In the aftermath of yesterday’s announcement that Margaret Thatcher had died, a lot was said about who she was and what she did during her time in politics, and it seems that the historical accounts of her actions and policies differ from person one person’s recollection to another’s depending on a number of things.
Again, I don’t really want to comment on the rights and wrongs her politics but I do want to share my view on how I see her legacy, and my thoughts on why certain things happened at the time they did.
Just so you have the full picture, I was born in 1971 in Manchester and I am the eldest of three children. My parents are traditional working class people – my Mum’s dad was a keen union man who worked as an electrician in the aerospace industry and my Dad’s dad was a sergeant in the police force. During my childhood my Dad worked his usual day job as a telephone engineer and worked evenings and nights as a barman in a local pub and as a taxi driver for a local firm to top up his wages. My Mum looked after us kids at home until I was about 8 years old, then she got a part-time job at a textile factory working four nights a week, before getting a day time job serving behind the counter in a post office.
Times were tough.
Then Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister.
At the time I could only judge it from my child’s eye view and to be honest I didn’t really understand what was going on, other than night after night on the TV news there were stories about “trouble”. “Trouble” meant anything from the IRA planting bombs in pubs or parks, to miners going on strike and being in battles with the police. It meant football hooliganism and riots where policemen were murdered. It meant power cuts and trying to read my book by the light of the gas fire (not recommended by the way). It meant my Dad going spare about the company he had worked for since the age of 15 being privatised, and him being tormented by a bird called Buzby. It meant both my parents working their fingers to the bone to bring up three kids themselves because their wages always fell just short of the “breadline” and we never qualified for financial help. Later, it meant losing our home because the interest rates were so high the mortgage repayments couldn’t be met.
I have since learned about what was going on during that time and as an adult now, 30 years later, I have my own feelings and opinions about how the tumult of the 1980s has formed and shaped our society now – Thatcher’s legacy, if you like.
What was happening in our country with Margaret Thatcher at the helm basically was the brutal dismantling of the heart of our country and the heart of our community. She had inherited a country that was being held to ransom by union-led protests; working men were on strike and were refusing to bury dead bodies and shift rubbish from our streets and her response was to take the unions on and tackle them without a qualm in the world to get the country moving again.
She damaged the power of the unions then, but it was only when Arthur Scargill forced his men out on strike (without balloting them first) that she showed just how strong she was, and in order to break the union stronghold, she broke the coal mining industry.
Was that a demonstration of strength, or was it a demonstration of spite? I don’t know, but the effect was the hearts and spirits of ordinary working people were smashed, and the communities they lived in were suddenly hostile lonely places to be. Towns and villages that had relied on coal mining, or shipbuilding, or car manufacturing for employment suddenly had nothing. Men had no work and people were desperate. They had nothing to work for, tension was running high and the only outlet seemed to be crime and violence – football hooliganism became rife, riots in the inner cities, the emergence of the gang culture we see everywhere now, and so on.
Young people had their aspirations removed from them – their dads had been down the pits as had their dads before them, but it all came to a sudden halt before they got their turn. Apprenticeships were stopped in engineering because nobody could afford to run the workshops any more. Vital manufacturing skills were left to dry up and rot with the mass unemployment in the manufacturing industries, and massive swathes of the country appeared to be abandoned by the government. It was mostly in the industrial North, but large parts of Wales was affected too. After all, what is South Wales without its coal mines?
So on the one hand, there was the breaking up of our society, our communities and our families but on the other, the promotion of “self” became prevalent under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership.
People were encouraged to start their own businesses which had a massive impact on the old class system. Your class no longer depended on your background or your place of birth but how lucky you got with the chances you took with money – not always your own. It gave rise to stock market traders being encouraged to take riskier and riskier chances, and success became built on credit not savings and hard work.The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” got changed too. It no longer depended on your class and because wealthy people were living cheek by jowl with poorer people it all added into the melting pot of dissatisfaction and distrust between people. The promotion of “self” began to erode the sense of community, and as the sense of community disappeared the promotion of “self” became paramount to survival.
Thatcher’s legacy can be seen today, and I can see that David Cameron’s idea of the “Big Society” was an attempt to redress that imbalance she promoted. I find it ironic that as a grocer’s daughter, Thatcher saw success as people being singular and interested only in their own self whereas her father’s success was built on being part of a co-operative. The other ironic thing is that the concept of a co-operative was born in Rochdale in the North, an area that was decimated by her killing off industry and manufacturing in this country.
You could argue that the banking crisis we have today is the fruit born from the seeds sown back then in the 1980’s. The mentality of “playing about with other people’s money” in investments and futures etc began with Thatcher and her idea of SELF. Remember Harry Enfield’s character Loadsamoney? A caricature yes, but based on more than a grain of truth. When Nick Leeson brought down Barings Bank in the mid 1990’s it seemed like it was the worst banking crisis that could ever happen. But much worse has happened since, with bigger amounts of money and with bigger falls and crises happening as a result.
It could also be argued that the widespread welfare dependency we see now was born out of Thatcher’s massaging of unemployment figures back then. The term “incapacity benefit” was first used under her leadership as a way of not counting so many people who had lost their jobs in industry by deeming them as “unfit for work”. It made the unemployment figures look better at the time and it sowed the seeds of the entitlement mentality that has now grown massively out of control today. It is a situation that has been demonstrated so aptly by the lifestyle of Mick Philpott who has been in the news recently for setting fire to his house and killing six of his children. Is it sheer coincidence that this family was in Derby, one of the hardest hit areas back in the 1980s?
We are currently facing a housing crisis with thousands of families on waiting lists for council houses all over the country. But there is a huge shortage. Margaret Thatcher encouraged people to purchase their own homes during her time as Prime Minister, and she started schemes to help people achieve it. She also prevented councils building more homes though, and so even though there were more home-owners half a generation ago, there is a shortage now. It’s bad enough that there are people waiting to be housed, but what has made the situation even more critical now is the reduction in housing benefits for people who are “under-occupying” their council houses. It means that people who receive housing benefit enabling them to live in a council house will have that reduced if they have a “spare” bedroom. For some families it means they will have £14 per week less to live on, or else they will have to move to a smaller property. But there is a housing shortage and there ARE no smaller properties to move to. It’s a paradox which can be traced it right back to Thatcher’s housing policy of the 1980’s.
So Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is multi-fold – some of it good, some of it bad, some of it hard, some of it encouraging. The strength she showed to the unions was the strength she showed to Europe and the Russians and whilst it was successful on the world-wide stage, on the domestic front that strength came across as brutal and harsh. Most of our social problems today can be traced back to things that were started under her leadership, and some of our successes can be too.
For me her lasting legacy is the most damaging, that of the dissolution of community for the promotion of self. Human beings aren’t designed to work on their own and it is to our overall detriment that we have been forced to adopt a stance where we put ourselves at the centre of our lives and to hell with everyone else. It seems to be counterintuitive to try to live self-sufficiently when history has proved that cooperation and community is the key to success. Just ask the Rochdale Pioneers!!