Thursday 12 January 2012

Facing Fearful Odds: A Reply To John Pagani

"You Turn If You Want To": But Margaret Thatcher, Britain's "Iron Lady", was not for turning. And that is the lesson John Pagani has failed to draw from her career. Powerful ideas, coherently organised and ruthlessly implemented, are extraordinarily difficult to resist. Only when the Left evinces the confidence in its principles that Mrs Thatcher had in hers, will the Right be decisively defeated.

JOHN PAGANI’s intriguing riff on Thatcherism and the importance of being on the right side of history has got me worried. It’s not that I think he’s wrong – there is much to be learned from Margaret Thatcher’s career. What worries me is that he’s learned the wrong lessons.

Mr Pagani characterises Thatcher as a politician of principle who was able to achieve great things for her country because, having set her course, she could rely upon the surge of History’s tide to carry her forward. Of course he’s only able to say such things because he knows how the story ends, which, from an historian’s point of view, is cheating. In 1979, when Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister, the ‘surge of History’s tide’, far from favouring the Right, was assumed to flowing, with ever-growing force, to the Left.

For many Conservatives the image which best summed up the mission Margaret Thatcher had assigned herself was that of Horatius on the bridge. She was willing to be the “Last Tory”, just as Horatius was willing to be the “Last Roman”, denying passage to the implacable enemies of a great, if faltering, empire and averring, by her readiness to stand and fight, the power of Lord Macaulay’s oft-quoted lines:

And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods

When Mrs Thatcher became Leader of the Opposition in 1975 the British nation was in crisis. It’s working-class was pushing hard against the crumbling structures of tradition and privilege in hopes of building a more rational and humane society. Twelve million strong, the trade unions had already seen off the Conservative Government of Edward Heath and had imposed upon a startled Labour Party a manifesto openly calling for the nationalisation of the “commanding heights” of the British economy and the introduction of “industrial democracy”. More than a few on the right of British politics feared that just one more king hit from the Left would see British Capitalism go down for the count.

But if Britain’s manufacturers were resigned to the state relieving them of their responsibilities, and her middle-classes already half-way convinced that the manifold absurdities of their existence (so brilliantly satirised in the BBC’s 1976-79 series The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) had rendered them unfit to rule, there was still one, rock-solid bastion of British capitalism that was not willing to go gentle into that good night of socialism – the City of London.

The financiers of the City of London constituted the Imperial Guard of British Capitalism. It was extractive and parasitic, and cared not one whit for the vast workforces employed in Britain’s industrial heartlands. The City of London had not just grown alongside the British Empire, it had, in a very real sense created it. And the tribute of that empire, in the form of dividends and interest, continued to pile up in its vaults.

And the men of the City did not lack for resources. Above all else, the City was a vast and complex network – and its reach was long. It extended into Fleet Street and Oxbridge and the Civil Service. The younger brothers of City men could be found in the upper echelons of the armed forces, and, more disturbingly, in the ranks of MI5 and MI6. Descendants of Duke William’s knights, and of Henry VIII’s “new men”, the ones who ended up with Catholicism’s English acres; the families who ran the City of London had always known what to take – and how to keep it.

As Richard Crockett shows in his book Thinking The Unthinkable: Think-Tanks and the Economic Counter-Revolution, 1931-1983, it was men of the City who bank-rolled the so-called “New Right” and underwrote its ideological factories. And it was from these that the “new” ideas flowed: to the news media; to the universities; and to the Conservative Party faction, led by the cadaverous Sir Keith Joseph and his ambitious young protégée, Margaret Thatcher, which was determined to prevent the Left from delivering British Capitalism's coup de grace.

But, of course, they were not new ideas at all. Mr Pagani, having pumped himself full of Thatcherism's anabolic steroids, waxes eloquent about the “paleolithic”political tactics advocated by “left reactionaries” – all the time forgetting that the ideas Mrs Thatcher championed and the social order she constructed had already been tested to destruction in the hundred years between 1830 and 1930. Like the US officer in Vietnam,who was willing to “destroy the village in order to save it”, Mrs Thatcher was prepared to let Britain’s productive industrial base go under rather than see the City of London subjected to effective regulation.

