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