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On Margaret Thatcher's Passing

Our editor on Margaret Thatcher's recent passing: "I can’t believe how little I feel now".

Photo: Robert Huffstutter (Creative Commons)

 

So Margaret Thatcher has passed into history, and the reaction in my newsfeed demonstrates her status as the Marmite of British politics – almost all either loved or hated her with very few balanced and/or neutral comments. It’s amazing how strongly people still feel about her more than 20 years after she left office; and speaking on a personal level, I can’t believe how little I feel now.

 

If you lived in Britain in the 80s or early 90s, I only need to tell you my parents both come from left wing backgrounds, and brought us up in one, in order for you to have a pretty good idea of how I grew up feeling about Mrs Thatcher. If you don’t know much about Britain in those times, one word sums it up: hatred.

 

Hatred doesn’t sit well with me - I’m much more of a love person - which may be why I’m not feeling any hate today. But Margaret Thatcher provided plenty of grounds for animosity for loving, sensitive souls and hateful unfeeling spirits alike.

 

One much overlooked yet important fact about Mrs Thatcher and her legacy is that although she led the Conservative party to three consecutive UK general election victories, an undeniable achievement, the highest share of the vote she achieved, in 1979, was 43.9% (in ‘83 and ’87 the figures were 42.4% and 42.2%). Under our perverse electoral system, this was (and is) enough for the Conservatives to push through policies that at least 56% of the population hadn’t voted for. This surely must explain some of the strength of feeling about her we still see now, especially when you consider the impacts of those policies, many of which we’re still experiencing.

 

Charges against Maggie fall into two categories: perceived and real. In the first category are subjective assertions based on people’s feelings: she was “cruel”, “heartless”, “uncaring”, "evil”, “triumphalist” and many more. You can argue about these but you won’t change any minds; you either feel them or you don’t.

 

The second category is based on her actions and the events that happened on her watch. Again you can argue about these – the list that follows is as subjective as the feelings before – but people can and do change their minds about these; indeed I have on some.

 

Off the top of my head and in no particular order, second category charges against Mrs T include: destroying old industries and doing nothing to address the resulting massive unemployment and social upheaval; her reaction to the Miner’s Strike, Hunger Strikes and Hillsborough tragedy; Clause 28 (banning the ‘promotion of homosexuality in schools’); selling off social housing without putting in place the means for its replacement, leading to the today’s housing crisis; rampant privatization of state-owned companies; at best turning a blind eye to widespread racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia in the media, police, Conservative party itself and society in general; at worst adding to those bigotries; opposing sanctions against the racist South African Apartheid regime (apparently as late as 1987 she was describing Nelson Mandela’s ANC as a ‘typical terrorist organisation’; rampant consumerism; increasing inequality; support for right-wing dictators including Chile's General Pinochet; underfunding education and the NHS, excessive militarism (including allowing the US to base nuclear cruise missiles at Greenham Common, the Falklands War and allowing the US to bomb Libya from UK bases) and, of course, the Poll Tax.

 

Ultimately, I wonder whether most people’s reasons for not liking her can be boiled down to the fact that, whilst she claimed to be acting in the best interests of the whole nation, to many she appeared to represent and further the interests of a wealthy, powerful and fortunate minority and have no cares for those beyond her tribe. Her manner did little to change this perception.

 

Growing up in the ‘80s, I remember being shocked and scared to realise what a cruel world this can be. The Conservatives seemed a key part of this; while they’ve always made much of the Christian basis of their morality, in the 80s and 90s compassion, charity and love for those less fortunate or just different were in short supply. This was a country where high profile Tories made bigoted comments with impunity; the price of being caught physically expressing my love was jail (the age of consent for gay men was 21 at the time) and if I had been gay-bashed I couldn’t expect a sympathetic hearing from the police – quite the opposite in fact. The same applied to members of ethnic minorities who had suffered crime; it wasn’t until after Labour came into power in 1997 that this changed.

 

Theresa May was bang on the money when she said many people saw the Conservative party as the ‘nasty’ party. By the time they lost to Labour in a landslide in the 1997 general election, their attacks on (or indifference to) minorities, the weak and vulnerable had not just offended many single parents, working mothers, European immigrants, benefits claimants and members of ethnic and sexual minorities; they had offended many people who had family and friends in these groups. Margaret Thatcher presided over the first flush of this, using her huge political capital to build a more business-friendly, dynamic and modern Britain. It’s a shame she didn’t think it possible and necessary to build a kinder, more humane country.

