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What if – there was no Thatcher premiership, what then for Ireland? October 24, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Irish Politics, What if?.

On foot of the discussion here on the outcomes of no 1916, something which might be worth returning to in greater depth, what of another key event in both Irish and British history? Had a Labour administration been returned in 1979, or perhaps more interestingly an administration closer in approach to that of the earlier Heath governments, what would be the possible implications for events on this island, and indeed the one directly to the east?

Here’s a piece by novelist Philip Hensher from the Guardian in April of this year which considers the broader question raised by this in relation to the United Kingdom itself. I’ve got to admit I find some of his contentions open to serious question.

For example, and perhaps this is typical of this area, Hensher posits one alternative for Britain more generally (and strikingly and tellingly he doesn’t mention Ireland at all) without Thatcher – on foot of a Labour victory in 1983 on that manifesto:

The Britain of this 1986 is not necessarily a very cheerful place. You are employed by the government, whatever you do, and your pay is set by a central body, matching driving instructors’ pay to shop assistants’ to filing clerks’ to journalists’. If you want to go out for dinner, there are a few restaurants in Soho serving Serbian specialities, thanks to our new friends, on the three days a week when there is electricity to eat by. What Britons pay for the single brand of washing powder in the state-owned supermarket is determined by another central body. It is a long time since anyone has been abroad on holiday, or met an American or an Arab – anyway, a new passport takes a year to arrive. On the other hand, that ubiquitous figure, the Marquis of Headington (not so long ago, Robert Maxwell) has been forging strong links with his old friends in eastern Europe. President Ceausescu recently came to pay a visit. There are other international alliances, after all, than the EEC, which we left, and Nato, which we are leaving. Soon, there will be other avuncular figures arriving at the airport to shake the hands of Foot, the Queen and Lord Headington: visitors from the Kremlin with fur hats and bushy eyebrows, full of detailed advice, in no particular hurry to leave.

While another is:

[that] the country would have muddled through, getting by with one government or another, not doing terribly well, managing decline. It could have been Portugal. There was a historical-necessity aspect to Thatcher, by which I mean that anyone, sooner or later, would have perceived that full employment wasn’t achievable without terrible costs elsewhere, and that there was no reason for the state to own removal companies, and that an 83% top rate in income tax might not be the best way to encourage enterprise and industry. Those insights didn’t need Thatcher. There was also a Thatcher aspect to Thatcher, and some of what she did had to be done by her, for good or bad. Who else would have seen an end to the cold war from the start, saying at the Berlin Wall in October 1982, “One day they will be free”, when every other western politician would have urged tact? Who else would have decided to embark on a war not just against miners’ unions, but against miners in a spirit of revenge for which she will never be forgiven?

There’s a line put about that somehow leftists are blind to the agency of individuals in history – it has indeed spawned a small genre of books that argues precisely that point. I think that’s a significant overstatement of the reality. As with everything there’s a mixture. Absent Thatcher or de Valera or Franco certain historical threads would be significantly different but many of the same issues and questions would have been raised requiring not dissimilar responses even if they were more muted. And deeper rooted dynamics, whether of class or other, would have continued in one way or another. In other words certain aspects while not necessarily playing out in the same way would still have been apparent. Of course the responses to same could be radically different. It’s entirely possible to see a Britain where the full frontal assault on the miners was played out in a manner which would have avoided much of the conflict and social dislocation, or another where there was no assault and so on and so forth.

Oddly Hensher comes to a similar conclusion:

By now, we would probably be roughly where we are. Surely, someone else would have made the reforms, or some of them, anyway. But it would not have happened in exactly the same way, and some of it would not have happened at all. Perhaps we would be waiting six months for a mobile telephone, and paying the bills to the post office, headed by the Postmaster General – I don’t believe it would be a very advanced telephone, either. Perhaps there would be three TV channels and the requirement for a licence before you could use the internet.

On a not unrelated note, it’s depressing to read the comments under piece, and indeed it’s more than implied in the piece, about – for example – state ownership of services and companies where the ‘three months to install a telephone’ is taken as an inevitability of state ownership as if it were impossible to order these matters differently and more expeditiously than that within the public sector. Privatisation was not the only ‘solution’ to that, indeed in this state it wasn’t even the solution in some areas. But to see such stuff raised to the level of seemingly iron laws…

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1. Gearóid - October 24, 2013

Given the criminalisation policy had been introduced under Labour, I’m not sure 1981 would have been much different.

