Political Theology Today A Forum for inter-disciplinary and inter-religious dialogue among clergy, scholars, students, and activists

The Thatcher Legacy

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The Thatcher Legacy and contemporary politics

There is something very odd about the way that “the Thatcher legacy” is currently being portrayed in the UK press and seems to be accepted by the country at large. Most of the commentators, whether they are either for or against what this legacy actually is, now read back into the past an almost deterministic understanding of history. This is the impact that Maggie has had and is still evident in contemporary politics, culture and economic policy making. So her legacy lives on because she re-shaped the parameters of what is deemed to be politically acceptable or feasible, including even what her opponents were able to do once they were elected in 1997. It is hard to imagine now that it could ever have been otherwise, let alone that any contemporary political framework might be possible. Yet, on the other hand, the current focus on the influence of one person surely contradicts such a portrayal of social development. How could one individual really have had that much power and influence on the development of a nation, particularly when a key principle of her philosophy was allowing the market to determine the future and involved “rolling back the powers of government”? If the power of government had really been reduced so drastically, how can it be that the ideas and policies initiated by a party and leader back in 1979 are still so evident today in 2013? Even more contradictory, how can it be that one individual, however forceful and determined, could shape the supposed freedoms and choices which she herself advocated when in power?

Now of course, some of this is simply the normal press and public response when somebody who was important in their day passes away. There is a “natural” exaggeration of their importance as all their former friends, colleagues and enemies are wheeled out to pass comment and to stake their role in the process. Nobody has taken that much notice of Mrs Thatcher for the last 23 years and once the dust settles and the focus shifts back to the contemporary it will quickly enough become history again. But there is a deeper point here about the language that we use to describe the processes of political and social life. The fact that Mrs Thatcher came to power in the first place, let alone that she was able to hold onto it for so long, is purely contingent. All of this could easily have been otherwise. There is never anything predetermined or certain about the way that events develop. So much of what she was able to do was surely the result of circumstances beyond her control, including the extent to which others around her allowed her to control, shape and manipulate. If the outcome of the Falklands War had been different. If the opposition at the time had been more effective. If there had been a greater understanding of the impact of Conservative Party economic policies on the long term future of industry and the economy. So much might not have happened in the way that it did. So did one person truly have that much influence over the course of events or are we falling into the trap of celebrity politics and thus denying our own part in the way that things actually worked out? The language that we use and the concepts we employ to think about how events unfold is surely wrong. If the only means by which we can find a credible explanation for where we are now is to resort to a caricature of someone who was forced out of power by her own party 23 years ago, then we are indeed morally and politically bankrupt. Mrs Thatcher is history and has been so for a long time, and all the political rhetoric of the time about market forces and the role of the state never really held water then any more than it does now. Nor does the language of “conviction politics” which is the pleasant way of describing her approach to matters even by those who opposed her. Decisions taken, policies formed, individuals fighting their way to power or being trodden into the dust, are all a matter of contingent choice and circumstances, and reflect the values and beliefs of the people in question. We all carry a responsibility for the country we have become, just as we do for the future shape of things, and we cannot sign these over to particular individuals in order to dump the past on them, nor indeed the future.

If political theology has a stake in this debate then it must involve its concerns for transformation, justice and inclusion, all of which suggest the need to examine political and social developments in the present rather than dwelling on the past. The most interesting developments are surely those of the Arab Spring and then the various Occupy movements which sprang up in response to the global financial crisis and the role of financial institutions. Even as one begins to visualize these the terms that come most readily to mind are, spontaneous, non-linear, speculative, indeterminate, process-driven and rhizomatic. The work of Manuel Castells (and colleagues) draws on these descriptions of social movements that hold out some hope for a different form of political life ( Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age, Polity Press, 2012). Even though Castells seems unaware that the image of the rhizome is derived from the work of Deleuze and Guattari and has been used more recently by Manuel DeLanda and his proposals for assemblage theory (A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity, Continuum, 2006), this alternative portrayal of the potential of new social movements is worthy of attention. Whereas the old politics is about achieving determinate objectives and holding onto power for its own sake, this new approach is about reflexivity, process, networking, energy and the emergence of the new. All of which probably sounds impossibly idealistic and will not appeal to those who simply employ politics as a means to gain power, but is surely more respectful of human needs and feelings and more likely to be a source of hope for those many who are disenfranchised by the normal conduct of party politics. One might argue, looking back to the events of Holy Week 2000 years ago, that these were the characteristics of the budding movement surrounding Jesus that was deemed to be such a threat by the religious and political establishment of the day. One thing that old politics is always fearful of is the spontaneous and unpredictable outbreak of populist movements that cannot be contained or circumscribed by the existing structures and institutions. Politics (and religion) is always more safely left in the hands of the professionals of the day after all! If this has some credibility, and one would hope that it does, then forget all this media generated talk about the Thatcher legacy, and refocus on the new, emerging and inspirational forms of alternative political movements, for these are where resistance is to be found. Changing politics requires changing the language we use to describe it and then it may be possible to see things differently.

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John Reader is Rector of the Ironstone Benefice in the Diocese of Oxford and a Senior Honorary Research Fellow with the William Temple Foundation (University of Chester. UK). His first degree was from Oxford (Philosophy and Theology); then an M.Phil from Manchester University, and finally a Ph.D from the University of Wales, Bangor on “The Problem of Faith and Reason after Habermas and Derrida”. He has taught on a number of courses and been Director of Pastoral Theology at an Anglican theological college. His books include Local Theology (SPCK); Blurred Encounters (Aureus); Reconstructing Practical Theology (Ashgate) and Encountering the New Theological Space co-edited with Chris Baker (Ashgate). He is also a visiting scholar at OxCEPT based at Ripon College, Cuddesdon.
  • Frederick

    In my opinion the best summary of Margaret Thatcher’s toxic legacy is to be found in the long essay titled Margaret Thatcher Was a Privatization Pioneer by Michael Hudson.