I’m taking a quick break from the A-Z challenge to write something about Margaret Thatcher, who died (you may have missed the news…) on the 8th April.
First, a disclaimer. I was born in 1984 which means I was not alive when she came to power, nor was I alive during the Falklands war, and I was six years old when she resigned. I did not see closure of the mines, the clashes with those on strike, nor did I really understand the IRA. That she called Mandela a terrorist and was close friends with Pinochet meant nothing to me until much later. The Prime Minister that I remember, at an age when politics was just starting to be something of interest, was John Major, and later, of course, Tony Blair (I remember the great joy when he came to power, and the endless disillusionment that followed).
However: Thatcher cast a long shadow. Partly, this had nothing to do with her policies. She would have been memorable even if she had done and changed nothing, simply by dint of being the first female leader in a modern Western democracy. Even the language of the eulogies is different for a female prime minister – she is ‘matriarch’, a ‘lady’, she is either loved or hated. There is a personal element to the praise and to the attacks that I cannot believe a male politician would draw. All politicians are hated by someone; Osbourne is certainly hated at the moment. But only a female one could be called a witch, only a female politician would have her beauty praised or condemned (Can you imagine us standing around talking of what a ‘great beauty’ David Cameron was in his day?), front pages bent over themselves to include a mention of her gender (count how many started with the phrase “the woman who…”). Thatcher herself traded on her image as a housewife and mother. She shared recipes, and let fall homely old wives sayings.
Sadly, the fact that a woman took on a position of such power, and a role that was so traditionally masculine, meant very little to most women. The pay gap got worse. Child benefit was frozen. Thatcher made only eight women ministers, and only one rose higher than Junior Minister.
In addition to being a woman, Thatcher was also memorable for the fact she was the first Prime Minister to operate in a media-rich world. We have striking iconic images of her, we have footage of the Falklands, and at the time news became more instant, and was shared with each other. As a population, I think, we became invested in the story, in the history, that developed around us and that we were a part of. Politics mattered to everyone in the eighties – or that is the impression I get.
So much for who she was. What about what she did?
She destroyed the unions and devastated the economies of towns built around mining. This is the thing that echoed down the years. Those towns have never recovered. Inequality and poverty rose under Thatcher’s leadership. Unemployment hit record highs and has never recovered – not during the ‘boom time’ of the eighties and not since she left office.
Unemployment is a figure tossed around. When it goes up and down by a few percent it is easy to forget that we are talking about real lives. At around the same time unemployment went up, ‘welfare’ became an issue. The idea that everyone deserved to be helped when they fell on hard times was replaced by inflammatory comments about skivers. Weirdly, this idea – of people that actively sought to avoid working by ‘faking’ disability – has no proof behind it. The amount of money spent on unemployment and disability benefit is absolutely trifling compared to the benefits that go to people that are in work, but don’t get paid enough to live on. And all of it is dwarfed by the amount of money that goes on pensions. (But hey, why let facts get in the way of a good hate session?)
Thatcher espoused neoliberal politics – much like Ronald Reagan. The focus of neoliberalism is complete faith in the free market. As a result, Thatcher privatised many public industries starting with British Telecom, taking in gas, coal, oil and nuclear power and finally the railways – although that final one ended up being implemented by her successor. The results were either wildly successful or a complete disaster, depending on which side of the political spectrum you fall. Generally, it seems to be split along lines of wealth – if you had enough money to take advantage of ‘increased competition’ you found prices dropping, but for ‘small consumers’ prices actually rose. British Gas, after being privatised, almost immediately began a much harsher system of penalising people that couldn’t pay, resulting in many people being cut off.
Another side of privatisation was the selling of almost all the council houses and not buying or building more. The net upshot of that was a crazed housing boom, and more recently the housing crash. Nowadays getting on to the ‘housing ladder’ is extraordinarily difficult for less wealthy young people, and a huge chunk of housing benefit goes straight into the pockets of wealthy landlords. The result is either years of paying outrageously high rents, or returning to the homes of parents – resulting in the ‘boomerang generation’.
The problem, of course, is that privatised companies are only good to those that can afford them. Much of the social apparatus runs at a loss. Housing for those that would otherwise be homeless, social care for the elderly and the ill, money to help the less able live a rich and rewarding lives. These things will never make a profit.
But this, of course, is the legacy of Thatcher. That those who struggle should be left to fall. That poverty is the fault of those who are victims to it. That the economy is everything and happiness is nothing. That the rich should be feted with tax cuts and the easing of regulations, that labour should be cheap and flexible, that the working class is just another resource — and a plentiful one at that. That the lives of people can be reduced to a set of figures: those that contribute and those who take, with no compassion, no nuance and no understanding of what really matters.