In 1974 I was eleven. To be honest I enjoyed the three-day week, its regular power-cuts, the romance of doing homework by candle-light (I was a romantic child, who loved the books of Frances Hodgson Burnett), I appreciated that we were fortunate to have a gas fire and a gas stove so that we could stay warm and have hot food and drink – I probably didn’t give a thought to those who were less fortunate.
I grew up in a family where socialism (or perhaps more accurately welfare-state-ism) was a given and it was important to be a ‘good citizen’ and have the right ethics.
I don’t think my father ever voted conservative in his life, but my mother confessed to voting for Margaret Thatcher in that first critical election that brought her to power. The reason she did so was because the old-man politics of Heath and Wilson and Callaghan had truly brought the country to its knees. Thatcher was something new and something different and something definite. She absolutely had the courage of her convictions – and even if you didn’t agree with any of her convictions you had to give her something for bravery and integrity. By the time I was 18 and ready to vote and the Conservative government were well under the spell of ‘Thatcherism’ everyone in our family thought differently (except my father who was by then dead).
At University it was fashionable to demonise her, and not too difficult to put every government decision on her head – I went on an anti-thatcher demo, no doubt signed a few petitions, felt equivocal about the Falklands conflict, and voted Labour at my first chance.
Moving to London in the mid-80s, and despite a rather Champagne swillingly pointless job in advertising, I still ‘hated’ Thatcher – did I have any alternatives to her policies? No. What I had was that simple, easy, peer-group led antipathy that does nothing for real politics and everything to create the divided world we are now in. I didn’t know that at the time, and also didn’t see coming with New Labour the merging of opposing ideologies into the grey gloopy mess that would make them electable. I just saw my ‘team’ winning. I now despair of the incessantly confrontational nature of party politics, the endless point scoring at PMQs which makes both leaders look like petulant schoolboys (and is surely part of what puts women off politics – who wants to work with a lot of antagonistic adolescents who live to score points?).
I helped to create this situation, with my Thatcher-hating, my unquestioning, Labour-must-win voting (without actually checking what their manifesto contained). Others helped to create the conditions in which Thatcherism flourished – both those who endorsed it, who grabbed everything available with both hands (cheap council houses, shares in once national companies, bonuses, pay rises the spoils of capitalism) as well as those who protested – our rhetoric ramping up the divisions. The people who really helped to keep the legacy going were those in politics, on pretty much all sides (except the extreme nationalists), who also didn’t come up with alternatives, just re-packaged old policies with a new ‘spin’. I thought that all those labour and liberal politicians being so polite in their tributes to Thatcher were being hypocritical, but on reflection they are genuine, they bought into Thatcherism, spun it round and put a new face on it. It made them as politicians. The Lady gets the last laugh, because There Is No Alternative. Well not right now.
Maybe in all this reflection on her death, maybe in the showing of the true colours of our current crop of politicians, something will come out of it, a realisation that nothing has changed very much since she walked out of the door of No. 10 into retirement. We don’t need to let this divide us. Right now the difference between them and us, is that most of us are us – struggling with austerity whether in work or out, seeing the welfare state on the verge of collapse and seeing that actually we do care, the ‘them’ now is a few people at either end of the spectrum – ‘them’ is the extreme; the untouchable rich and the untouchables (the problem families, the voluntary tramps, the political extremists).
As we could have done in all the General Elections since Thatcher came to power, we have the power to make a difference and to demand an alternative. We have about two years, so the clock is ticking. Don’t put all the blame on Margaret Thatcher, we all need to take a little bit of it for ourselves, and do a little bit to make things right.