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The Tories will abandon neoliberalism, but only to destroy the working class

With two avowedly Thatcherite figures in the Tory leadership race, JAMES MEADWAY looks at what Margaret Thatcher was prepared to do to beat the miners — and what her descendants may do to beat us

THE two remaining Tory leadership candidates have both laid claim to Margaret Thatcher’s memory. Both claim to hold to the same beliefs and values as the Tories’ great hero. But far more important than her purported beliefs are her actions in office.  

Rishi Sunak started the campaign presenting himself as a version of “Thatcher the grocer’s daughter,” talking up how he learned the value of money and the importance of balancing the books from his pharmacist parents.  

Liz Truss meanwhile, has been offering “Thatcher the crusader,” deliberately aping Thatcher at her most combative — even literally posing in a tank — and promising a war on the high taxes and red tape that are supposedly holding Britain back.  

But both of these visions of the Tories’ hero obscure the real Thatcher. Thatcher, above all else, was a class warrior. Achieving victory for her class in that war meant making some serious breaches with her own purported beliefs. Take the centrepiece of her premiership, the 1984-85 miners’ strike.  

The National Union of Mineworkers had to be beaten. As the BBC’s stunning drama Sherwood brought graphically to life, this meant bussing police forces around the country to break picket lines and planting police spies inside the union and local communities to undermine the miners’ fight. This is the power of the state at its most obvious.

But it also meant using the power of the state in other ways. In the early 1980s, electricity generation in Britain was still nationalised. The central electricity generating board (CEGB) was under government management. This meant it could be quickly brought to bear in the government’s struggle.  

The key to the miners’ power was their ability to disrupt the supply of coal to Britain’s power stations. So Thatcher’s government not only built up stockpiles of coal in power stations across the country in the years before the strike — it also pushed the CEGB to use hugely expensive oil, rather than coal, to generate Britain’s electricity.  

Oil was substituted for coal in some power plants where it could be, and three back-up oil generators were brought on-stream for the strike. This was “by far the most important factor in maintaining electricity supplies” according to two senior CEGB insiders at the time.  

The cost of this operation was £11 billion in today’s money. No private operator would carry this cost, but it was one which the government, with its deep pockets and control over the electricity supply, was happy to bear.  

Thatcher was a noisy champion of the free market and neoliberalism. According to her stated beliefs, governments are not supposed to subsidise “inefficient” high-cost industries. A privatised energy system, at the time, would have made the miners ironically harder to beat.  

But a crusading neoliberal politician like Thatcher was happy to use the power of the state to win a critical class battle — not only in its most obvious forms, like mobilising the police and the legal system, but also more subtly (if critically) in mobilising government spending power and a nationalised electricity generator. Defeating the miners helped pave the way for nearly three decades neoliberal rule with weakened unions.  

Under pressure of the cost-of-living crisis, the raw class politics of the 1980s are starting to reappear. Strikes are spreading. The demand for non-payment of energy bills is getting a hearing.  

Today’s Conservative politicians, who profess their deep devotion to neoliberal rules, will act the same way as Thatcher if they have a serious class battle. They will use the state against the movement — including in ways that break their own supposed ideological commitments.

Come September 5, whoever wins the Tory leadership contest — and the odds very much favour Truss — will face a fast-developing crisis. Energy bills are forecast to shoot up by at least 65 per cent, while inflation in general has been forecast to top 11 per cent — far above the 4 per cent or so wages are rising at.  

The squeeze on millions of people will be intense and they will respond. When BP makes £6.5bn profits in three months but one in three Britons face fuel poverty, the class lines are being sharply drawn.

We’ve already seen how governments and individual politicians might respond in a crisis. Sunak briefly became the most popular politician in the country as a result of the furlough scheme, borrowing £70bn to pay for it.

Truss meanwhile, has made it clear that she doesn’t greatly care about government borrowing or government debt, promising huge tax cuts regardless of cost.  

She’s also made it clear she wants unions broken and smashed, threatening bans on strikes. Like her hero Thatcher, she is unlikely to hesitate in using the government’s deep pockets to win a class battle.

Thatcher carefully “salami-sliced” the unions in the early 1980s, confronting only one union at a time by meeting the others’ pay demands and so undermining solidarity ahead of the miners’ strike. Today’s Tories will be tempted to perform a similar divide-and-rule trick.  

The biggest single political danger they face is a combination of the consumer power of a non-payment campaign coming together with the workers’ power of strikes. This would mean both sides of the cost-of-living crisis — high prices and low wages — were being met with a working-class response. The conditions are being prepared for a British hot autumn.

The easiest route out of this for the government is to head off the incipient consumer movement with furlough-style support for household energy bills. I would be astonished if plans along these lines were not already being drawn up in Whitehall.  

It would cost £28bn or more to simply cancel the planned price hike — with nationalisation of further parts of the energy system also a possibility. But if Thatcher could spend without limit to win a fight, why shouldn’t Truss?

Ideology be damned. Neither Truss nor Sunak will stick to the neoliberal playbook if the chips are down. Thatcher didn’t.

James Meadway is the director of the Progressive Economy Forum — follow him on Twitter @meadwaj.

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