The decision to site a tinplate portrait of Margaret Thatcher alongside Nye Bevan in the Senedd has brought about predictable howls of outrage from all those who remember the devastation wrought on Welsh communities by the Tory governments of the 80s and 90s. Thatcher’s attack on the miners was a deliberate and premeditated act of class war aimed at wiping out the militant vanguard of the workers movement. In 1974 the miners destroyed the government of Ted Heath; in 1984 Thatcher first provoked miners to strike and then used every means at her disposal to destroy them, thus paving the way for the wonders of an untrammelled free market economy.
Thatcher’s victory was not inevitable. Solidarity action from other workers, together with militant defence of picket lines, could have created a different outcome. PR members, then in Workers Power, argued for the revolutionary tactics which the crisis demanded, and won a hearing amongst the most militant miners. But we were almost alone on the left in doing so. Scargill baulked at treading on the toes of other union leaders, the rank and file failed to gain control of the strike, and aided and abetted by the capitalist media and the yellow union UDM, Thatcher slowly strangled the life out of the NUM.
We are still living with the consequences today – not uniquely in the Welsh coalfields, but in all the mining communities of the UK. Hundreds of thousands of workers have lost their means of subsistence, but more than that, we have lost much of the political culture that grew up around the mining industry.
Nye Bevan was a product of that culture. Number one figurehead for the left in Wales, it is hardly surprising he was chosen for commemoration at the Senedd. After all, the image of this former miner already looks down on us when we walk into the concourse at the University Hospital, Cardiff, and left groups routinely set out their stalls beneath his feet on Queen Street.
Bevan is remembered, first and foremost, as the architect of the National Health Service, a reform which even the most hardline anarchist can hardly deny had some benefits. However, while there is no doubt that Bevan played a crucial role in facing down the BMA and ensuring that the NHS became a free service, his importance should not be overstated. The need for some kind of nationalised health service was accepted even by the capitalist class in the 40s; it was part of all three main parties’ 1945 manifestos, following the the Beveridge Report of 1942. Bevan’s reforms were built on a backdrop of mass agitation by workers demanding a better life for themselves following the sacrifices of 1939-45; this, together with the fear of the ruling class that those workers might regard the Soviet Union as a better model of society, made those reforms relatively easy to push through.
While unquestionably a man committed to improving the lot of the working class, Bevan was no model for those who want to see the workers usurping the capitalist class to take control of society, and until this happens, as we have seen all too well, reforms such as the NHS will come under attack as soon as the profiteers judge they can no longer afford them. And that would have happened in the UK with or without Margaret Thatcher.
It was the power of organised workers, not the personalities of individual politicians, that pushed British society to the left in the era between the second world war and the late 70s. It is the weakness of organised labour that enabled Blair and Brown to cement Thatcher’s legacy by means of the party to which Bevan professed such undying loyalty.
Cardiff PR are not going to criticise anyone who chooses to express their loathing of the Margaret Thatcher portrait. But given the craven submission of our supposed political leaders in Wales to the likes of the Metrix consortium, some might make the argument for not only siting Thatcher’s portrait in the Senedd, but renaming the place in her honour.