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As it seemed to me

April 10, 2013

When I heard of the death of Margaret Thatcher, I was driving on the M6 past the Lancashire village of Euxton. The relevance of that information will become apparent later.

I don’t believe it is ever right to celebrate the death of another human, so you will not find the phrase “Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice!” in this piece.. However, as someone with a clear memory of the times before and after Thatcher, it’s perhaps not surprising that, like many of my generation, I should wish to reflect on her premiership and its legacy.

The stretch of motorway on which I was driving was completed in July 1963, but five years before that, the ground it covers had been at the far end of a country field which stretched out from a small wood leading from the house in which I lived.

I had moved to Euxton from my hometown of Edinburgh, and the freedom of the countryside was hugely exciting to a 6 year old boy.

The field sloped down to a hedgerow where we would pick rosehips by a brook, and, at the top of the hill was a huge oak tree, under the shade of which I remember enjoying a picnic with my mother on a sunny summer’s afternoon.

Is this a romanticized and sentimentalized picture?

Of course it is.

But it also serves as an iconic image for ‘the time before’.

In retrospect, the four or five years which spanned the end of the fifties and the start of the sixties were a burst of hesitant sunshine, caught between the grey skies of the post war recession and the mad thunder storms of the following decades. Some certainty was returning, while folk dared to hope for a bright future after the privations of war, rationing and shortages. Though there were only 4.5 million cars in the UK, compared to around 30 million today, the optimism was there to commence a motorway building scheme and the word ‘modern’ had an allure.

However, this brave new world had not entirely cast off from what came before.

In that small Lancashire village, there were still families who had been there at the time of the Domesday Book, doors went unlocked, and five year olds made their own way to school, untroubled by parental fears of danger. Neighbours knew and looked out for each other. Employment came from a nearby ordnance factory and the Leyland Motors works a few miles away, as well as traditional agriculture, and market town commerce in Chorley, the next settlement.

People had pride in their trades and crafts, shopkeepers, doctors and dentists were like family friends, and each family hoped their children would progress successfully through education and hard work. The word ‘opportunity’ hung over our lives like an admonishment to take advantage of all that the future offered. Politics was far away in London, and, while people had their views, and political meetings were well attended, government was, at least notionally, by some form of consensus; you would expect nothing else in the aftermath of war. There were toffs and workers but neither side seemed out of sight to the other.

This is, of course, an idealized notion of life at the start of the sixties. There was poverty and entitlement, and society was weighed down by a class system which still prized debutante Balls and hereditary titles. Brady and Hindley were at work within thirty miles of my picnic spot, and many were still trying to recover from pre and post war depressions. However, this is how it seemed to me as a child, and if it seems a strange world, then that reflects more what we have come to be than what we were at the time.

Am I going to claim that Thatcher got rid of all that cosiness?

Of course not.

Clearly change was coming. Technology was developing incrementally, the baby boomers were in their teens, the welfare state had been doing its job on health and living conditions, and these islands could no longer linger in the aftermath of the trauma of war – the winning of which had preoccupied the state’s focus and development for so long.

But McMillan’s Tories were old and ultimately distracted by ‘events, dear boy, events’ and it fell to Wilson’s Labour Party to take up the challenge of the ‘white heat of technology’ as the sixties progressed.

No doubt my Labour supporting pals will disagree, but I have always thought that, in simple language, the Labour Party bottled it in the sixties. They had a chance to use the chimera of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ to build something progressive and egalitarian for the British state, but they seemed to have an inferiority complex and to be unsure if they could convince the people of the benefits of their principles. There started a continuing trend of seeking to prove they could be ‘responsible in government like the Tories’ as if they really believed that the Conservatives were the ‘natural party of Government’. They had many Oxbridge types who convinced the party’s policy makers that principles were fine in Opposition but would not help a party remain in Government. There was a disconnection with the Unions, who were taken for granted as funders, but not part of a partnership. The welfare state, as shown by ‘Cathy Come Home’ needed to be re-energised, as did the state industries, but Labour faltered in following its original vision, as it has ever since. Other than the Open University, and a refusal to engage in Viet Nam, I struggle to think of a lasting positive legacy from the Wilson years.