And that refusal continues to exact its toll on British society. The consequences of the City’s unregulated greed are today as clear to Britons as Wall Street’s recklessness is to Americans. Mrs Thatcher’s historic achievement was not to show how far one can travel when History is pushing you forward, but how long History’s progress can be impeded by someone relentlessly pushing back. In the 33 years since Mrs Thatcher was elected, British society has not become more rational or more humane – quite the reverse. The breakthrough that so nearly occurred in the 1970s remains to be made, and only the Left can make it.

And that’s the lesson Mr Pagani failed to draw from his cinematic sojourn with Meryl-as-Maggie. The extraordinary power of ideas, and how far a politician and her party can go when those ideas are marshalled into a coherent set of economic, social and political objectives.

Far from advising New Zealand's Labour leader, David Shearer, to shun the looming battle on the Auckland Waterfront, Mr Pagani should be urging him to strap on his armour and unsheath his sword. Mrs Thatcher never ran away from a fight, which is why she was able to win over and over and over again. Nor did she have the slightest patience for those who advocated poll-driven ideological U-turns.

“You turn if you want to,” she famously told the Conservative Party’s doubters and worriers, “the Lady’s not for turning.”

Oh that David Shearer should prove as willing to go into battle for the long-delayed advance of socialism, as Britain’s “Iron Lady” did for the sterile ashes of her capitalist fathers and the high-rise temples of their greedy London gods.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Robert Winter said...

On this Mr Shearer should be both strong and clear.

Anonymous said...

The chance for the left to show where they really , really, REALLY stand strong or wither, wither away.

Whether Labour is a real Party of the 'working' left or not!

Shona said...

Shearer will do absolutely nothing.The Labour Party abandoned the NZ worker many moons ago.

Anonymous said...

Reading Trotter two key points are apparent:

1. The Left still refuses to accept that Communism is an utterly bankrupt ideology.

2. The Left still has not realised that Kiwis will not, under any circumstances, live under the yoke of a totalitarian police state.

Decent Kiwis today are the majority and most of us, be warned, have had an absolute gutsfull of Left-wing parasitism and subversion.

Mark Wilson said...

The choice for Labour - support the waterfront unions efforts to return to the dark corrupt days of union domination which was so rightly rejected by the majority of Kiwis for the last 50 years and thus alienate themselves further from power or accept that we live in an era that does not agree with Bowalley Roads concept that everything should cost the poor more.

Chris Trotter said...

Okay then, Mark, here's a starter for ten.

Identify the years in which New Zealand was "dominated" by the trade unions, and describe how that domination manifested itself.

Bearing in mind that the word "dominate" is defined as: 1. To control, govern, or rule by superior authority or power:
2. To exert a supreme, guiding influence on or over.

Let's see just how strong a grasp of New Zealand history you actually possess.

mark wilson said...

No problem Chris - heres two for starters -
During the Second World War the wharfies went on strike over their pay despite their being paid well over the average (as is currently the situation)and at a time when our troops were being paid a fraction of the average wage and in some cases making the ultimate sacrifice to provide a future for us all. Many of my male relatives went overseas to fight and one was a wharfie and I know the disbelief of the former that the latter could be part of such behaviour. Those that returned couldn't stand to be in his presence.
With the shortage of men the wharfies took a horrifying advantage of others bloodshed. That is one of the main reasons that the public of NZ were prepared to do whatever it took to crush the wharfies during the 1951 strike.

Second example - the Boilermakers Union actions while building the BNZ tower in Wellington meant that the building was delayed for a decade (Wikapedia) and resulted in no further significant steel buildings constructed in NZ for another decade on top.

I would be interested to know if the two concrete buildings that were built during that period and that killed most of the people in the Christchurch earthquake would have been built with steel (and safer) but for the boiler makers.
Their actions added immeasurably to building costs in NZ.

Both cases were in situations where the particular unions were in a position to dominate the field they were in and grossly abused that postion.

I have no interest in defending employers when they behave reprehensively and I do not believe the right generally does either but for some reason the left will not condemn the unions no matter what they do.

Anonymous said...

Pagani is wrong. The lesson of Thatcher is that democratic formalities are largely pointless. The only way to win in politics is to use whatever means are necessary to destroy your class enemies and render them into a disorganised mob. The same trick was used here against the watersiders in 51.

