Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Thatcher's children

It's fair to say Margaret Thatcher dominated my adolescence. I was 13 when she swept to power, and 24 when she was dumped by her own party as an electoral liability. Though it's hard to admit now, I - like a lot of the country, was all in favour when she appeared, having mostly inherited my political views from my parents, and with vivid memories of sitting in candlelight as electricity was shut off, and passing mounds of uncollected rubbish during the 'Winter of Discontent'. My slide out of love was like the country's, dismayed by high inflation (22% in 1980, I remember) and soaring unemployment, worried by riots, excited and proud at the Falklands War. By the time I reached 17 and took Economics 'A'-Level I started to realise that Monetarism and 'Trickle Down' were basically nonsense, and when I reached 18 and spent three years in Yorkshire during the height of the Miners' Strike, I became more aware of the terrible damage that her economic shock therapy had done to pretty much everywhere outside the Home Counties. It had been a similar story in my native Midlands, and my home town of Walsall was eviscerated by the loss of traditional 'metal bashing' industry. I got caught by accident in the Trafalgar Square Poll Tax riot and got a taste of what being charged down by police on horseback was like. By the time she went I loathed her - I was an adolescent and hated with an adolescent's passion, so much so that even now I can't hear her voice without almost physically wincing. But I certainly wasn't the only one - something that the Right (still feeling collective guilt from their brutally pragmatic act of matricide) still can't always acknowledge - John Major's approval rating reached an unbelievable 93% in its very early days purely because he wasn't Margaret Thatcher.

Time passes. Experience becomes history, history becomes myth, and myth becomes legend. It's hard now to separate the lived experience of Thatcher from the myths that both Left and Right have built around her. This was something she willingly colluded in - she and her image makers, like Tim Bell and Charles Saatchi, built a weird, quasi-regal, apparently fearless and scarily self-assured image of her, an impregnable cocoon, almost above politics, and we all bought into it. I'm strangely reminded of Caesar Augustus and his relentless public image making. More recently, as time blunts more visceral emotions, nuance has finally and fortunately begun to creep into the collective memory of her - cracks in the Boudiccan facade have appeared via papers and memos released under the 30-year rule and films like The Iron Lady, that reveal and portray the human being underneath the carapace, while her Lear-like decline into senility has evoked sympathy even from  those of us who hated her. But what those on the Right fail to recall now, as they clamour for our obedience to their own vision of her, is that it is the artificial carapace that they loved and that we loved to hate, and it is that carapace that is being hated now, and that carapce whose disappearance is being celebrated, not the confused 87-year old woman that died on Monday. It is the Terminator-like Iron Lady that we despised, not Margaret Hilda Roberts from a corner shop in Grantham. This catharsis is probably too long overdue - in point of fact the Iron Lady essentially vanished in 1990 when she was assassinated by her own party. Only the human being remained behind, declining as we all will.

So given all of that, I really wasn't sure how I'd feel when I heard of her death. I do confess to a brief moment of satisfaction; a kind of "well, that's that, then", but it was quite fleeting. Mostly it has been a kind of wisful melancholy for lost youth and the lost political certainty that I felt back then. There has also been some personal resentment at the kind of enforced mourning that we're apparently about to have to endure - I felt much the same way about Diana and the way the Grief Police tried to ensure obedience to a saintly image of a woman who the week before had been a silly Sloane dallying with an Arab playboy. It is that attempt to control the narrative, to rewrite her historical testament as one of pure achievement, when the record is much patchier than that, that makes my hackles rise. It isn't the feelings of Mark and Carol that these people are trying to spare, it is their own, and it will be interesting to see how they respond to the death of Tony Benn, say, or Ken Livingstone.

And that's not to say that everything she did was wrong. Good Lord, the state of Britain in the 1970s was one it is hard to imagine now. It's genuinely hard to remember now just how much of Britain was in public ownership in 1979. The government (led, lest we forget, by the Right's other darling, Churchill) had taken pretty much the entirety of Britain under government control during the Second World War, and it by and large stayed that way until the 80s. Some of the privatisations were probably long overdue. Some have been undoubted successes, like British Airways, British Telecom, British Petroleum, British Gas. Some, like British Coal and British Steel, were just a way of dodging responsibility for the demolition job that was to follow. Some, like water and electricity, or defence research, probably seemed like a good idea at the time but have not to my mind delivered any tangible benefit. Some, like bus services and the ongoing Post Office sell-off, have been a disaster for rural communities, and of course British Rail's privatisation (albeit finally realised under her successor John Major) has simply been an expensive fiasco.

Yet it seems to be a common assumption now that what she did for the economy was an unalloyed Good Thing, even putting aside the exultant glee with which a wrecking ball was taken to manufacturing, or the casual disdain for communities in genuine distress, some of which have never recovered; the uncaring "on your bike" and "the country's got to take its medicine" attitude. But in actual fact the economy has never quite recovered in the way that the Right think it did. The economic shock therapy that led to the wholesale restructuring of the British economy was paid for with North Sea oil, a legacy now gone and wasted. But the much-vaunted 'sunrise industries' of pharmaceuticals and electronics that followed could not replace the jobs lost in less mechanised and more employee-heavy industries like coal, steel and shipbuilding, and of course they appeared at the other end of the country. The biggest slice of GDP came to be occupied by finance, something that seemed to work right up until 2007, when we discovered that it had made us just as big a hostage to fortune as heavy industry had in the 1970s. We merely replaced one Achilles heel in the economy with another. I'm alternately amused and depressed at the Right's outrage now over welfare dependency, when they have created it by destroying jobs in the north and not providing anything to replace them beyond McJobs - call centres and fragile high streets being eroded by technological change. While those that did get on their bikes - like me - have swelled the already overcrowded south east, driven up house prices and accompanying property bubbles, and reinforced rural decline as the newly property rich buy up cottages in the country (I haven't done that, but I have friends that have). Truly, we are all Thatcher's children now.

So yes, let's remember a truly historic personality, one who has definitely remade Britain, some of it for the better, some of it for the worse. But a little more perspective is needed on both sides, I think. And if you're going to insist on a public funeral for such a divisive figure, don't expect everyone to play along with the version of her you want to remember.

No comments:

Post a Comment