Margaret Thatcher is dead.
While this day has been long expected, Thatcher’s death remains one of those events about which you don’t know how you’ll feel until it happens. Now is a time to brace oneself for the endless media coverage and many will have their crocodile tears well rehearsed, desperate to find some good in her and so not offend the politically apathetic with a smile. I shall escape to north Wales and avoid the news, which leaves me relieved rather than elated.
Thatcher cast a long shadow over those of us who grew up with her in power. On election day 1979, the school PE lesson had descended into a funny walks competition, for reasons I don’t recall, and I was told to impersonate Margaret Thatcher. Being a rather earnest ten-year-old I attempted to inject humour into my effort by crying out: ‘I’ll put up taxes, I will!’
Some of the kids asked what that meant, but the dinner ladies got it. And the episode was to be the only happy memory of the Thatcher years. At that time my best friend was a glue sniffing skinhead and others had National Front leaning parents. Thatcher had wooed them with the promise of a ‘clear end to immigration’. (A lie, of course: her reforms actually encouraged immigration.)
And so the Thatcher years were years of shame.
Learning of my South African birth partly sparked my early interest in politics and ensured that interest has always been internationalised. My mother may have come home with me just a couple of months old, but learning about apartheid left me feeling dirty. And Thatcher’s defence of the regime, in what turned out to be its brutal death throws, made it hard to be proud to be British. But it’s not like she wasn’t consistent. She loved Chile’s General Pinochet and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein too. Britain’s aid budget was used not to boost development, but to subsidise the arms trade and businesses who donated to the Conservative Party.
Thatcher was so corrupt, as the rest of us were watching Live Aid, she raided the overseas aid budget to support the career of her arms dealer son, a man who may not enter the USA because he has been convicted of a terrorism related offence.
She was hardly any more democratic back home. Elected councils whose populations refused to vote Tory were abolished for that reason and local government reduced to its current mostly administrative role. Fighting hard against people’s right to organise themselves at work was supposed to bring economic benefits, although there is no evidence that it has. What is clear is that today’s workplaces are far less secure and that employer-employee negotiations are much more one sided.
University was serious, but fun. Being photographed by police on a vigil to mark the chemical attack that wiped out the city of Halabja (where Saddam Hussein’s regime murdered 5,000 without jeopardising British support) and refusing to pay the poll tax. It was that last event – one-in-five refused to pay while many rioted – that brought the regime to its knees. Our meetings coincided with major announcements in the Tories’ leadership elections; first the stalking horse and then the real thing. Not even the Conservative Party could deny she had lost the plot, that her great experiments had failed and it was time to give her the boot.
Oh how we laughed at those images of her crying in the back of her car on the way to visit the queen one last time as prime minister!
Unfortunately, when I graduated in 1991 the harder realities of Thatcherism came home. None of my cohort had permanent jobs. A year later my now wife, Katharine, graduated and was the only one to secure permanent employment. Twelve years on the economy was stuffed, the recession of the early 1990s even deeper than that of the early 1980s and Thatcher’s failure clear to all.