So Thatcher inherited a country which, for many reasons, was overdue for change. It’s not so much that it had been mismanaged as unmanaged. She rode into town, with her ludicrous quotation of St Francis’s Prayer for Peace, probably the last time she uttered the word ‘peace’ outside of a threatening monologue, and set about creating the myth of Thatcherism.

The Thatcher myths are easily demolished.

After a disastrous start to her premiership, her opportunity to survive came via a Falklands war which could have been avoided easily had her Foreign Office been attentive to basic monitoring duties and had naval resources not been deployed away from the south Atlantic.

So was the Falkland War a sign of success and power?
No – rather a sign of a desperate politician taking advantage of a situation made by her own mistakes. The pity was, of course, that so many young men had to die to construct this particular myth.

Was she as resolute a leader as the myth proclaims?
No – she wobbled on Ireland, veering from the hardline attitude to the Hunger Strikers, to the pragmatic signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement. She wobbled on Europe, eventually signing the Single European Agreement.

Did she control her Cabinet with a iron fist?
No – she rather sidelined those who disagreed with her and, in her monetary and business policies, allowed many of her colleagues to pursue their own views on ‘wealth creation’ as a means of keeping them onside.

Was she the ‘great International Leader’ hailed in other countries?
Other than in a cartoon sense, no. Those overseas, especially in the USA, tend to praise her for ‘being decisive and holding to her word’. Without an analysis of the consequences of her intransigence, this is pointless. Many of her intractable views were almost hysterically wrong: Mandela was ‘a grubby little terrorist’, she supported and trained the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, allowed the US to base nuclear weapons on British soil, and based her foreign policies on narrow, often mistaken, precepts of self interest. In the Eastern Bloc, she was a useful, but totemic ally to those who sought change, and in Ronald Reagan she found someone who had a similarly limited vision to hers, and was equally enthralled by big business and profit making schemes. She enjoyed international flattery, but history, I suspect, will not be overly convinced of her role on the world stage.

Did she strike a blow for women in becoming the first female prime minister?
You need only look at female representation in British politics nearly four decades later to realise she failed in that respect also. Truth is, the Conservatives made her leader because of her political ideas and despite her being a woman. The ravages on society during her time in office – the miners’ strike, the rise in unemployment, the 79% increase in crime that her ‘devil take the hindmost’ political philosophy engendered, all of these traumatic effects impacted most devastatingly on women – as mothers, daughters, wives and workers. It was they, as always, who had to try and balance career with holding together families and communities, feeding children, supporting menfolk, seeking employment, developing their role in society – and Thatcher’s decisions betrayed neither empathy nor understanding of the impact of her policies on her gender.

However, it is, of course, on Home Affairs that she will ultimately be judged.

As I wrote earlier, I am not going to blame Thatcher for changing our society. Change was coming and it had to be managed. It was not that we changed, it was how we changed that is the pity. Countries throughout Europe went through a similar process; it led to many post industrial models – in France, Germany and the Scandinavian countries. In the latter, particularly, it presaged a society were social democracy and equality came to be valued above economic elitism and pretensions to ‘world power’. Change could have come in a way which benefited the masses, but not under Thatcher’s limited views.

She believed mass unemployment was ‘a price worth paying’ for the changes she wanted to see. She worked from the simplistic dogma of her father in the Grantham grocer’s shop: “Hard work brings its rewards”. This is a great motto for a primary school pupil, but a fatuous base for running a country. It ignores the need for equality of opportunity – the one truism of egalitarianism – and it ignores the fate of those who, for whatever reason, are unable to avail themselves of these opportunities which exist. More importantly, it neglects to take into account the balance between the number of opportunities available and the number of people needing them. Classically, her sale of council housing gave many the opportunity to own a property, but the failure to replace the sold stock, left many homeless. Like Nelson, no doubt one of her heroes, she could, and did, turn a blind eye to those who suffered from her espousal of dogma.

