Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Some Respect Please Mr Sikorski

Polska Wersja Tutaj...

I wasn’t going to write about the death of Thatcher. There’s too much emotion and invested interest in this subject for me to comment on the passing of an elderly woman. But then I read the tweet made by the Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sirkorski, saying that a statue of Thatcher should be built in Poland.

 The divisions around Thatcher’s legacy are well known and although there is now an attempt to eulogise her as a great leader and saviour of the British economy, the experiences of those of us who lived through her governments, or with the lasting effects of the destruction that she wrought, understand the shallowness and one-sidedness of this narrative. 

The Thatcher governments unleashed a wave of de-industrialisation on the country, resulting in mass unemployment, rising poverty and increasing inequalities. But did this not improve the competitiveness of the British economy? Well, in the 31 years leading up to Thatcher coming into power GDP grew by 150%, whilst during the following 31 years it has increased by just 108%. Despite the huge boost of North Sea Oil revenues that her governments enjoyed, Thatcher’s neo-liberal experiment brought economic stagnation not growth. 

The lens of time always affects the way we judge history. If Britain were now a leading hi-tech economy, that had built alternative modern industries, developed its infrastructure and used its resources to better the living standards of its population, then Thatcher would be judged differently. Those that had lost their jobs in the old heavy industries, would look at the lives of their children and reluctantly admit that Thatcher had probably got it right. But they don’t see this. Rather what they see are communities that have been destroyed and jobs not replaced; social housing sold off and new dwellings not built in their place; an industrial base dismantled and replaced with a retail sector that could only grow when the de-regulated banks pumped credit into the hands of the people; an atomized society whose frustrations recently exploded in a wave of rioting.

Of course others will see things differently. The unequal distribution of wealth has benefited those at the top. The financial sector – so revered by Thatcher and then Blair – prospered for decades and when the bubble burst it temporarily forgot about the ideology of no state intervention and gratefully took billions from the British taxpayer. Those now running the country are the direct heirs of Thatcher, shaped by the culture of greed and privilege that she helped to create. And this is where Sikorski comes in. 

Sikorski studied at Oxford University alongside some of the most powerful people in Britain today; including PM David Cameron,  Chancellor George Osborne and the Mayor of London Boris Johnson. Furthermore, they all belonged to the renowned Bullingdon Group, an exclusive society at Oxford University that draws together the sons of the right-wing establishment. The favoured activity of this group has been to book a table at an expensive restaurant, to eat and drink to excess, cause as much damage as possible and then simply pay the bill. Those wishing to join the group are subjected to various initiation ceremonies – with Sikorski reminiscing that his room and its belongings were trashed by Johnson and his friends in the middle of the night before being told he had been elected into the group. All jolly good fun for the high-classes I am sure;  who revel in ostentatious displays of wealth, with no regard for others and no understanding of a things worth.

The likes of Cameron, Osborne and Johnson are now continuing the project of Thatcher and seeking to cut the benefits of the millions that are reliant on welfare; dismantle services such as the NHS that even Thatcher had to leave alone and breed a new culture of division as migrants and those on benefits are blamed for the country’s problems. Having shared in the company of such people and viewed British society through the perspective of its elite and privileged classes, it is little wonder that Sikorski is such an admirer of Thatcher.

It is nevertheless Sikorski’s right to hold his own opinions and to judge Thatcher as he wishes. Not having been bought up in the UK and having only experienced one side of its life, he will have a certain detachment to its history.  I understand this. Despite having lived in Poland for around a decade and a half my view of its past is not born out of personal experience or family connection. I can look at its Communist past  and whilst recognising its shortcomings and crimes, also appreciate that it industrialised, urbanised, educated and provided health care for the vast majority far beyond anything that had ever been done before. Those that lived through the experiences of Martial Law or the grim reality of shortages in the 1980s may have a different perspective  and it is one I respect. 

Yet from the likes of Sikorski it seems that this respect is not reciprocated. I have lost count of the number of time I have had to bite my tongue and restrain my response (not always successfully) when people in Poland have praised the ‘Iron Lady’. However, for the Polish foreign minister to propose constructing a statue of her is an affront to all those who suffered under the Thatcher governments.

The person who Sikorski describes as a ‘fearless champion of liberty who stood up for captive nations’ once described the greatest freedom fighter of our time, Nelson Mandela, as a terrorist. She was the closest political and ideological ally of Pinochet, a murderous regime that killed thousands of its citizens. She used the full force of the state (including media manipulation and police brutality) to defeat the trade unions. She unleashed a war in the Malvinas in an attempt to boost her own electoral popularity, in which over 900 people died (including 323 Argentinian sailors on the retreating Belgrano ship). Thatcher escalated the war against Republicans in Ireland, including allowing 10 hunger strikers to die in prison who were demanding to be treated as political prisoners. The list could go on: mass unemployment, the harassment of black communities, introduction of anti-gay legislation, the poll-tax, the build-up to the first Gulf War….. 

Sikorski may disagree with all of this. He may have an image of Thatcher single-handedly bringing down the Berlin Wall. He may believe that the full effects of Thatcher’s reforms are yet to bear full fruit and that once the present government completes its austerity programme so Britain will finally reach the promised land. Yet whatever his opinions are on these issues he should realise that his lauding of Thatcher and wish to build memorials of her in Poland are deeply offensive. They are offensive to the many that suffered and lost their lives; to those whose jobs and livelihoods were destroyed and to the millions of us that saw our country deteriorate. Perhaps before he sends out his next tweet he should reflect on these feelings for a moment and remember that he no longer just represents the Bullingdon drinking group.  

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