EamonnCork - October 24, 2013

Agree with that. Mason was as draconian as any Tory. Labour would probably have been slower to bring in the Anglo-Irish Agreement if anything.

Dr. X - October 24, 2013

When did Labour adopt its line that its preference was for Irish unity by consent?

2. ejh - October 24, 2013

Just in re: the UK, it is of course futile to point out that Foot was no admirer of the Soviet Union, that leaving NATO did not imply joining the Warsaw Pact, that overall growth rates in the supposedly-declining Seventies were no lower than they have been since, that etcetcetcetc.

EamonnCork - October 24, 2013

Then again Hensher may have a point. France elected the Socialist Mitterrand as President in 1981 and within a couple of years the French were only able to eat three times a week and had to step off the pavement when they saw anyone called Boris coming etc. etc. Same thing happened when Felipe Gonzalez was elected in Spain the following year.

3. EamonnCork - October 24, 2013

That’s awful oul nonsense from Hensher. Foolish I suppose to take issue with matters of fact in something so utterly wretched but they wouldn’t have been eating ‘Serbian’ specialities in his dystopian Britain of 1986, unless he’s implying that the failure to elect Thatcher would somehow have expedited the break-up of Yugoslavia. It’s indicative of the extreme laziness of the whole thing. Reminds me of one of those old Sun articles about why Joe Stalin wants you to vote Labour.
It’s interesting to see such a load of blatant right wing nonsense appearing in the Guardian. But I think they’re under the illusion that novelists and creative types in general are somehow rendered implicitly left wing or at the very least politically astute by the work they do. An illusion which would not, for example, survive the sight of Colm Toibin going out to bat for Fingers Fingleton on the Late Late.

ejh - October 24, 2013

I think Hensher’s known to be on the Right, isn’t he?

EamonnCork - October 24, 2013

Think he worked in the House of Commons for some Tory MP. But I do think the Guardian probably feel that because he’s a novelist he’s not really on the right.

ejh - October 24, 2013

I’d doubt it. The Guardian does carry columns by right-wingers – more so than its rightwing counterparts carry columns by left-wingers (though they do, sometimes). They might have felt Hensher was a bit more eclectic and thoughtful than your average Thatcherite, though, and to be fair, he probably is, although one way of looking at this is that he expresses the same prejudices with greater thought and in more imaginative prose.

Eamonncork - October 24, 2013

You’re probably right. Not much thought detectable there though. Littlejohn/O’Doherty level stuff.

EWI - October 25, 2013

“Alternative histories” are an old stand-by of the Anglophone Right. Usually it’s Soviet tanks in Picadilly Square a month after Thatcher loses the election.

4. Brian Hanley - October 24, 2013

Without Thatcher Sean Quinn’s empire probably would not have mushroomed quite the way it did (he admits Thatcher’s policies helped him get lift-off). Without the defeat of the miners and the prevailing view that was the end for traditional union militancy the ICTU would not have embraced social partnership in quite the same way. The Progressive Democrats would not have been quite the same (though Fianna Fáil might still have split). The all-prevailing ‘there is no alternative’ view on the free market might not be as pervasive.
There would still have been a hunger-strike in the H-Blocks- whether it would have ended up the same way is open to question. And if it didn’t end the same way then perhaps Sinn Féin would not have grown electorally in the same way, which was the reason for the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the first place.

Dr. X - October 24, 2013

And that’s the only actual value to speculations about “alternative history” – it allows us to work out precisely what was and was not inevitable in our actual timeline.

Speaking of the PDs, the Irish participants on the alternatehistory.org message boards are all nasty little right-wing shits, with a mental, and possibly actual, age of 14.

ejh - October 24, 2013

I think, in all seriousness, that the major value of alternative histories is that they make you realise why things actually turned out as they did.

Dr. X - October 24, 2013

Which is kind of what I was trying to say there. . .

5. crocodile - October 24, 2013

Reminds me of the great man theory of Irish aviation (you know the one: Michael O’Leary should be running the country because without him we’d still be paying 600 euro a ticket to Heathrow). Nobody else, you see, would have thought of challenging Aer Lingus’s dominance.
Hensher was (is?) chief reviewer on the Boris Johnson era ‘Spectator’, where his fogeyishness was thought to be offset by his gayness. It wasn’t.

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