Like the chance to own your own house, privatization seemed to offer an opportunity: those with money could invest – and get more money; but those without – they lost public control of state industries, the utilities, and part of the fabric which knitted society together – but then, for Thatcher, that society didn’t exist either – just the possibility of bettering yourself, if necessary to the demise of others. The laughable state of railways, power companies, domestic bills and infrastructure today bears witness to what happens when you are driven by the dogma of profit before people, business before citizens.

Her ally, Lord Tebbit has just declared she was driven by her scientific knowledge and religious belief – a statement which decries the humanity of scientists and mocks the support of the vulnerable which is any religion’s greatest tenet.

So why are there those who laud Thatcher for her premiership, and if she isn’t personally to blame for the change in society, who is?

The answer to both those questions is the same.

She claimed that being a ‘Grantham Grocer’s Daughter’ made her ‘one of the people’, but, in fact, her origins were a straitjacket from which she never escaped; her view was essentially provincial in everything she did; she could imagine no vision not based on Alderman Roberts’ restricted view of the world. Her brilliance was that of Mephistopheles. She understood the baser side of human nature, and used it to further her aims. Greed and a desire for personal advancement are intrinsic to mankind. In more sophisticated societies, these urges are balanced by enlightened government, shared concern, and cooperative thinking. By stripping these elements away, Thatcher gave permission for greed to flourish at the expense of concern for her fellow men. In her world, she was right, there was no such thing as society. The need to think of others only held one back from the core human business of making money and gaining personal power. At the top of her party, and elsewhere in politics, there was no shortage of folk prepared to agree. In short, Thatcher realized if she cried havoc and let slip the dogs of profit and greed, the howls of the vulnerable, the dispossessed and the charitable would be drowned out by the baying of the nouveau riche. In time the underclass would disengage from the political process and big business would be free to regulate – or deregulate – the world to its own advantage.

Thatcher didn’t need to change society; far too many in that society were more than happy to make it happen. She merely gave them permission.

So, do I hate Thatcher?

No – I hate the weaknesses in mankind which allowed her vision to flourish, I hate that too many were prepared to go along with her views, I hate that there was no party properly able or prepared to stand up to her, and I hate the fact that all political parties use where we have got to today as the acceptable starting point for where we go next, scared, as they have been today in the Parliament, to point to the death, destruction, poverty and despair which her governments visited on generations. I think the people deserve better; I fear she took that possibility away from them forever.

I hate what she did; to hate her would be to follow her creed, and I, at least, still cleave to St Francis’s words: “Where there is hatred, let me sow love”. She achieved what she did by sowing hatred; were I to stoop to that, she would have won. And she mustn’t.

And that wee boy, picking berries and having a picnic in that Lancashire field under the shadow of a proposed motorway?

I mourn for him, and all that he lost.

In 1958, he would have accepted that the motorway was necessary, but that the government could be trusted to serve the people, to maintain what was left of the field. He would have believed that there is a compact between those who govern and those who are governed -– that support would be rewarded by concern, and that national decisions would be made in the national good.

Instead, he grew to become a teacher who had to watch generations of pupils struggle against their parents’ unemployment and the fragmentation of communities, the diminution of public services, the absence of a voice which represented them in any meaningful way, former pupils going off to fight and die in politically and economically inspired wars, industrialists encouraged to grow rich on human misery, and a growing culture which said having is more important than being; what you own outplays who you are; watching your back is more important than supporting others.

Half of that field still remains, the wood is still there. Theoretically, berries could still be picked, picnics still enjoyed. However, the sentimental memories evoked by the thought of 1958 are not so much about the actions as the context.

Thanks to the world ushered in by Thatcher’s programmes, that context has changed. Optimism, brotherhood, cooperation and connectivity have all been privatized – they belong to an elite few in our society. The rest of us wait for opportunities which appear to have been cancelled; we can’t even rely on a replacement bus service.

I suspect these days, the berries would be sour and the picnic food processed.

If you see Sid, tell him.

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