Due to my age, the Major years should be the ones where my political consciousness and views on Conservatism truly developed but Thatcher sowed the seeds and made a lasting impression. I was only 13 when Thatcher was forced out of office but her death has brought back instinctive loathing. Even by the time of the 1987 election I felt that way about her. Obviously, my parents weren’t Tory voters and will have played a part in influencing me. I was also an obnoxiously politically aware child in some ways. Despite that, no young child has that deep a grasp of what’s going on though. Looking back, why did I hate her?
When I saw on Twitter that she’d died, I felt numb really. I didn’t laugh or cheer. What would be the point? Her death didn’t break the curse. It didn’t undo the things she’d done and it sure as hell didn’t deal with the Government we have now. It was later, sat in front of Channel 4 news that I realised why I feel visceral loathing towards her. Thatcherism didn’t push my family into poverty. We were fine and I suspect Thatcher made little difference to us at all in the material sense but there’s more to life than that. We’re currently hearing the mantra that there is no society. I instinctively knew that there was. I was an eager little sponge for information in the 80s but I was particularly sponge-like when it came to news about the two places my family come from: South Yorkshire and Co. Down. I was born in S. Yorks and my grandparents’ home always felt like my true home as a child. The landscape, dotted with pits, and the sooted buildings were my signal I was nearly home. I never lived there so this feeling revolved around my family. On the flip side, Co. Down was very much an unknown through most of my childhood. Most of my immediate family had left the violence behind but that made it like a raw nerve in a tooth that I kept prodding by following events there from a very early age. That probably says it all, doesn’t it? I was watching what Thatcher’s policies did in those places. I didn’t learn those lessons at my parents’ knee. I was just one of those people who watched and absorbed. I was so young that if my roots didn’t lie in S. Yorks and Co. Down, I probably wouldn’t have paid nearly as much attention to events in them but they did and I did.
As a clever child who thought the world lay at my feet, Thatcher might have been a role model but she wasn’t. She was an incredibly forceful character and I’ve always seen her as having more in common with Elizabeth I than politicians, male or female, before or since. The mere fact that she was the first female PM was impressive in a historical footnote kind of way but I didn’t want to have to be like her to succeed. If anything, the possibility that it was necessary to be so inflexible and inhumane actually made it more difficult for someone like me to imagine succeeding as a woman. She didn’t inspire me.
Maggie Thatcher is part of the reason I am who I am today though. Her time in power moulded me and shaped my views on human rights violations, poverty and employment rights. It taught me about violence, hatred, greed and inequality. The Thatcher years forged my beliefs in right and wrong. At school, I was fascinated with history and saw parallels between what I was learning about Britain’s social history and the very recent past under Thatcher. When I got to university, my feelings on the Thatcher years became more ingrained as I studied subjects like Human Rights. Studying the areas I did is a bit like looking at photos of your childhood. I’m never quite sure how much of what I remember about Northern Ireland from my early childhood is influenced by reading case law at university. I think the main impact was that it made things come into sharper focus.
The tributes paid by public figures have been frustrating. Barack Obama’s tribute was disappointing, referring to her as a champion of freedom and liberty. Seriously, Obama? You’re going with “we were bff’s during the Cold War” and ignoring her stance on Apartheid? That should win some votes back home. The irony of two party leaders being mps in Doncaster and Sheffield contributes to the sense of the unreal. They’re both attempting to walk a tightrope. Many of the tributes to her by public figures have been very carefully worded to ensure they don’t fall foul of the “if you can’t say something nice” rule. The result seems to be that a lot of politicians are making tits of themselves by talking about her utter dedication to her values. Don’t get me wrong. Although there is a reasonable argument for saying Thatcher’s values weren’t as clear cut as all that, I don’t think anyone could reasonably call her a spineless opportunistic hypocrite. The same can’t be said of many politicians today but I can’t help but think her time in office contributed to the loss of values in politics. She presided over the loads-a-money, greed-is-good years. To many people, Thatcherism is about doing whatever you want to do in order to make money. That’s a pretty simplistic take on Thatcherism but it was a seam running through the 80s. In politics, as in the City, there seem to have been only too many people happy to go down that path. I recently complained that Labour has lost its way, looking back at Neil Kinnock’s prescient speech about another term under Thatcher in 1983. The more I think about it, the more I realise that this concept of Thatcherism is enchanting to those who are naturally attracted to power. Maybe the Thatcher era killed old Labour simply by offering an alternative motivation to its politicians. I’ve got no idea how she’d have felt about that. I think her need to be right would make it a bit of a Pyrrhic victory. Where’s the fun in destroying socialist ideals if it only happens because their party voluntarily abandons them out of self interest? Maybe she’d be more pragmatic about it than that though.
So, if I’m not keen on the tributes, what about the celebrations? I’m not celebrating but I’m not going to condemn people who are either. Lives were ruined in the Thatcher years. The fact that “ding dong the witch is dead” was so many people’s response says it all. She was a towering presence in people’s lives. She was hated but I think the need to celebrate also comes from frustration at the abuse of power. She did cut rebellion down and used the police ruthlessly to do it. We have always had the need to celebrate when our enemies are vanquished. It’s nothing new to celebrate their deaths (I even shared a song on twitter without consciously thinking about why it was in my head which includes the line “when you die we’ll burn your bones and destroy the remains”). There has also always been a need to celebrate the death of monsters. To many she was an enemy and a monster. Until Parliament decides to tell people not to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night by lighting up effigies, I’m going to take politicians’ calls not to celebrate the death of Thatcher the public figure with a serious pinch of salt. Yes, she was a human being but she was also a public figure and developed a cult of personality. Thatcher won, while she was alive. Let those who were hurt, communities torn up not just by the loss of jobs but the divisiveness with which they were lost and the violence which surrounded them, have their moment if they want it. I should make it clear though that what I’m condoning is the right not to observe the norms of respect for the dead. I’m not condoning violence. For that matter, I’m really only talking about people with a legitimate grievance against her policies. It’s inevitable that some of what’s going on with “death parties” will be puerile nonsense. This should also be a moment to remember how much pain is caused when politicians divide and rule, because it’s still happening today, but that message will be completely lost if it is hijacked by a violent or juvenile minority.
I brushed along the periphery of the reality of some of her policies during her time in office. For years, it would be fair to say my feelings arose from a combination of academic interest and a kind of social inheritance. I didn’t really know what it was like for the people who suffered most during the Thatcher years. There is a more personal aspect to my own feelings though, which came about later through my relationship with my granddad. My granddad worked at Stocksbridge. One of my last conversations with him before he died included his feelings over steel redundancies. Before that, the last time we drove past the Works together he told me he never went past it without thinking back on those days so no, I don’t see why anyone should have to pretend to feel something other than what they do towards her now that she’s gone too.
I take my granddad’s old Stocksbridge mementos with me in life. This one sat on my desk at work throughout the ten years since he died. I carry him and all the other members of my family with me. We all do. So why wouldn’t we also carry a broader social history with us?
In my heart, I’m neither sorry nor glad she’s dead but it turns out my heart is definitely what determines my feelings on who she was in life.
I linked to an article on her legacy above. It also contains a link to her 1987 interview with Women’s Own, where she made her comments about society. The interview makes interesting reading. What stood out for me is the amount of time she devoted to sympathising with ministers reshuffled out of cabinet before eventually going on to make her “there is no society” remark in relation to Government assistance to individuals. The interview also includes her views on coalition governments. It doesn’t seem now as if she needed to worry about compromises and the speed of decision making. If modern Tories could teach her anything it’s how to win by losing an election.