The Late Margaret Thatcher, RIP

I remember the morning in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher was elected as Britain's Prime Minister. I was 16, and absolutely elated. It was a bright, dry, warm morning as I cycled to school. No, not some private school, not a public school, but a comprehensive.

My elation was based on the end to the utter turmoil which our lives had been plunged into for almost a decade. This turmoil meant night without electricity, days deprived of school, a shortage of cash at home...because the left constantly dragged people out on strike. We had just endured the 'winter of discontent', with the dead unburied, rubbish piled up in heaps on street corners with all that meant for health and vermin. An unelected cabal of far left extremists had the unions in their iron grip and had no compunction about plunging millions into misery for their own political gains.

These gains were 'differentials', about ensuring that skilled workers kept ahead of the game. My dad worked in an aeronautics factory on the lowest grade, delivering tools to those skilled workers, as well as doing the processing. Dad would be forced out on strike even though he didn't want to and it wasn't in his interests. We were poor, and so there wasn't the same buffer of savings which those on the skilled wage, or the professional wage, could get by on for longer. We went hungry. Or rather my mum did.

That was the legacy of the Left for the poor such as us. The unions were a factionalised, selfish, hubristic anti democrats. They had done brilliant and necessary work in the past, but had themselves become the source of many of the problems which was holding society back. They were heavily misogynistic, often deeply enthralled by the Soviet Union and many anti-democrats. They commonly spoke the language of class warfare, i.e. class hatred, and not of aspiration.

Britain was also a place in the international doldrums. The Empire had finally limped off the horizon, we had finally joined the EU, were eclipsed not just by America but the recent enemies, Germany and Japan. We seemed to be weak, rudderless and without any national pride which increasingly sounded hollow and jingoistic. This was the time when we stopped hearing the national anthem at the cinema. We didn't seem to know who were were. This was the time of the rise of nationalism in Scotland and Wales, but in England we had the National Front.

It wasn't therefore a happy time really, despite the relative prosperity and very real opportunities which had been forged open. I was one of the real beneficiaries, being the first in my family to get into university, and Oxford at that. This undercurrent of a rising underclass, of aspirers and achievers coming through to the top spawned some pretty amazing characters and was deeply troubling, not just to the ruling elite with posh accents but to the ingrained warriors of class warfare on the left. The status quo pleased those on both sides. They knew the enemy, knew the rules of engagement, and both benefitted very nicely out of the standoff. But those like Margaret Thatcher, a grocer's daughter who aspired through education to reach the absolute heights of achievement, were the real revolutionaries. And I think I identified with that, even if I didn't like the woman's personality or voice. Yes, that awful voice.

Of course, at Oxford, the champagne socialists bayed for her blood just as much as the miner's leaders and the patricians of the Tory party. She represented the triumph of aspiring people of whatever background, and was a fundamental threat to all vested interests as a result. And she was successful AND a woman, which is perhaps the hallmark of the transition to modernity in Britain. Like it or not, the Left has still failed to give women the chance to shine at the real top. Thatcher didn't do it by special pleading, by a place on a women's only list. She didn't need to. She simply seized the chances life gave her and made it in a man's world on her own terms. She didn't let convention or class define who she was or who she could be. She set life out on her own terms. My mum idolised her for that. Oxford, that bastion of male public school privilege did not and snubbed her by not awarding an honorary degree. Of course it was dressed up as an outcry against some policy or another, but truthfully it was simply she wasn't one of them and wasn't playing by their rules. It was petty not principled.

In understanding Thatcher and her impact, I think we need to hold these things in mind. She was not the hatchet of special interest, big businesses, a crusader of class warfare. She was fighting on another battlefield all together, which the vested interests of class, business or industry were collateral damage. She made enormous mistakes, and was not a very likeable character, at least on the public stage. She grated on me, and by the end of her tenure in office she believed her own rhetoric to the point of hubris - that awful announcement 'we are a grandmother'. But that was the rhetoric of aspiration, of achievement by effort and ability not because of who you knew and the school tie you wore. She was seduced by the rhetoric of personal striving, the other half of the post-war provision of opportunity for all. Her reasoning, and that of such people as Norman Tebitt and others around her, was that if you had the opportunity, you couldn't whinge if you didn't make it. You must have been lazy etc.