 

In Bridget Jones’ diary, she describes the Conservatives of that time as ‘braying’ and it perfectly captures how they, from Mrs Thatcher down, seemed to much of the rest of the country while they were in office. So it shocks me that my strong feelings about her have softened so much.

 

The thing is, much as it freaked me out at the time, even at her height I found I had a soft spot for the evil old cow,  ;-) at least on a subconscious level. Once in the 80s and at least once since, I dreamed I was alone with her. Instead of laying into her for all the unnecessary pain and hardship she had caused so many here and abroad, I found it impossible to hate her in the flesh and found myself enjoying a cup of tea and pleasant chat with her. Seeing her leaving Downing Street in tears after her own party ousted her from power, it was impossible for me not to feel a twinge of sympathy for her on a human level.

 

Her battles with the unions were the first area where my views on her policies and actions changed. As I learned more about the battles both Labour and Conservative governments fought against the unions in the ‘70s and I considered what the impact on the country would have been had she lost and realised I was glad I grew up in a country where Margaret Thatcher was triumphant after the Miners’ Strike, not Arthur Scargill, leader of the National Union of Miners. Even in the 80s you’d meet left wingers like my Dad who thought the unions were too powerful; they didn’t agree with what Mrs Thatcher did to them and how she did it but they knew something had to be done.

 

I’m also glad I’m starting a business here in the UK, rather than pretty much anywhere else in Europe; when I was younger I was shocked to hear about the restrictions on doing business on the Continent, and am thankful to Mrs Thatcher for the economic freedoms we enjoy here, as well as the sense of self-reliance and self-sufficiency she gave so many of my and subsequent generations, even though the price of a decent social safety net is a high one for it. And I don’t want to imagine the effect giving the Falklands to Argentina would have had on this nation.

 

Maybe the biggest change in my feelings about Mrs Thatcher came when I was working in Liberal Democrat HQ in Westminster in the early ‘00s. One of the many things I loved about working there was the great political discussions that sprang up all the time in the offices, kitchens, reception and outdoor smoking areas – all over the place in fact. Lib Dem party culture prides itself on qualities including fairness, open debate and considering both sides of an argument (or at least being seen to) before coming to a position and so these discussions were civilized, enjoyable, often funny and always thought-provoking.

 

One day in my department we were discussing Mrs Thatcher and I unthinkingly parroted some of my thoughts about her that had gone unconsidered since the 80s. I don’t remember my exact comment but I included privatisations as one of the reasons I didn’t like her. One of my colleagues there responded something like this: “I’ll have to disagree with you on that one, Matthew. How old were you when BT was privatised, for example? 13, 14, something like that? You have no idea how awful it was before then; customer service was atrocious, their employees had jobs for life and so no need to work well and it was bloated and inefficient. Privatisation led to competition, lower costs and better choice in suppliers, products and services. And why should a government own a telecoms company anyway?”

 

After this conversation I saw how much my heart had been ruling my head when it came to the Conservatives in general and Mrs T in particular; how much I enjoyed hating her and being righteous about how bad and wrong she was, and how great it was, at least on a base level, to count myself amongst her victims. A more balanced view of her evolved as a result; I can now give her credit for her incredible, unprecedented achievements; when I saw she was a visionary, inspirational leader who transformed Britain, the Labour party and the world I now mean it. I might not have liked her or much of what she did, and I certainly didn’t like how she did most of it, but I admire her.

 

I certainly sympathise with my many friends who’ve been laughing and joking about her end today and who will be cracking open a celebratory bottle or three tonight, and would long have expected to be joining in, but instead I’ll be doing nothing more than giving thanks that her era has truly passed and hoping our next female prime minister comes from another, more humane mould. And if “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” or a similar song were number one on Sunday it would feel like a small justice for many.

 

First published on Facebook on 8th April 2013

 

Matthew Wherry

Matthew is Impolite Conversation's Editor-in-Chief.

Matthew Wherry

About the Writer

Matthew is Impolite Conversation's editor.

 

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