Tuesday, April 09, 2013

RIP Lady Thatcher

It is interesting hearing and reading the assessment of the Thatcher legacy. My young adulthood corresponded with Thatcher. I grew up in a Conservative voting family and married a girl from the same. 1979 was the first election where I had a chance to register a vote about which I had thought. I was 18 in 1973 and so had a couple of early elections where I voted for Ted Heath. He was, I think, my sort of conservative - arts patronage, euro-friendly and willing to take on the Trades Unions. Tweaked stuff but didn't try to redesign everything. He was seen as pompous (because he was a sailor and an orchestral conductor) and lost a second election to Harold Wilson. But I voted for him because my family did and we hosted Conservative Association fund-raisers. MP Harold Gurden was a family friend in the late 60s early 70s.

There then followed five years, 1974-79 where a Labour Government tried to stand up to Trades Union power and lost. Their restriction on public-sector wage rises led to massive strikes, a three day week, the potential of petrol rationing (coupons were issued but not used), power cuts, uncollected refuse and dead bodies not being buried. It was impossible to imagine that this could be turned round without a change of government. Callaghan succeeded Wilson.

If you want to know what it really felt like to live in the 1970s political world read Andy Beckett's excellent When the Lights Went Out (What Really Happened to Britain in the Seventies). And to grasp the 1980s which followed I suggest Jonathan Coe's novel What a Carve Up.

Thatcher only got a majority of forty-three in 1979. Some were obviously prepared to continue the war of attrition against the power of the unions. But she offered no beer and sandwiches at 10 Downing Street. She blamed Trades Unions for all Britian's problems.

Her 1979 Saatchi slogan Labour isn't Working was genius but sadly the unemployment figures never came back down below the one million mark she had mocked, throughout her entire spell in charge. (The unemployment rate had five out of eighteen years when it was marginally lower than pre-1979). After three years when it almost doubled 1979-1981 inflation came down to nearer to the levels we experience today, but unemployment was part of the price. The other was interest rates which were kept high at around 10 or 11% the whole of her Premiership. Good news for savers; bad for borrowers.

I think that any change would have made a difference and what happened next owes more to luck and tipping points than anything else. Anyone who has seen the film 'Being There' in which Peter Sellers' character Chauncey Gardiner (who is a gardener and speaks in gardening metaphors) is mistaken for a wise political philosopher and promoted to high office will feel they know Mrs T's story too. Thatcher was at the right place in the right time.

She was single-minded. She took on the unions and saw the battle through. Not by allowing a fight to the death but by making their activity (such as secondary picketing) illegal and closing the 'closed shop' in which one could not work in a particular industry without belonging to a union. This allowed an employer to bring others in to do work when the workforce was on strike and thus removed a load of the union power at a stroke.

Me in late 1970s
The idea of ridiculous wage claims (the merchant seamen, I recall, put in for 90% to the Heath Government) disappeared at a stroke.

Now this was divisive and unpopular. Slowly removing state backing and subsidy from many industries, when our international competitors were not, devastated many communities, especially in Scotland and the north of England. She was heading for the out-door.
There were riots in 1981 on a scale not previously seen.

In order to be re-elected she needed another lucky break and got it with a just-about winnable war. Not many politicians would have had the arrogance to go for the Falklands and the advice from around the world was that she should not. She ignored the lot and 1982's victory saw her popularity get a short-term surge.

Max Hastings says she could only have done what she did at that particular moment in history (meaning 1979ff). So maybe if it hadn't been her it would have been someone else like her. The next PM would have been the most memorable of the 20th century because things couldn't go on as they were. That was agreed.

With deregulation of the banks a load of people who had previously been small-timers and market stall holders grasped the idea of working in the pit at the stock exchange, on which they made massive amounts of money. On the back of that they did up their houses and the wages of such as plasterers went up, on which Harry Enfield based his Loadsamoney character. What is often forgotten is that he also had a Geordie character called Boogerallmoney.

Lucky break three was not being killed by the IRA in 1984 in Brighton during the Party Conference season. If she had been in bed rather than accepting persuasion to look at one more set of papers at about 2 a.m. she would probably have died. Sadly she lost some friends and colleagues that day but her survival enabled her to go to Conference the next day on time as if nothing had happened.

Add this to the tipping point that enough people had now gained. A selfish democracy, house-owning and small business booming, voted for their own gain not for the whole country to gain, and elected her once more in 1987.

I think she was a determined, arrogant house-wife who could get things done. Some of the things were good, some were bad, some had long-term consequences of which no-one dreamt (who considered building council houses to replace the sold-off ones? who thought that market de-regulation would give us a porn industry to dominate the internet?) and some made a shift-change in the world.

And on that global stage no-one knew how to deal with her and so internationally she was able to intervene in the Cold War with a determination that, coming from a woman, was somehow not threatening. She wooed them all and got Reagan and Gorbachov to get on.

I grew to hate her political ideology. Doing something about our inner-cities for her seemed to involve architecture not community. In fact she thought there was no such thing as society and in a stroke promoted selfishness. The successful climbed over the bodies of those who had lost everything. She didn't seem to notice or care.

Fourth piece of happen-stance. In 1983 and 1987 there was no electable opposition. Michael Foot's Labour Party couldn't get the attention of the masses. The formation of the SDP in 1981 until its merger with the Liberals in 1988 divided the left. A few thousand votes leaking from Labour to the SDP in my constituency of Nottingham North in 1987 got the sitting Tory back in by a 300 majority. This was repeated around the country. Her majority became three figures for the next two victories, although never up to the levels of new Labour's landslides of 1997 and 2002.

Her theology sucked. She spoke the prayer of St Francis on arrival and didn't bring harmony out of discord. She refused to forgive those who had dumped her on her eventual departure in 1990. She floored an interviewer by saying the essence of Christianity is choice (it isn't; it's Jesus). She may as well have said the essence is selfishness for all the influence it had upon her. Her compassion was non-existent. She didn't care about collateral damage. She genuinely thought whole northern communities should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps once their pit closed. Norman Tebbit summarised her thinking at the time by telling the unemployed to get on their bikes and look for work like his Dad had.

She said no-one would have remembered the Good Samaritan if he hadn't had any money; a bit like saying no-one would have remembered Alice in Wonderland if she hadn't fallen down a rabbit hole. And missing the point about those who should have shown compassion passing the poor and destitute by on the other side of the road.

So as we listen to the discussion about her legacy we find the country as divided as it was when she led it. For every winner there was a loser. For every success a failure. It is an irregular verb:

I am determined
You are single minded
She is stubborn

Asked about Cameron's coalition government in 2010 she commented, in a rare moment of recent lucidity, 'I'm not in coalition with the Liberals.' Max Hastings comment proves correct.

Significant? Yes. Successful? Yes and no? Great? I can't agree. I'd settle for unique.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Surprised there's zero comments here and only 1 on FB. Maybe people who read this sort of thing are a bit afraid to come down on one side or the other. I've only just managed to read it. My comments on FB. A good balanced piece.