The left has forgotten that a democratic majority is less important than being a minority strong enough to prevent itself being marginalised no matter where the majority of votes go. The British unions ended up being too weak to force a long term change.

Note that the UK financial community has managed to do this without mainstream criticism despite causing far worse havoc to the UK than Scargill and co. ever managed.

Gerrit said...


Your critiria to define a year is wrong as there was never a "year" as such.

What people remember is specific instances such as Cook Strait ferries seemly always on strike at holiday time when ordiniary workers were held to ransom in their short vacaion window.

They remember instances such as 3 years to settle a boilermaker dispute on a building site in Wellington, they remember the mangere bridge SH20 build being constantly on hold due to industrial action.

They remmber the Hobbit fiasco, now the POA.

It is not a "year", it is occasions that are remembered and stored in the memory as reference points.

What the unions have to take into account is that there would be a line streching up Queen Street to take on any of those watersiders jobs even at $50K per year, split shifts and all.

That I would suggest puts the union offside with most other workers.

Protecting their patch as they are entitled to, but when you see pay and conditions way above what the vast majority receives being asked to be increased it just seperates the MUNZ from the rest of the workforce.

POA will have no trouble gettign a non union contractor with more then enough people applying for those jobs to see of MUNZ.

MUNZ should tender for the stevedoring contract.

With such major assists as a Wellington office building they will have the financial ability to set up a contract business.

Chris Trotter said...


No, I'm sorry, Mark, but I cannot give you any points for that answer.

What you have described simply does not amount to "domination". The day-to-day cut-and-thrust of industrial relations in a western democratic nation hardly qualifies.

Temporary public inconvenience; poor management practices; even the bloody-minded attitude of some (usually small) unions like the Cooks & Stewards and the Boilermakers; all of these - even when added together - come nowhere near the state of affairs you claimed for New Zealand in which unions "controlled, governed, and ruled " the nation.

Oh, and the right to strike - even in wartime (some would say ESPECIALLY in wartime, when the opportunities for gross exploitation are so great) is a fundamental human right.

Recent commentary from the Right suggests that it is their contention that workers do indeed possess this right, but with one important proviso - that they never use it.

Jeremy Bowen said...

Where does the credit for Government debts come from? Does it all come from other creditor nations? How much comes from the private sector? The tax havens of this world must hold rather a lot of cash, it has to go somewhere and the financial centres, especially the City of London are the conduits.If the city put Margaret into power might they now have figured a way to even better
control the decisions of the western world's Governments. This of course is potentially only paranoid conjecture but I would love to know the truth. By constantly refering to the Chinese and some others as the creditors of the indebted nations of the west and refering to their need to keep those indebted nations solvent for their own commercial ends then we all breath a sigh of relief in the comfort of this knowledge. However, the European Union during discussions to solve sovereign debt within it's boundaries has referred to the private sector having to be prepared to relinquish a proportion of it's credit to assist the union in it's attempts to gain some semblance of financial order and thereby stablize it's currency. In this fact I saw the possibility of a clue as to the significance of private credit for sovereign debt. Credit is power. The unions and the Auckland Council have a limited supply of it. If this goes the private sector's way it is perhaps not that much different from much of the western world and that is my concern in this matter.

Scouser said...

Working class background and lived through the various antics of both the unions and Thatcherism in the UK. It's easily forgotten the power unions wielded in the UK in the 70s. Going long periods without power, transport etc In the workplace the average union rep was a marxist with little man's syndrome. They often acted worse than the employers against whom they puported to represent the workers. The union movement had mostly been hijacked by politically motivated or self interested members. They let the workers down. There was, and to a lesser extent still is, a class divide in the UK they needed to be fighting against as it major cause of unequal opportunity. Frankly, by the time Thatcher appeared the average worker had had enough of the unions as they intuitively realised they did not actually represent the average worker by this time. Factory after factory was closing down to move to places like Germany because of the poor productivity, constant strikes etc. My father personally worked in 4 closed factories and complained bitterly about union practises.

Thatcher wasn't exactly Mrs Nice. She gutted places like Liverpool in her battle with the unions. The Home Counties was looked after but the urban working class in the highly unionised areas ended up without any place to work. She and the Tories went the other extreme and thus the final reaction against the Tories.

