Deliberately, I did not blog yesterday, despite the news media being dominated by the death of a frail and unwell 87 year old woman. It seemed inappropriate to do so, even though I have for more than three decades despised Margaret Thatcher and everything she represented.
Her name first impinged on my consciousness as a small child when, quite suddenly, we no longer enjoyed the dubious pleasure of a third of a pint of warm milk at morning break. The government had to save money somewhere so the Education Secretary decided that, at the age of 7, our developing teeth could look after themselves. Adults around me began using the epithet ‘Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher’. Making the voiceless pay for problems elsewhere is nothing new.
A few years later, following a confusing period of power cuts, no heating oil at school, meals by candlelight around an open fire and wondering why Dad was home from work so early, this same rather shrill woman replaced the seemingly avuncular Ted Heath as leader of the Conservative Party. This was held to be “a good thing” in 1970s Malvern, because apparently the miners were stroppy and two General Elections within a year was unreasonable.
Politics at the time, to my curious mind, was represented by images of men with sideburns and horn-rimmed glasses, wearing bad suits and worse ties; blokes in overalls walking out of factories to the park over the road, listening to a loud man in a safari jacket, then putting their hands up and deciding not to make any more Austin Allegros that week; Asian women on picket lines being charged by police horses; Britain taking a loan from the IMF; rubbish piling up on city streets. “Crisis? What crisis?” said the headline. Then Mr. Callaghan called a General Election.
And the woman in blue won.
I spent much of May 3rd 1979 looking across the playground at the Sixth Form Block, where some of the more politically-aware senior students were recording the results as they came in, on large sheets of paper in the upper windows, visible to much of the school. Later, on the news, the incoming Prime Minister – the first woman in the UK to hold the office – quoted St. Francis of Assisi at surrounding journalists in rather condescending tones. Even as a callow youth of thirteen, I did not like what I saw.
The effects were rapid. We had to share textbooks at school, as there were not enough to go round; subject options for O-level were limited for lack of teachers. In rural Worcestershire we were spared the devastation suffered in the manufacturing heartlands, but even so Dad had to work away from home for more than a year due to MoD cuts. He “got on his bike” but refused to disrupt our education by making my sister and me move schools at such an important time; we missed him terribly, but loved him for this. Still do.
Those defence cuts had consequences in the south Atlantic. In early 1982, the Argentinian flag was raised on the unprotected island of South Georgia and, soon after, on the Falkland Islands themselves. In a blaze of patriotic fervour, “the Iron Lady” miraculously raised a Task Force to retake the islands. 255 British servicemen, two Falklanders and untold numbers of Argentine conscripts died. It’s been suggested that more UK ex-combatants have since taken their own lives than were lost in the conflict itself. At least the dictator Galtieri’s military junta fell as a result. I just remember being terrified that, at the age of 16, I and my friends would be conscripted ourselves to fight in a war 10000 miles away near the bottom of the world.
Until the south Atlantic adventure, Thatcher’s popularity was waning, in Westminster and without; afterward, she was unstoppable. Her privatisation policy, apparently based on a partial and selective understanding of the theories of Friedrich Hayek, began apace. Nationalised industries were sold off; British Telecom, British Airways, British Petroleum, British Gas, British Aerospace, British Steel, whatever British Leyland was called that week – all broken up in the name of “popular capitalism”, a ‘smoke & mirrors’ operation through which shares rested briefly in the hands of ‘small investors’ before ending (and remaining) in large part with globalised investment funds.
Also, lest we forget, British Coal. The miners’ strike of 1984-85 remains the defining industrial relations conflict of Thatcher’s premiership. The miners had humiliated Heath’s government a decade previously, and the opportunity to crush one of the strongest trade unions was too good to miss. The violence meted out to striking pitmen and the social devastation visited on their close-knit communities across the UK coalfields is still being felt today. When I moved to Cannock, the town still had a deep mine and an opencast pit; one is now a housing estate, the other given over to landfill, a business/retail park and a container storage yard.
Eventually, Thatcher’s style of leadership became a problem even for her parliamentary colleagues; the Poll Tax riots in March 1990 weakened her authority and, late that year, she was ousted to be replaced by a man who can only be described as her polar opposite within the Tory party – John Major.
I’ll end with a quote from Tony Benn in today’s Guardian:
“Margaret Thatcher was a very powerful, rightwing force in society. She followed her beliefs and had clear objectives. Her policy was to reverse the trends in modern politics that were made possible by the trade unions being legalised. She decided to eradicate the power of the unions, undermine local government and privatise assets – and these were the three policies of the labour movement.
It was a major attack on democracy and at first it carried some public support, but then it became unstuck, and in the end, it was rejected. But ideas always come back and the modern Tory party is influenced by her ideas.”
Indeed so. Sadly, so was New Labour – and we have much work to do…