Thatcher vs. Livingstone

The eulogies for former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher this week have uniformly praised her toughness and strength of will. But what ends did that strength serve?

Thatcher’s confrontation with unionized miners has frequently been mentioned in news coverage of her death. Less well know (on this side of the Atlantic) is the story of her showdown with London’s local government in the early 1980s.

In 1981, Ken Livingstone, representing the Labour Party, was elected to the leadership of the Greater London Council (GLC). The policy agenda of his local government was strikingly progressive, especially for an era in which the progressive Left was supposedly in retreat. Livingstone’s GLC pursued public-sector job creation, lower fares on public transportation, civil rights advocacy, and representation for women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians. The GLC’s civil rights and representation agendas were not just empty words: Ken Livingstone’s GLC created formal committees for under-represented groups in London’s local government and funded civic groups outside of government.

Unable to dislodge the GLC’s progressive leadership in democratic elections, Margaret Thatcher began a campaign to abolish it altogether, finally succeeding in 1986. London became the only major city in Western Europe without its own elected government. It took until 2000 for local government to be restored to London. Ken Livingstone was elected as mayor that year and re-elected in 2004.

Thatcher’s abolition of the GLC was a perfect representation of her politics and her legacy. She dedicated her intelligence, resolve, and strength of character to fight for the wealthy, the privileged, and the powerful. When some stood up for the rights of the outsider and the under-represented, she fought to maintain traditional hierarchies in every form.

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