Margaret Thatcher 13-10-1925 – 8-4-2013
Margaret Thatcher, the woman who in her position as Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990 changed Britain’s society and economy irrevocably, has died.
There will be many tributes from many people who have been affected in one way or another by her eleven-year rule, tributes both heartfelt and shallow, from both in the UK and abroad. But there will be no tribute from me.
From her earliest political years as MP for Finchley to her latest years as Baroness Thatcher, her life was fraught with controversy and her bull-headedness and arrogance made her enemies in numerous quarters. I could begin with her spell as Secretary of State for Education and Science in Edward Heath’s government in the early 1970s. In her move to cut costs she did away with free milk in schools, which led to her being harangued as “Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher”. Few realised it at the time but this was an unpleasant warning of things to come.
The dark days of Thatcherism began when she was elected Prime Minister in 1979. Over the next few years she and her all-male cabinet presided over a period when unemployment doubled and reached heights not seen since the 1930s. She dismissed all the industries that had closed down as “lame ducks” but had not a thought for what would replace them.
She tore into the workers’ unions one after the other. The National Union of Mineworkers went on strike in 1984 and coal production slowed down to a trickle, but Thatcher was already in the process of making Britain less dependent on coal and she got round the temporary coal shortages by importing coal from Poland. With her now legendary intransigence she broke the will of the miners and in the process left numerous towns and villages in Scotland, Wales and the North of England with nothing.
By 1985, with the miners defeated and all the unions that she thought held down the country in the past under her heel, she could freely proceed to turn Britain into the country she wanted, one where free enterprise and a free, deregulated market could rule. This gave rise to a most odious group of people, Young Urban Professionals, or Yuppies.
As the south and east of England grew more prosperous more people were buying houses and other property. This boom in property was helped in no small way by allowing local councils to sell off their own property. By 1990 property prices were growing exponentially and most people on low incomes were being priced out. This ultimately led to numerous people, young and old, being made homeless with no job, no home, no future. And what few properties the councils had left became traps for the poorest and most badly educated. It was in this setting that the poorest of the working class became an underclass, with no jobs, no money and no hope.
In fact only London and the Home Counties were really any better off during Thatcher’s years. The rest of the UK, Wales, Scotland, the North of England and Northern Ireland saw little if anything of the boom of the late 1980s. Like the US President Ronald Reagan, Thatcher believed in the “trickle down” theory which states that wealth accumulated by the richest will trickle down to the poorest. We now recognise this theory for the fallacy it always was.
British Rail, which was not being too efficiently run when Thatcher came to power was now being bled white through repeated rounds of cuts. Road transport was now being seen as the way forward with car ownership increasing. Public transport could have dealt with the increase in traffic in the 1980s with increased subsidies but instead the whole structure was deregulated in 1985. Services were cut away to the barest minimum if not abolished outright in rural areas and towns fared little better.
In fact most public utilities, such as gas, electricity and water, were privatised. This left most of Britain’s infrastructure publicly funded but privately run and accountable to nobody but their directors and their shareholders.
Northern Ireland escaped the worst excesses of Thatcherism — its public utilities are mostly still in the public sector. But Thatcher will be remembered here for the heartless and ham-fisted way she dealt with the troubles. Northern Ireland was already a political and financial disaster area with Unionists against Republicans, Catholics against Protestants, the IRA and the INLA against the UDA, the UVF, the LVF, the UFF and the RUC and the British Army against Catholics and Republicans, neighbour against neighbour and sectarian politicians and other assorted morons on both sides and on every level keeping that fire burning. Margaret Thatcher with her various Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland did nothing to calm down the trouble, let alone end it. The hunger strikes by Republican prisoners in the Maze Prison in 1980 did not move her. The second wave of hunger strikes the following year did eventually achieve something but only after ten men died – among them Bobby Sands. And even then the demands of the hunger strikers were only met sub rosa and over a long period of time so that the government would not lose face to people they repeatedly dismissed as “terrorists”.
And there were all the problems of the “Anglo-Irish Agreement”, the RUC’s shoot-to-kill policy and, most seriously, the broadcasting ban where the media were forbidden by Thatcher and her counterpart in Dublin to broadcast any speech made by Republican politicians and Republican paramilitary groups. By gagging people like this Thatcher was emulating the political oppression of the Soviet Union as much as she could.
Her foreign policy was equally reprehensible. She would not support sanctions against South Africa at a time when the country with its Apartheid rule was going through a particularly vicious period. The White minority government was denying the rights of Blacks and Asians to have any say in the way the country was run and they were doing everything they could to make sure South Africa remained exclusively controlled by Whites up to and including murder.
She always saw the Soviet Union as the arch-enemy of the free world and this view barely changed after she had met Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa. Gorbachev and his foreign minister Edvard Shevardnadze were doing well with the US president Ronald Regan in ending the Cold War and dismantling nuclear missiles on both sides that would never be used anyway. Thatcher, in contrast, made it clear in the most perfectly diplomatic way that, as far as she was concerned, as long as the UK and the USSR both existed there would always be a cold war.
And finally, and fatally, there was the monstrous matter of the Poll Tax. This was also called the Community Charge where every household, big or small, would pay a fixed amount to their respective councils, no matter whether they could afford it or not. She did away with the old system of Rates which had served Britain perfectly well and forced the Poll Tax through Parliament with all her might. She chose to ignore the fact that King Richard II had tried a similar stunt in 1381 and had failed abysmally with a major rebellion by England’s peasants. Thatcher’s Poll Tax also failed with protests and riots breaking out all over Britain during 1990. With this on top of everything else that was going wrong with the UK and leadership challenges from John Redwood, Douglas Hurd and Michael Heseltine, Thatcher was forced to resign.
So this concludes my assessment of the political career of Margaret Thatcher. Considering that I grew up in Northern Ireland during her years as Prime Minister, perhaps readers of this blog will understand why I shall not shed a tear for this woman, her vitriolic politics or her odious eleven-year rule. Every citizen of the UK has been affected in one way or another by Thatcher, even ones who were not born before 1991. Her policies on Northern Ireland were the reason I migrated to London in 1991. The after-effects of her policies on employment were the reason I was unemployed from when I left full-time education in 1990 until 1999. Her policies on housing were the reason I could not afford to live in anything better than a one-room flat in London.
And… Well, well, well, I actually have something good to say about Margaret Thatcher.
She has inspired me to write my longest blog entry to date.