I’ve left it nearly a week after the death of the former Leaderene to chip in with my two penn’orth on her demise, and on the legacy she’s left behind. In that time, I’ve read many and varied accounts of what Margaret Hilda Thatcher’s death means to us, here and now – given that her term of office ended nearly 23 years ago. Those accounts have encompassed widely varying points of view, and have ranged from vitriolic hatred with a joyous celebration of the fact that she’s gone, to real grief arising out of sheer adulation and an evident belief that she was some sort of Messiah for our country.
My own position lies at neither extreme, but somewhere in between – though I will freely admit that I lean significantly towards that end of the scale where people do not have much positive to say about the late former Prime Minister. For what it’s worth, I feel that she was a divisive and damaging influence on the country; indeed such a massive effect did she have on the political and economic landscape, that we simply no longer have the options – in terms of achieving increased fairness in society – that we potentially had before she entered Number 10. She greatly reduced – in fact almost destroyed – the manufacturing industry in this country, advancing the cause of financial services and speculative banking to take its place as the main means of wealth creation. She sold off a large proportion of the social housing stock and failed to invest in construction to replenish it, thus creating a shortage of homes for the less well-off at reasonable rent levels, and forcing a greater reliance on private landlords, with rent levels being set by the market. The long term consequence of THAT was an exponential growth in the Housing Benefits bill, which has led in turn (in these times of austerity) to the perceived need for the Government’s unpopular “Bedroom Tax”. Even though it’s nearly 23 years since Thatcher left Number 10 for the last time as PM, tear-stained but defiant, her legacy affects us to this day, regardless of what they might say who would defend her with the specious “Well, it was all a long time ago.”
Those who still idolise her seem to do so for reasons which would appear not unadjacent to self-interest. Former footballer Paul Parker has blogged:
“Personally, I don’t see why football shouldn’t pay respect to Thatcher. She should be given a minute’s silence at football grounds because without Margaret Thatcher my mum and dad would have never been able to buy a house.”
Presumably, Parker is including in his rationale thousands of others besides his mum and dad, who were also given the opportunity to buy their council houses, many at hefty discounts. But the theme of “well, she was wonderful because, hey – look what she did for me” is a recurrent one among those who remember her most fondly. Parker goes on to say:
“At the end of the day, she was the Primer (sic) Minister of Great Britain so there should be a minute’s silence as far as I’m concerned.”
He doesn’t elaborate on his views as to whether or not Heath, Wilson or Callaghan should have been so honoured (they weren’t) – but I suspect his devotion is to The Lady alone – and good defender though he might have been, Parker is clearly not a cerebral heavyweight.
The other end of the scale is represented (at its extreme) by people who felt moved to dance in the streets in celebration, and contribute to a surge up the music charts for “Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead” by Judy Garland. Yes, I bought it too. Sue me. Rather than simply bemoaning human nature for these displays of jubilation at the death of a bewildered old woman, it would perhaps serve us better to re-examine some other factors lying behind such hatred.
Quite apart from the policies I’ve referred to above, it’s also possible to find fault in what might be termed Thatcher’s unfortunate personal style. Early in her long stint as leader of the Tories, she was taking elocution lessons to modulate her slightly shrill voice, but the effect was of suburban faux gentility, with a teeth-grindingly patronising edge, rather than anything persuasive or statesmanlike. She was ironically at her most effective when she became strident, as she often did when faced with anything other than unquestioning agreement and obedience; then, she simply blew everything but the most determined opposition clear out of the water, terrifying male colleagues with smaller, less hairy balls than hers, and encouraging cowed Soviets to dub her the “Iron Lady”. She was also referred to as “The Iron Chicken” and “Attila the Hen”.
