Neoliberalism, Political Wars and the Construction of Consent in Thatcher’s Britain

by Michelle La Guilla

Note: This piece is part of Radical University’s new series examining Thatcher’s continuing legacy and how we can take the fight forward in the hard world she left us.  The piece was first published in Erudition magazine:


To us children of the 80s, who grew up living under the dark cloud of Thatcherism, it’s hard to imagine now that at the end of her first term in office, Thatcher looked certain to lose the election.  For most of us in the North of England at least, by the end of the decade, she seemed more like the Teflon lady than the Iron Lady; we regarded her as something universally loathed and deeply unpleasant but a fact of life, like syphilis in the Middle Ages.  Yet back in 1982, employment and inflation had exploded and a disillusioned public looked set to kick Maggie out the door of Number Ten.

That all changed when the Argentine invasion of the Falklands sent the Tories down the time honoured route of war as opportunity, and Argentina was playing the same game.  The leader of the Argentine junta, Leopold Galtieri, sought to quash dissent against the repressive regime by playing the “heroic stance against British imperialism” card – Thatcher smelled redemption, and despite previously cutting the Navy presence around the islands, the Falklands suddenly became a symbol of Britain not backing down.  Thus cynical manoeuvring and pseudo-patriotic posturing on both sides birthed a war of political convenience.

Patriotism is a dangerous and slippery concept, and one that has been turned to dark purposes repeatedly and throughout history.  The feverish nationalism and xenophobia whipped up by the conflict, which claimed heavy loss of life on both sides, was perhaps most sickeningly exemplified by the Sun’s notorious front page depiction of the sinking of the Argentine battleship Belgrano (which claimed 323 lives) under the headline “Gotcha!”   The Belgrano, incidentally, was not even sailing within the British exclusion zone round the islands, leading some to claim its sinking was a war crime.  Meanwhile, “Up your Junta” t-shirts sold like hot cakes, and Thatcher’s premiership was rescued.

Fast forward twenty years to the era defining events of 9/11, and the Bush administration’s “War on Terror”.  At first glance, the connecting thread to the Falklands War seems hard to grasp, and yet what it claims in common is how the politicians involved turned tragic events to their advantage, using the rhetoric of patriotism to push through a particular right wing, repressive, militaristic agenda faithful to the free marketeering neoliberal principles which both Bush and Thatcher embraced with the ideological fervour of true fanatics.

As Naomi Klein has documented in her excellent (and terrifying) book The Shock Doctrine, neoliberalism’s high prophet, Milton Friedman, has openly spoken of the tactic of using catastrophic events to push through hyper capitalist policy whilst the traumatised populace is still regrouping.  Bush and Thatcher did this in significantly different ways, but they both did it.  Even Thatcher, in correspondence with Friedman, had balked at the enforcement of these painful economic policies – Friedman’s holy triumvirate of deregulation, privatisation, and slashing social spending – by similar means to Chile, where they had been forced on an unwilling public by dictatorship under Pinochet, torture and the “disappearing” of dissidents.  (That said, Pinochet and Thatcher remained close personal friends until his death, our erstwhile premier apparently finding his record of raping women with dogs amongst numerous other horrors in Chile’s torture camps unproblematic.)  The jingoistic nationalism whipped up by the Falklands War and taken to truly unpleasant levels by the tabloid press gave her the means to construct consent to an agenda previously unthinkable.

Thus Maggie rode the crest of a wave to storm back to power, where she set about breaking the unions with a vicious lack of mercy, characterising them as the enemy within to the Falklands’ enemy without.  She dismantled social housing and set neighbour against neighbour with the “Right to Buy” scheme; she privatised industry after industry; she tore Britain’s manufacturing heart apart and left whole communities broken and without hope.  Those ex mining communities are riven with heroin today: exclusion zones missing a purpose, an identity, any future at all.  “Greed is Good”, said Thatcher, cheered on by the Sun and the City; whilst on the picket lines the miners and their families starved.

Bush, on the other hand, turned the post 9/11 climate of shock and fear to his advantage.  A fearful public is a malleable public; not only that, but Bush and his uber-right wing cronies saw off any dissent to his programme of privatising the “War on Terror” and turning the US economy into a war machine by smearing opposition with the catch all charge of being “unpatriotic”.  Indeed, the sociologist Douglas Kellner has noted that Lynne Cheney, wife of the aptly named Dick, took to sending out texts “outing” unpatriotic statements by professors and intellectuals.  Aided and abetted by a media so rabidly right wing as to make the Daily Mail look like the Socialist Worker, Bush unleashed an agenda shaped by the wet dreams of neoliberals whilst indulging in a series of gung ho and xenophobic rants which spoke dramatically of unleashing the dogs of war on evil doers and barbarians.  Bush repeatedly invoked not only patriotism but freedom; but his brand of freedom meant corporate deregulation, a freedom that benefited the tiny minority of the super rich and powerful whilst oppressing the majority.  His complete dehumanisation of the enemy, meanwhile, conveniently ignored the role of US hegemony and cultural imperialism and ducked any culpability.

Bush was the engineer of a new kind of war: he legitimised the use of pre emptive strikes anywhere in the world, all justified by the politics of fear he so ruthlessly exploited.  Not only that, but Kellner documents that a whole raft of extreme right wing measures went along with it: deep cuts to social spending whilst giving tax incentives to the wealthy, mounting the most sustained attack on civil liberties almost in living memory with the Patriot Act, a programme of militarisation which informed not only the war machine but responses to subsequent domestic disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, and ultimately the Iraq War.  So much for freedom.

As with Thatcher before him, the media served as Bush’s co-conspirators, going into a deeply distasteful frenzy of military fetishism and right wing zealotry and whipping up the twin narratives of panic and patriotism, Bush’s chief propaganda tools to manipulate a shell shocked public.  No stone was left unturned, no dirty trick too low.  The ultra conservative legacy of Bush’s office remains today, as does Thatcher’s: the latest budget still cuts the poorest till they bleed whilst featherbedding the wealthy.  The War on Terror and the Falklands stand as deeply disturbing historical documents of war as a weapon in the arsenal of capitalism; repressive agendas, antithetical to democracy and infinitely widening the gap between rich and poor, thrive in a climate of fear; and there is no easier way to crush opposition than to construct your enemy as unpatriotic in a time of national crisis.  As Bush himself neatly put it: “You’re either with us, or against us.”


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