Adam Curtis, “The Living Dead (Episode 3: The Attic)” (1995)
Having seen the mishmash that was “The Iron Lady”, I figured it was high time I saw something a bit more factual about the period when Margaret Thatcher reigned over Britain as quasi-monarch from 1979 to 1990. Happily that maker of whimsical documentaries Adam Curtis comes to the rescue with this installment in his “The Living Dead” trilogy which posits an interesting parallel between Thatcher’s dream of restoring British imperial glory to a demoralised country on the one hand, and past Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s attempts to shore up the crumbling empire during World War II. The essay that Curtis weaves holds strong throughout the episode’s 1-hour running-time; if anything, Curtis could have made his case stronger still by emphasising the destructive effects of both Churchill and Thatcher’s dreams and the ways in which they and their governments used their vision to keep the public under control.
Less eccentric than other AC documentaries I have seen, “The Attic” follows a conventional chronological narrative detailing MT’s rise to the Conservative Party leadership in the mid-1970s in the wake of the oil crisis and election as Prime Minister in 1979 with her vision of returning Britain to the imperial glory the country had once enjoyed (supposedly). This vision included attacking and dismantling where possible the bogeys afflicting British society and economy, namely, trade unions seen to be overrun by left-wing, possibly Communist, radicals and other socialistic influences eating away at the nation’s moral fibre. Thatcher embraced the economic theories of Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek which emphasise less government control and regulation of the economy and that economic freedom underpins political freedom. In her vision for a New Britain, MT invoked the memory of a previous British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who had led the country during World War II, a major event still fresh in the minds of many people in the 1970s.
As Prime Minister, MT got off to a bad start: the economy failed to respond to her nostrums, trade unions became even more restless and strike activity was frequent, unemployment rates continued to climb, and resistance to British rule in Northern Ireland became more violent. Just when it looked as though MT’s reign as Prime Minister was to be short-lived, an unexpected life-line was thrown: Argentina, at the time under military rule and its leaders wishing to deflect public attention away from the country’s ongoing economic crisis and human rights violations, invaded the Falkland Islands in early 1982. Britain’s successful defence of the islands gave MT the space she needed to implement her economic policy and allowed her to win the 1983 general election in a landslide. From then on, the Conservative Party more or less dominated the political landscape in Britain until 1997 but the influence of so-called “Thatcherism” in the country’s political and economic life has never really gone away.
I think “The Attic” should have focussed much more on the insidious and destructive aspects of Thatcher’s vision and the Churchillian vision that inspired her and her considerable fanbase throughout the world. I presume that Thatcher’s vision of Churchill as a great leader conveniently leaves out the fact that in the late 1930s when the British government considered investing in radar technology for defence purposes, Churchill opposed the proposal: needless to say, radar technology played a major defence role during the Battle of Britain in 1941. Churchill’s idea of wartime leadership consisted of beating Germany into a pulp and throwing that country back into a pre-industrial age; hence his enthusiasm for the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945, resisted by the US military high command (in particular by Dwight D Eisenhower, then Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe) and now recognised as a major war crime by historians. It can be argued that Germany’s determination to fight to the death at the cost of millions of lives during World War II was as much due to Churchill’s refusal to negotiate or have anything to do with anti-Hitler groups in that country, as to the German leader’s paranoia and mania. Churchill would later approve the Morgenthau Plan which called for turning Germany into an agricultural backwater, stripped entirely of its industrial base, and which led to the deaths of 1 – 2 million Germans (some sources say as many as 10 million) from starvation in 1945 – 1950. And there is also that episode in which Churchill agreed to hand over 90,000 Cossack men and their families living in Yugoslavia to the Soviet Union; most of these people, who had left Russia in 1918 and were technically not Soviet citizens, perished in the gulags. It is difficult to believe that Churchill had no idea what would happen to them after the “hand-back”.
Even in the domestic sphere Churchill’s “vision” amounted to very little: it seems to have had as its goal power at all costs and to that end, Churchill happily wandered the entire economic spectrum from free market economic liberalism to virtual democratic socialism. During the war, he allowed Britain to become a social welfare state by approving plans for a national insurance scheme and for housing and health services. As Prime Minister in the early 1950s, he presided over the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya in 1951, an ongoing revolt in Malaya and the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh by the CIA. Once again, it could be argued that British handling of or participation in these crises was poor (the military option was preferred) and in the case of Iran, the coup which Britain backed stymied any democratic and progressive tendencies in that country for decades. Interestingly, as Prime Minister, Churchill and his Labour Minister Walter Monckton adopted a policy of appeasement towards trade unions and this perhaps encouraged the union movement to assume an attitude of entitlement that decades later Thatcher tried to fight.
A brief look at Thatcher’s friends and networks should give us some pause for thought: during the Falklands War the Chilean government under Pinochet, itself notorious for human rights abuses and imposing its own version of Friedman / Hayek economic change on its people, supplied information about Argentine military forces and their movements to the British. (This at the same time that both Chile and Argentina were sharing information about torture methods and helping to arrest one another’s “dissidents” under Operation Condor!) Pinochet himself later became a friend of MT to the extent that she opposed any move by the British government under Tony Blair to extradite him to Spain on war crimes charges when he visited Britain for medical treatment in the late 1990s. Hayek himself visited Chile a few times in the 1970s – 1980s and accepted honorary chairmanship of a free-market economic think-tank in that country. The fact that in Chile and Britain, and several other countries, economic freedom as perceived by Friedman and his followers at the University of Chicago had to be imposed on people and political freedom sacrificed in the process – not to mention that the “reformers’ benefitted financially from claiming privatised government assets for themselves – suggests that this form of “capitalism” is more gravity-defying flooding-up rather than “natural” trickle-down as I was taught at school and university.
Yes, when we look at Churchill and Thatcher’s visions and compare them, what do they really amount to? – they amount to retaining power at any cost without principle. The cynicism and selective thinking involved are breath-taking to say the least. The result in both cases is an impoverishment of British culture and society in some way: the Churchillian “social welfare” society was taken for granted with people and institutions alike not learning how to negotiate for rights and privileges, and that such rights and privileges need to be defended and expanded upon skilfully with diplomacy and negotiation; now that this society is being dismantled by Thatcher’s successors, people erupt with violence, become passive or try to beat one another over an ever-shrinking pie. Pity that Curtis’s otherwise fine documentary with its narrow focus on the spin-doctoring during Thatcher’s reign missed that point.
Sources used: Ralph Raico, “Rethinking Churchill” http://mises.org/daily/2973 and various Wikipedia articles