and the undertaker! You, the taxpayer, paid for the rest, and I imagine that this may have included many litres of expensive wine and several kilos of paté de foie gras (or equivalent) as well as an additional 1.1 million for providing extra security and policing.

However, most mainstream commentators urged us not to grumble. The figures quoted for the total costs ranged from 3.6 million to 10 million. But what’s 3.6 million in the age of austerity? Hardly as much as your average banker’s bonus. And we must also remember our continuing obligations as well-dressed philanthropists to support and take care of the elite. Any day now they may pack up and leave us… and where would we be then?

A quick inventory – some facts & figures

Few were neutral about Thatcher. She was either loathed or admired. Some claimed that she saved the country from going down the drain. Many who voted for her were people that should have known better. The late Harold Pinter, who could hardly be regarded as mainstream Tory, voted for her, a decision he himself described as “the most shameful act of my life”. Many others, whose class interests, in the sense that I’ve just defined it, would not remotely have been served by her, still voted for her. The reasons for this remain a fascinating question for historians to analyse and debate.

Considering her record there is little that is not disputed though some facts and figures may be worth reviewing.

The eighties – as a result of Thatcher’s management of the economy – were seen as a decade of growth by contrast with the recession-hit seventies. Despite this, growth running at 22 per cent per annum was in fact the same in both decades and was stronger in the fifties and sixties. Thatcher promised low inflation. In 1979 inflation was 10.3 per cent and when Thatcher left office it was 10.9 per cent. On tax Thatcher took care of the rich. The top rate of tax was 83 per cent when she came to power and 40 per cent when she left. However VAT which hits the poorest hardest was 8 percent when she came to power and she immediately raised it to 15 percent.

Thatcher was praised for her successful privatisations. However public assets such as the energy sector have ended up in the hands of a few companies whose rising prices are forcing an increasing number of people to make difficult choices between staying warm or eating. Similarly transport costs have gone through the roof making it increasingly difficult for those lucky enough to have work to actually get to work.

Thatcher promised a property-owning democracy and home ownership did rise from 56.6 per cent of households to 67 per cent under her reign. However, a consequence was a chronic shortage of social housing and massive rise in house prices. Now home ownership is falling but the private rental market is booming. Taxpayers spend billions subsidising housing through housing benefit which gets paid directly into the pockets of private landlords. Squatting was still an option for the precariat during the Thatcher years but that has now been criminalised thus making problems of homelessness more acute.

Trouble ahead – nothing personal just business

Thatcher also promoted and officiated over the triumph of a business culture which was based on the imperatives of economic rationality and consumerism, and in which the ruthless relations of the market would reign supreme. All other value spheres were to be subordinated to the relentless pursuit of individual interests, and the bottom line of costs and benefits. See article Work Until You Drop for a more extensive commentary on the business culture of the eighties, HOT, SOS June 23rd 2012.

When a newly elected prime minister enters Downing Street quoting biblical homilies about peace and reconciliation you can be sure that there is trouble ahead. However, some of the British public responded to this event with characteristic stoicism and good humour, a mood beautifully expressed in the song Let’s Face the Music and Dance by Irving Berlin 1936 which became a popular number in cabaret venues in London in the eighties,

Before the fiddlers have fled,
Before they ask us to pay for the bill,
And while we still have the chance,
Let’s face the music and dance.

Powers and principalities

Yet, after all I must confess that I did watch her funeral, and few could fail to be impressed by the chosen liturgy and the aesthetic ambience of St Paul’s Cathedral with its amazing floor mosaics and wonderful acoustics. Her young niece delivered a beautiful rendition of the reading from Ephesians 6:12

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

This reading accurately summed up Thatcher’s world view as a conviction politician, a warrior who wore the “breastplate of the righteous”, who would wield “the sword of the spirit” and “quench the fiery darts of the wicked”.

Amongst the wicked in this instance was Arthur Scargill and his reluctant band of striking miners. The stage was set for a conflict between good and evil with both parties viewing themselves as on the side of the good.

Regardless of the increasing ambiguity and complexity of moral decision making, more and more politicians nowadays claim to do things because “it is the right thing to do.” It is as if they have exclusive reference to a secret guidebook, or have privileged access to a voice which whispers absolute moral guidance in their ear every time they have to make decisions. This spares them any anxiety about their possible fallibility, lack of wisdom, poor judgement or the insufficiency and sometimes complete inaccuracy of the information available to them.

Thatcher cleaved to her religious myth about powers and principalities and ultimate salvation for the righteous, and Arthur no less fervently cleaved to his secular narrative about the revolution of the working class – reluctant as the latter were to fulfil their allocated role.

She found in King Arthur a mirror image of herself, another conviction politician whose fiery darts in their chosen battle would fail to defeat her. What an irony that it was the enemies within her own cabinet, that finally brought her down.

In addition there was a third enemy which contributed to her political demise, lurking within her own character – this was hubris. Towards the latter part of her reign she had come to believe in her own omnipotence, propaganda and right to rule. She frequently reminded us that she was not cast out of office by the voters, and that she would never forgive those whose “treachery” removed her from power.

It is divided hearts and minds as well as economic divisions that fuel conflicts which are enacted in the political theatres all over our small and vulnerable planet. There are those who believe that, until we recognise our common humanity and allow a sense of public as well as private compassion to override our apparent differences, we will continue to be  at war with others, with ourselves, in the boardrooms  and in the bedrooms, until death do us part. At the same time, I acknowledge that there are others on the Left who would regard these remarks as no more than tedious moralizing and no substitute for a political strategy.

A peaceful death?

Did she die a peaceful death? It is impossible to answer. However, if the forgiveness of one’s enemies, or those by whom we may feel betrayed, is a pre-condition for a peaceful death then Thatcher may not have had an easy passage. Some of those who believe in the traditional Christian narrative on these matters concluded that she was due for a short spell in purgatory for her sins before she was finally admitted to heaven.

From a Buddhist perspective she might be regarded as having a few more re-incarnations to endure on the wheel of Samsara (the continual cycle of birth and death that arises from self-grasping ignorance) before her eventual liberation.

The scientific world view however has no truck with soul journeys, karmic cleansing, or liberation. In this perspective, death is mere oblivion regardless of the quality of the life that has been lived, and according to the second law of thermonuclear dynamics planetary death also is regarded as an inevitable prospect – although forecast for some time in the distant future.

The last word, for now at least, on these enduring metaphysical questions I leave to the Irish writer, the late Samuel Beckett who, when asked, “Do you believe in the life to come?” was reported to have replied with a wry smile on his face,” Well, mine was always that.”


  •  Economic growth and inflation figures The Economy under Mrs Thatcher by Christopher Johnson Penguin 1991.
  • Tax burden HMSO 1992


SOS August 2013

Posted 15:03 Friday, Aug 2, 2013 In: SOS

Also in: SOS

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