By Joe Rollin - local organiser of the South Yorkshire Unite Community branch
It’s become a truism that this government is worse than the Margaret Thatcher in its harshness. Frankly that misses the point. There is little to be gained by trying to analyse the shades of Tory dogma.
Margaret Thatcher’s government privatised the utilities. Profit was favoured over democratic control and we are now reeling from high energy bills. Her other major policy plank for which we are still paying a terrible price was the sale of council homes with the added spitefulness of not allowing councils to build more. These policies were tied to her objective to weaken the trade unions.
She laid the foundations for this Tory led coalition government to use the economic crisis to shrink the state by privatising the welfare state and turning over the National Health Service to among others Virgin and Tesco.
This was the background for the debate with more than 150 students crammed into the Revolution Coffee Bar at Sheffield University on Monday 30 September to hear John Dunn an ex-miner, and current member of Unite the union up against Andre Walker, a Tory press officer for the Trade Union Reform Campaign and Conservative Way Forward. Reform, that much abused word used when politicians want to trash something the value of which we on the left hold dear.
The debate was on the proposition that Margaret Thatcher’s time as prime minister was a triumph, leading to long term prosperity for the British people that we should all be very grateful for today.
I was asked by the Sheffield University debating society to provide a speaker for the debate. John - a miner during the 1984-85 strike – one of the defining struggles during Thatcher’s time in office - was the perfect person to demonstrate the absurdity of the proposition.
Listening to Andre Walker who opened the debate you’d have thought that Thatcher really was the best thing that has happened to Britain since the invention of sliced bread.
John responded passionately describing the reality of Thatcher’s Britain and the catastrophic effect of neo economic liberalism and Tory policies pursued by her government on the coal and steel industry in the Sheffield area and elsewhere. The mantra of relying on "the invisible hand" of the market was a disaster.
He explained how the promise made by Thatcher that she would make the British people part of a ‘share owning democracy’ was nothing more than an excuse to privatise and dismantle nationalised industries in the interests of profit-making big businesses. This folly was compounded by the ‘big bang’ in the City which did away with financial regulation, led to a free-for-all in the City. And we are still suffering from the fall out.
As a result of Thatcher's attacks on the trade unions and the driving down of wages, working people, John said, were forced into a credit bubble in which the hard earned savings of ordinary people were gambled away by the bankers. This, and the casino economy a result of the lack of regulation, led eventually to the huge financial crisis of 2008. The British people have been forced to pick up the tab for the economic failure. Ordinary people did not cause the crash but they are now paying as a result of the ConDem coalitions’ austerity measures. The debt has been nationalised while the bankers have gone on receiving their huge bonuses.
The real legacy of Margaret Thatcher, John argued, was the decimation of communities, the misery caused by austerity, the high youth unemployment and continuing poverty. Prosperity was an illusion made possible by the credit bubble.
Following lively and interesting contributions from the floor the debate was wound up by John urging students to join Unite the Union, become politically organised, and begin the fight back against this current anti-working class, Tory-led coalition government.
And he ended with an appeal to the students - secure their own future and put an end to the legacy of Thatcher by joining in the struggle for a socialist society.
To loud cheers Walker’s claim was overwhelming defeated as John and Unite’s argument won the day by a huge majority.
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