Still others who remember her less than fondly will recall that she was in very real danger of becoming just another one-term PM, and the least popular ever at that, when an opportune military conflict with Argentina cropped up in 1982. The summer of ’81 had seen a wave of riots as her policies saw unemployment rise sharply, seemingly a price her government was willing to pay for the economic direction it was so rigidly set on. Thatcher was in trouble at this point, trailing massively in the polls, but as a result of the “Falklands Factor” she won a landslide in 1983. Then the miners were unwise enough to take her on in the middle of the decade, pronouncing themselves determined to bring her government down. But Thatcher was wise to them; she had learned from Edward Heath’s mistakes in the early 70’s and had stockpiled enough coal to, in effect, starve the pit-men back to work – albeit with much human suffering and collateral damage, not least on the picket-lines at Orgreave and elsewhere. It was a humiliating defeat for miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, but – whatever you may think about him – his prediction that the Tories were out to kill the mining industry, along with its close-knit and long-standing communities, proved to be spot-on. Relatively fresh from subduing Scargill and his followers, Thatcher won again in 1987, and would eventually occupy the office of PM for over eleven years. In the end, it took her own colleagues to remove her in a coup that she ever after thought of as the basest treachery. But the fact remains that she clung on to power despite profound levels of unpopularity, aided in her latter two election victories by what many still see as naked opportunism and the survival instincts of a mongoose.
Some would seek to defend her place in history as the first – and to date only – female Prime Minister. Even I might be tempted to support a historical achievement such as that – if she had done more for women whilst in power. But she didn’t. Her Cabinet composition remained predominantly male, and you can search throughout her record for anything of note to ameliorate the lot of women in society, but you will search in vain. Glenda Jackson, speaking in the so-called “Tribute Debate” two days after Thatcher’s death, conceded the fact that Thatcher was Britain’s first female Premier but added: ‘A woman? Not on my terms.’
When push comes to shove, I would argue that Thatcher’s legacy is an almost wholly negative one; her Premiership saw a massive rise in unemployment, the decimation of manufacturing industry, a bizarre promotion of greed and acquisitiveness as hideously acceptable virtues, a decrease in growth relative to the previous thirty-four years since Clement Attlee became Prime Minister in 1945, a widening of the gap between richest and poorest where that gap had been narrowing somewhat and of course the selling-off of “the family jewels” in the shape of any nationalised industry she could lay her hands on, without sufficient regard to what would happen come the next rainy day. And there have been many rainy days since, but none rainier than the one we’re living through right now, and nothing to fall back on.
Against that, we have the perceived rise in the stock of the UK in the eyes of the rest of the world; she “made Britain great again” – some say. This presumably refers to her determination in recovering a few large pebbles in the South Atlantic at the cost of many young lives, including those of conscript Argentinians who drowned when the General Belgrano was torpedoed as it sailed away from the combat zone. “Gotcha!” crowed the Sun, while mothers of sons on both sides wept. I have to say, I don’t value an enhanced international reputation or the approval of jingoistic nations like the USA – not at that price.
And now we have to pay the cost of her funeral, having already shelled out many thousands in expenses for a one-off recall of Parliament only five days before a new session was due to start anyway. Funeral cost estimates vary between £8m and £14m depending on who you listen to, and how much her successful arms-dealer son Mark is prepared to stump up. He should really be generous – she helped him a hell of a lot. All this furore over money, at a time also when we hear her £6m London town house will not incur any inheritance duty as its actual ownership appears to be vested in an offshore company. Companies, of course, don’t die – and so don’t pay inheritance tax. These are murky waters, and it becomes ever easier to see exactly why so many regard her, and the goings-on around her in life and afterwards, with feelings of antipathy amounting to loathing.
For myself, I’ll be glad when her funeral is over and paid for, and we can all move on – and refocus on the urgent need to get rid of the current shoddy lot. Thatcher is dead; but we’re still living with a society that, in a lot of its negative characteristics can be traced back to the sea-changes she ushered in post-1979. It’s no defence against vilification to say that she left office in 1990, and can’t be blamed for what’s happened since. She created the conditions whereby what has happened since could happen, and she took away a lot of the more benign possibilities that a more sympathetic and caring attitude to investment, social care and collective responsibility in society might have realised. For that, I blame her and her alone.