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The Thatcherite Offensive

by Alexander Gallas on May 11, 2016

GallasBookMy book starts from the observation that the Margaret Thatcher and John Major governments sought to systematically constrain organised labour. Thatcher’s mentor and close ally Keith Joseph published a pamphlet in February 1979 entitled Solving the Union Problem is The Key to Britain’s Recovery. Once Thatcher had become Prime Minister, what followed was the stepwise tightening of trade union law, the careful preparation for a confrontation with the organisation spearheading militant trade unionism in Britain at the time, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and an economic and monetary policy accelerating the decline of British industry.

The 1984–5 Miners’ Strike, the key instance of the confrontation between the government and the unions, was the longest mass strike in British history. It cost approximately £28bn. But this is just one of many fiercely fought industrial disputes in the Thatcherite era in which the government had a stake – either because they took place in the public sector, or because political decisions and legal changes had paved the way for employer attacks. The labour scholar John Kelly provides an apt description of the situation under which unions operated in the Thatcherite era.

Unions were unable to stem a flood of closures and redundancies, they failed to prevent real wages falling in the depths of the recession, they could not prevent changes in working practices and they suffered a number of spectacular strike defeats: railways 1982, mining 1985, printing 1986, TV-AM 1987, teachers 1987, P & O ferries 1989.

Taking seriously the substantial changes in labour relations, I arrive at the key observation of my book: I contend that Thatcherism’s success and novelty, indeed its unity as a political project, lie in the fact that Thatcher and her associates profoundly shifted class relations in Britain in favour of capital and profoundly restructured the institutions underpinning class domination in the country. My key theoretical intervention is to propose that in the first instance, capitalist class domination consists in the extraction of surplus labour in the process of production. It follows that political leaders will always intervene in the sphere of production in some way.

In line with my emphasis on production, my book contains a case study analysing four policy papers on labour relations commissioned by the Conservative leadership during the Callaghan era. Among them is the ‘Final Report of the Nationalised Industries Policy Group’ in the Conservative Party, which is only mentioned in passing in much of the literature on Thatcherism. This report, written in 1977 by Nicolas Ridley, an ally of Thatcher, laid out how a future Conservative government would deal with the nationalised industries. The annex to the report contains a detailed plan aimed at smashing militant trade unionism, which shows that leading circles in the Conservative Party were already preparing for a direct confrontation with organised labour before there was a Thatcher government. As my chapter on British class politics between 1979 and 1984 demonstrates, the Thatcher governments stuck to this course and followed the recommendations of the report closely. In a nutshell, my analysis is concerned with establishing the articulation between direct attacks of the Thatcher governments on militant workers and Thatcherite economic policy in a broader sense, not just with the effects of their economic policy on class relations.

My key analytical distinction reflects this concern. In my view, there are two modes of ‘top-down’ politics under capitalist conditions:

  • class politics, that is, political activities aimed directly at securing the extraction of surplus value; and
  • economic order politics, that is, interventions primarily aimed at establishing and securing the preconditions for economic growth, which affect class domination only indirectly.

Against this backdrop, I contend that Thatcher and her associates implemented both a new class political arrangement and a new economic-political order. The class political arrangement combined a repressive approach to labour relations with the attempt to divide the working class by co-opting certain fractions. The economic-political order centred on the notion of the ‘free market’. Thatcherite interventions aimed at inducing growth through market liberalisation, which was achieved partly with the help of authoritarian modes of decision-making. As a result, the British economy was exposed, to a much stronger degree than before, to competition in the world market. The class political arrangement and the economic-political order were fully compatible with each other. I thus speak of an overarching neoliberal regime.

The analytical value-added of these distinctions may not be immediately apparent. It lies in elucidating the uneven temporality of political developments during the Thatcherite era and beyond. Whereas the New Labour governments broke with the Thatcherite class political arrangement, they broadly retained the economic-political order established by their predecessors. Correspondingly, the terms Thatcherism and Blairism should be reserved for the respective class political arrangements. A key finding of my analysis is that the continuities and discontinuities of neoliberalism can be accounted for by distinguishing between class politics and economic order politics.

I propose to further elucidate this by taking up some of the terminology developed by the state theorist Nicos Poulantzas. Accordingly, I describe Thatcherism and Blairism as offensive and consolidating steps of the capitalist class in class struggle. In other words, Thatcherism reasserted capitalist class domination by orchestrating a successful offensive against the working class, and Blairism managed to protect this advance. At this point, two further findings of my analysis come into sight: The failure of organised labour to successfully counter the Thatcherite onslaught is a result of its inability to understand the offensive nature of Thatcherism; and the long erosion of Thatcherism in the 1990s reflects the political inability of Thatcher et al. to make the transition from an offensive to a consolidating step in class struggle.

Alexander Gallas
Alexander Gallas is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Kassel, and one of the editors of the Global Labour Journal. He has a PhD and an MA in Sociology, both from the University of Lancaster, and a Magister Artium in Philosophy from FU Berlin. In his monograph The Thatcherite Offensive: A Neo-Poulantzasian Analysis (Brill, 2015), he analyses the reorganisation of class relations under the Conservative governments in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s.
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  • May 12, 2016 at 11:51 am

    Hi Alexander – Does your book offer any commentary on the intentions of the Thatcher offensive regarding the creation and management of the surplus population / reserve army? And if so, how that fits with the two modes you propose?

  • Alexander Gallas
    May 13, 2016 at 11:04 pm

    Hi — I describe the increase in unemployment under Thatcher as an effect of interventions located at the level of economic order politics (pro-cyclical monetary policy, financial liberalisation, privatisation), but also argue that these interventions underpinned the Thatcherite class political regime because they weakened organised labour considerably. At the level of class politics, I use a ter, from Bob Jessop and talk about about a ‘two nations hegemonic project’ in the Thatcherite era. The active management of unemployment by the government and the creation of a distinction between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor is located here.

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