What does all this tell us - not any great conspiracy (as many of the left seem to find many actions) - More that people want moderation and react against extremism as the unions had become, and later Thatcher.

Julz said...

Thanks for your article Chris- many of the comments that follow simply confirm the success of "the construction of consent" that David Harvey describes so eloquently. The language of neoliberalism is taken as the natural order. The Paganis have a distressingly narrow and sexist view of what constitutes 'work'and thus they continue the attack on anyone not in paid work. In the meantime over here in the UK there is growing understanding of the new clas which is emerging the "Precariat" its fragmented and its dangerous

Anonymous said...

One overlooked aspect of Britain in 1979: the unions were responsible for installing Thatcher in the first place. Having seen off Heath, they essentially brought down Callaghan because they thought they could handle Thatcher.

UK Labour would have won an election held in 1978, and without the stupidity of the Winter of Discontent, they would have won in 1979 as well. Had the union leadership of the time possessed more brains, Thatcher would have never come to power.

Victor said...


Absolutely right!

A related point is that Callaghan and Healey were presiding over an unexpected economic revival, that was short circuited by the Winter of Discontent and Thatcher's subsequent anti-growth policies.

I think that posterity will prove kinder to Jim Callaghan (the only prime minister truly drawn from the English working class) than were his contemporaries, including his alleged buddies in the trade union movement.

But, above all, the decline of Britain's industrial economy since the late 60s, confirms the wisdom and courage of Barbara Castle's "In Place of Strife" proposals.

I'll leave it to others to determine the relevance, if any, of all this to 21st century New Zealand.

Chris Trotter said...

Oh, come on, gentlemen, please!

The "Winter of Discontent" was a direct consequence of the Callaghan Government's and the TUC's utterly misguided and unjust "Social Contract".

This top-down agreement locked-in the gains of the more powerful unions at the expense of the poorest paid UK workers - who, not unsurprisingly, objected to being expected to carry the cost of beating inflation on their own.

A wiser Labour leader would have insisted on a fairer solution. But Callaghan had already drunk the Kool-Aid of Monetarism by then and, like Jimmy Carter in the USA, was busily setting the scene for Thatcher and Reagan.

You're right about the timing of the election though. Faint Labour hearts ceded an undeserved victory to the Iron lady.

Victor said...


I agree that there was more than a whiff of corporatism and cronyism about the deals that Callaghan stitched up with the more powerful unions.

The 'Social Contract' was certainly
unstable and unfair and, in the long term, no way to run a ball game.

But, in the short term, the economic achievements of the Callaghan-Healey government were highly impressive, particularly when set against the background of Britain's decades-long vortex of decline.

Moreover, some of the union barons with whom Callaghan did his deals, certainly represented low-waged sections of the population.

And,yes, you're right that Callaghan had imbibed deeply from the well of monetarism.

His view was that the Stagflation of the '70s could not be solved by the Keynesian approach that had worked well over the preceding 30 years and would, in my view, work very well again today.

And, having lived through that tetchy and unpleasant decade, I'm not sure that he was wrong. The essential problem in the 70s was not failure of effective demand but inflation driven by hikes in the price of oil and other resources.

To my mind, a key problem with the Thatcherites, neo-liberals, Nu-Labour etc. is that they constructed a politico-economic mega-narrative out of the exigencies of a brief moment in time and then imposed it as dogma on more than an entire generation.

And, of course, mad Sir Keith et al were just waiting to do so. Stagflation was just the excuse.

Could a more resolutely leftist Labour government have retained office? I really don't think so.

Certainly, Labour's march to the left after Callaghan had gone, simply made it unelectable for the best part of two decades.

And, then, the party overcompensated and fell victim to Blairism.

Anonymous said...

Oh Chris -pretty incredible even for you to set the quiz then dismiss the answers(which were correct as I see it - and recall the times) and then say they were not what you would agree with. They were spot on which you might just see if you were not so selective in your memory of those events.
Even more incredible to say that the wharfies had the right to go on strike during the war when others were dying for freedom! Little wonder that my father as a working man was hugely dismissive of the 1951 strikers.