And she was dedicated to making new inroads into opportunities for all, was deeply egalitarian. The largest re-distribution of wealth from rich to poor via the government took place under her government when the social housing stock was sold off to its poor tenants at rock bottom, non-market prices. At a stroke those in dependency housing were home owners, stake holders in society in a way which only the white collar worker could have dreamt of. Selling off state industries wasn't to smash them, but to make them competitive. She and her ministers might have got that wrong and undermined any chance of an industrial base in Britain, but the unions had done a pretty good job at doing that already. I remember when I was working in Cowley that it had come to light that a whole annex at the Cowley works had been employed to do absolutely nothing for years, and had card tables, beds etc all installed and presided over by the unions. And those sell offs were also keyed into shares for the workers, again about breaking down the barriers between workers and owners over the business of capital. It wasn't just the wealthy speculators who owned shares, now it was an ordinary worker.

Sadly, the ideology of aspiration is flawed, deeply flawed, in that it sees really only individuals making their own privatised choices. It was an ideology that was rooted in the reforms of the moderate left in the post-war years, and in the self-help movements so beloved of the Methodists and others. There is no such thing, in this sense, as society, just the mutual interests of individuals. Thatcher was the greatest ideologue of this movement, a movement which wanted to say that everything was my business and none of yours unless it prevented someone else's aspiration. It is deeply akin to the social revolution of the 1960's under the permissive legislation of the Labour government of the time, that promoted divorce, liberalised homosexuality and divorce laws, and in effect said that what goes on in people's personal lives is of no interest to the state. Thatcher followed that principle wholeheartedly, being famously tolerant of her ministers personal indiscretions and disappointed when political reality demanded resignations of ministers' who had had affairs. Here lay the root cause of the scandals that bedeviled the Major years, which in the end brought the Thatcher era finally to a close.

Her ideological adherence to personal aspiration also contributed to the greed and avarice that took hold of the City. Yes, her time saw the bastions of public school privilege in the City opened up, but it was to wide boys who were to create the hedge funds and the like, those soley driven by money and with none of the social formation of responsibility to society which the old school had preserved. It was just about me, and about me having as much as I could get. Class and tradition were swept aside, but with them the traditions of serving the public good, of public service, of wealth with duty. Sadly, the human person easily reverts to the animal instincts when he no longer aspires to be a social person, when wealth and personal achievement overcome any sense of the common good. She, and it must be admitted she is not alone in this, underestimated the need of humanity for society, for social norms, for traditions that hold deeper values in check, that no man is an island and there is something more important than wealth. That failure of insight has, I think, cost Britain dearly.

Thatcher didn't create the ideology of aspiration but she was its totem, and its most vocal idealogue. The critics from the left, so often burning with resentment and hatred, seem unable to view her apart from their own categories of class warfare and the like. A significant number of people seem to be rejoicing over her death, which to me is spiteful, and lacking in human dignity. Whatever the negative effects of her policies, she was a towering figure in the transition from a time when we were all supposed to know our place and act accordingly, to the modern era when aspiration is a key political construct in shaping the world as it now is. Apart from her own seminal rise to power as the only woman party leader in GB, let along Prime Minister, her crusade for a country of aspiration liberated Britain from the curse of class warfare and gave the country at least the beginnings of a post-colonial identity. Yes she was brutal at times, and driven, wedded to the ideology of individualistic aspiration and market forces, and as hubristic as the worst of politicians, but she was no Pol Pot, no Stalin, no mass murdering monster, she didn't even take us to war in Iraq over fabricated claims of mass weapons of destruction... in other words she was no 'wicked witch of the west'. There are others who more tellingly deserve that title, or maybe it is simply because she was a woman who made it that some just can't resist the temptation to gloat and deride a woman who was the longest serving, and duly elected, premier of the 20th century?


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