Thatcher’s real legacy: Globalization

This is the bust town that Margaret Thatcher built.

On a quest to slash waste, Thatcher moved to shrink the unprofitable state coal industry in Britain — sparking a violent, countrywide strike by miners that forever bored the year 1984 into the national consciousness. When the dust cleared, she had broken the back of once-untouchable unions and paved the way for a diverse and globalized energy sector.

In the decades since, communities like Newstead have paid the price.

All that is left of the mine that closed here in 1987 is a graffiti-
covered pump station a few yards’ walk from a lonely train stop. No new employer on the same scale ever came to Newstead, leading to a rise in joblessness and a loss of community self-esteem. In a part of central England that has the feel of the American rust belt, some longtime residents have moved away or gone on welfare. On a recent afternoon, youths loitered outside the one corner shop still open on Newstead’s Main Street, talking of their futures as dead ends in the making.

“We hate her; we do,” said Brian Walker, 84, who lost his last steady job when the Newstead Mine closed. He said he plans to turn off the television when Thatcher’s funeral parade — the most elaborate for any elected British leader since Winston Churchill — snakes through central London on Wednesday. “Destroyed our lives, that woman did.”

Britain this week will bury one of the most towering figures of the 20th century, a fierce Conservative who died April 8 at age 87 after a long struggle with dementia. But what this country of 62 million cannot seem to bury is the intense divide over Thatcher’s legacy.

The economic legacy

To be sure, the grocer’s daughter from Grantham stirs British hearts for staring down the Soviets and an Argentine junta that tried to waylay the Falkland Islands — both moves that slowed, if not quite reversed, the decline of a once-great empire. But nothing appears to polarize Britons more than Thatcher’s economic legacy and the way one woman’s will effectively reshaped the modern British state in ways that reverberate even today.

Thatcher decimated mining and yanked subsidies from shipbuilders, upending working-class lives. But she also dragged Britain to the forefront of globalization at a time when the word was only just being coined. Many argue that she merely sacrificed the gangrenous limbs of the British economy — subsidized industry — to save a body now running on white-collar services and global finance.

Indeed, if Newstead is the bust town that Thatcher built, her legacy also lives on 137 miles to the south, in the boomtown that is London’s Canary Wharf.

In the 1980s, Thatcher supported the regeneration of abandoned docklands into a wholly new financial district that today looks like a mini-Manhattan. Its glistening majesty was given its shine by her government’s “Big Bang” — the name for a massive deregulation of British financial markets that catapulted London into a global banking capital rivaled only by New York.

The ensuing rush of foreign banks, hedge funds and international dealmakers to Britain funneled fabulous wealth into London, contributing to an urban renaissance that has made the city more affluent than at any other point in its storied past. Today, the value of the real estate in just 10 central London boroughs is worth more than all the land in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined.

John van Reenen, head of the Center for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, said his wife, who was working in London’s financial district at the time of the Big Bang, noticed “an immediate change from the long boozy lunches and not working on Friday afternoons.” He added, “The whole culture shifted. London took off.”

In what was once urban wasteland, one now enters the lobby of One Canada Square — a landmark tower at the heart of Canary Wharf — by walking past diamonds for sale at Tiffany & Co. and $580 footwear being peddled at Church’s shoes.

“With Canary Wharf, there are now more people working in this area — more than 100,000 — than when it was thriving docklands a hundred years ago,” said John Garwood, group secretary of the corporation that manages the district. “You see, what Thatcher did is recognize that you could not hold back globalization. It was a force that needed to be embraced, and that’s just what she did.”

Deep resentment

“Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” hit No. 2 on the British music charts this week, a sign of the deep resentment still festering decades after Thatcher’s exit from No. 10 Downing Street. Her death did not so much dig up old memories as spotlight what many in Britain see as an ongoing war against the working classes that continues to dominate the national debate.

Since coming to power in 2010, the Conservative-led government of Prime Minister David Cameron has again put Thatcher’s crusade to curb welfare and impose fiscal austerity at the top of the national agenda. Those policies are particularly hitting the old industrial pockets north of London that are far more reliant on state jobs and welfare than the relatively more affluent south.

Yet Thatcher supporters argue that calling class warfare part of her legacy is far too simplistic — her policies, for instance, also encouraged the poor to buy the public housing units they were living in rather than receive them as a state benefit. That move increased homeownership, and as property values surged in subsequent years — particularly in London — it vastly improved the lot of many poor Britons.

But for better or worse, the declining role of the state in the British economy since Thatcher’s day has also been the chief driver of income inequity, which has surged in Britain since her election in 1979. And if anyone suffered under Thatcher, it was British miners.

Walker, for instance, spent years doing backbreaking work in Newstead. He came to the coal mines fresh from military service in the 1950s and built a family on the wages he earned breaking up coal for shipping. Back then, the miners were the embodiment of union power. A 1974 strike by miners seeking higher pay had forced Prime Minister Edward Heath, a Conservative, to call early elections, which he lost.

But that changed with Thatcher. Her determination to curtail unprofitable state coal mining prompted a strike in March 1984. In towns north of Newstead, the strike had the feel of civil unrest. One pitched battle in Orgreave between police and protesters left dozens wounded on both sides.

For a full year, Walker joined a hard-core group of miners in Newstead who refused to cross picket lines, and he scrounged to make a living by selling handmade souvenirs. To this day, old feuds between those who crossed the picket lines and those who didn’t fester in the British midlands.

“Whenever I see one of the scabs, they still walk on the other side of the street,” Walker said.

In March 1985, the spent holdouts surrendered and went back to work. But the breaking of the unions opened the floodgates of globalization that saw Britain turn in later years toward cheaper, imported coal. The mine closure here in 1987 was only one snowball in an avalanche of shuttered mines. Before the strike, 148,000 miners cut coal in Britain. Today, there are fewer than 6,000.

“We lost out because of her,” Walker said. “And I, for one, am never going to forget.”

Eliza Mackintosh contributed to this report.

Anthony Faiola is The Post's Berlin bureau chief. Faiola joined the Post in 1994, since then reporting for the paper from six continents and serving as bureau chief in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, New York and London.
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