For the truth about Margaret Thatcher, watch The Breakfast Club

Since Margaret Thatcher died, everyone’s had an opinion. There’s been a lot to read. The hagiographical stuff. (And if I have to read one more time that quote about if you want something done, get a woman to do it, I’ll…I’ll…well I’ll get a woman to do something.) The critical material (what the Mail would call bitter attacks, unless done by Peter Hitchens). The nuanced articles (what the Mail would call bitter attacks…you get the picture). I’ve gone back to the 1980s to my The The records and David Lodge’s ‘condition of England’ novel, Nice Work (more about that in a later piece), to remind myself what people were thinking and saying at the time. Much of what I have read has been thoughtful, and useless. In understanding Britain’s response to Margaret Thatcher, you don’t need Polly Toynbee or Charles Moore. You need a line from a 1985 Brat Pack movie. And you need the 5th Baron Carnock.

I grew up in the 1980s. Like any family, ours was hit by the high interest rates caused by Geoffrey Howe’s monetarist policies. We were aware of the battles with the GLC. But both my parents worked in the service sector rather than manufacturing. And there were no mines in South London. In 1989, Austin Mitchell came to my university to give a talk. He was good value, but at the end of his talk, as a northern Labour MP he came in for a lot of criticism. A woman my age spoke passionately. Her community, a mining community, had needed Mitchell’s support during the 1984-5 strike. There were people who hadn’t had enough money for food and while what they had to say about Thatcher probably wouldn’t get past the WordPress filters, they weren’t that impressed by the Labour party either.

Until that point, I hadn’t actually met anyone who had been affected by the miners’ strike. Perhaps that means I was a little sheltered, but I don’t know that makes me particularly atypical. Many people have tried to suggest that you can’t talk about the Thatcher regime unless you lived through it: that commentators born after say 1987 have no memory of her premiership and their views lack legitimacy. But I think that those of us who were there at the time also lack something. For when the post-war consensus stuttered to its end in the 1980s one of the things that many people lost was the ability to empathise. Instead, community was set against community.

Thus the miners lost, and the police (who got better terms and conditions) won, but at tremendous cost to their reputation in many communities (lose), but some people in those communities got the chance to buy their council house (win), in which they could set up a ‘pretended family relationship‘ (lose), and they might have sold shares in Jaguar (win) at a profit though not at MG or other industries (lose) where the overvalued pound decimated US demand and led to the closure of countless otherwise-competitive factories. And they may have Rejoiced when British troops retook South Georgia (win), or they may have been part of the Enemy Within (lose), or they may have been in Northern Ireland in 1981 (unionists gladdened by response to hunger strike) or 1985 (unionists appalled by Anglo-Irish Agreement). Everyone knows about her relationships with Reagan, Gorbachev, Mandela and Pinochet. Everywhere, there were winners and losers. Sounds complicated? It was, and is. Families remain divided on these topics. Naturally, it’s with your winner’s or loser’s spectacles through which you view Thatcher’s legacy. So it’s Judd Nelson as John Bender in The Breakfast Club who has the most appropriate quote:

Andrew: Speak for yourself.

Bender: Do you think I’d speak for you? I don’t even know your language.

For the moment, we all require a translator.

Nor do we really know what Margaret Thatcher’s legacy will be. There are many who argue that there has been a permanent shift to the right (certainly economically speaking), though, paradoxically, her third term and the manner of her defenestration led to massive splits in the Conservative party and, indirectly, to Labour’s three terms in office. It’s true that the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes (more through their rubbish economies rather than the actions of Thatcher and Ronald Reagan) and wider globalisation have changed the terms of debate. But the British economy remains as vulnerable to shocks as it ever was. Trade unions became weaker. But so has the power of elected politicians. London got city-wide government again. And the woman whose government introduced Section 28 would surely be both appalled and surprised that it is a Conservative Prime Minister who will, less than 30 years later, introduce equal marriage.

Which brings me to Lord Carnock, more commonly known as Adam Nicolson, to add some perspective. Adam has a show currently on BBC4: The century that wrote itself, which looks at the seventeenth century. He discusses the English civil war, and to illustrate his commentary shows footage of the 1990 poll tax riots. It seemed the freshest commentary I’ve read this week. Were we not always several tribes? Haven’t we always been divided? And don’t we have to wait a while before the dust settles on events before we can judge them? We can tell how things affect ourselves, and if the 1979-1990 government caused your livelihood to disappear, or indeed enabled you to make big zlotys on the stock exchange, then that’s a very personal matter; but we won’t know for some time what will stick and what will not. Of course, this juxtaposition is serendipity itself for our friend Adam, who could not have known that his series would start to air during a week in which the UK badly needed to look at events through a long lens.

The century that wrote itself is on BBC4 on Wednesdays at 9.00pm, repeated on Sundays at 8.00pm, and is available on iPlayer


  1. […] So it was with some sadness that I noticed a Daily Mail headline referring to veteran MP Austin Mitchell as ‘Labour’s splendidly maverick MP’. Of course, the Mail were lapping up Mitchell’s comments on his party colleagues and hoping they would cause maximum embarrassment for the Opposition front bench. But if you’re a Labour politician and the Mail subs refer to you as ‘splendid’ then you know that they don’t see you as a threat any more. They can pretend to like you (as long as you keep the off-message comments coming) because they aren’t scared. ‘Splendidly maverick’ means you’re on your way out. (Mind you, if you got to the end of the Mail‘s characteristically-long headline you’d have found that out too.) At the end of his interview with Dacre’s finest, Mitchell admits: ‘I don’t think I’ve achieved all that much. The causes I’ve fought for…have not materialised.’ That’s consistent with his miners’ strike experience, previously discussed. […]

  2. As a German born in the sixties, Maggie Thatcher was a quite dominant and visible figure for me when she became Prime Minister – she surely was, together with Ronald Reagan, the most prominent foreign politician when I was growing up. And, of course, as a fan of Morrissey and the Smiths, I was well aware even at that time that Mrs. Thatcher was furiously hated by some in the UK. “Margret on the Guillotine” on Morrisseys first solo album (which I loved!) made a huge impression on me. That song would not have been possible in Germany, no way, even today (and is perhaps possible only in countries which have executed one of their leaders in the past…) For me at that time, she was the Lady with concrete hair and strange costumes, bags and hats, who went to war for the Falklands, who wanted her money back from the EU, and who gave Helmut Kohl a hard time…

  3. Even in the (former) colonies, Thatcher’s passing has been newsworthy as various blathermouths take their opportunity to blather an opinion on the woman, and just what her legacy may be.
    For me, I was in London in the mid 70’s, another Aussie backpacker jamming up Cromwell Road and the Earls court pubs, wondering what I was doing in such a bleak joint. Her election in ’79 just after I came back for some sun, changed the place. I have visited regularly over the years on business, and whilst the last time I was there 18 months ago was pretty grim, it was nothing like the bombs in Chelsea ( I was just down the road), the strikes, that left us unable to buy sugar, and the general chaos of the mid 70’s.
    Thanks for following my musings on StrategyAudit, I trust I can can add to your day.

  4. Take 2….

    Loads of thought-provoking stuff here, Rich. Particularly taken with your suggestion that the end of the post-war consensus resulted in the loss of an abilty to empathise. I mean, it’s bollocks; but it’s interesting bollocks.

    • I don’t think Gerd really means that. But it is late.

      There is loads to discuss in what you write.

      But I’ll go for the gossipy stuff first: is the “woman of my age” the person I think it is?

    • Thanks for stopping by, Gerd. Perhaps I don’t mean empathise. Perhaps I mean nothing much more than that, in some loose and woolly way, people did feel (insert your favourite cliche here) we were all in it together/one nation. Before 1979, it would have been unacceptable for there to have been more than 2 million unemployed. Somehow, during the 1980s did that become OK, but the unemployed were deemed to have brought it upon themselves, even if their jobs had been sacrificed on the altar of monetarism. It is that harshness that I’m referring to.

      • Actually, I think your suggestion of a discourse of empathy as an approach to understanding what went on in the 1970s/80s is a very interesting idea. I was being an arse whn i wrote the earlier comment. I’m hiding behind the excuse of being tired, but whether I could properly develop, or critique, your idea fully awake is moot…

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