Some reflections on the Thatcher era

Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990 died on 8 April 2013, aged 89. May she rest in peace.

There is no doubt that her time as PM was a time of great change in British society. There are many different views about whether the changes were good or bad, as we have seen in the reaction in the media and elsewhere over the past day or so. The fact that there have been celebratory parties in parts of the country show how there is division about what happened under her watch. Others feel she rescued Britain from complete collapse.

I want to offer four personal memories from the Thatcher era. Things that stay with me. They are not party political. And I could never rejoice about someone’s death, as some have been doing over the last day. Margaret Thatcher was a democratically elected politician. She did a job according to her own convictions. She subjected herself as party leader to the electorate three times. Her own party overthrew her, again legitimately within their own procedures.

There is no doubt that Britain, overall, regained a self-confidence in the eighties, which has lasted. There are plenty of reasons for that, but one cannot deny Margaret Thatcher some of the credit. There was undoubtedly a revival of entrepeneurship and aspiration. We now take that for granted, but I think we have to remind ourselves that in the late seventies it wasn’t there in the same measure.

So that’s my preamble. The personal memories may not seem quite so positive!

1. 1982. I’m sitting in my office in Britannic House, the head office of BP, British Petroleum. Working late on some economic analysis, I forget what. But it is in the middle of the Falklands war. I’m 23 years old. There’s been something on the news about the possibility of conscription if the war isn’t over soon. I’m sitting in that office, on my own, thinking, what would I do if they tried to conscript me? A battle in a far off place. A place that our government was pretty happy to let go of not so long ago. All sorts of things going through my head. Of course I’d fight if someone was trying to invade our country. Of course I would. But being sent off to the Falklands? I sat there thinking. And concluded I’d go to jail if necessary. Like Muhammad Ali.

Of course it never came to that, but it focused the mind.

And it doesn’t mean I wasn’t happy when David Coleman had to interrupt his commentary of Brazil v Russia (or Scotland?)  in the 1982 World Cup to announce Argentina had surrendered. And back to the football…

(And respect to Argentina today. Friends, as we should always be).

2. I’m living in Belsize Park, North London – very nice North London – in 1985 (possibly 1984). I’m commuting on the Northern line into the City, where I work. I’m in my pin stripe suit. At the entrance to Belsize Park station there are miners with their yellow buckets, collecting for their struggle against the government. A suicidal struggle, which their leaders should never have taken them into. But a struggle in which the forces of the state – the police – are being used to destroy a working class movement. Neither side has the moral high ground in this struggle. I can’t help feeling that a solution to the arguments could have been found with goodwill on both sides, but it has moved beyond that.

I give the miner at the station a fiver. In my pin stripe suit. He looks really surprised. I expect he would more likely have expected a volley of abuse. Appearances are deceptive. I feel a buzz, a sense that I am doing the right thing and also that I’m changing perceptions. City dudes supporting the miners.

And yet it is ultimately futile. Of course the state won, helped by the crazy leadership of the miners. It was the symbolic victory for Mrs Thatcher over the unions. Revenge for Edward Heath’s defeats in the seventies. And so many communities destroyed. Wasn’t there another way?

3. Harry Enfield, a brilliant comedian, on “Saturday Night Live” (and some times Friday) , with his greatest creation, LOADSAMONEY. Waving his wad at the audience, at all the Northerners. The South, especially Essex, newly rich, as the result of Thatcherite reforms. Entrepeneurship and aspiration. More than aspiration. Triumphalism.

And Loadsamoney’s alter ego, BUGGERALLMONEY. Geordie guy, getting a bit heavy. Hard. I drink beer, me. Buggerallmonaaay….

Very funny, very laddish, but also a brilliant exposition of the North/South divide, which was hugely accentuated in the Thatcher era. The economic boom during the Blair era may have reduced the divide a little, but it’s back and biting during the current recession.

4. Where was I when Maggie was ousted? I remember it well. My wife, Kath, and I were living in Paris. It was 1990, and I’d stopped working at BP, who’d moved the office to Brussels. We were enjoying some time just chilling in Paris. We decided one day to do the tourist river trip. It started up by one of the bridges not too far from the Eiffel Tower.  There was a newspaper stand nearby. On a poster it said that “Mme Thatcher est sortie” or something like that. Oh wow, we said, then continued on the boat trip. It wasn’t such a surprise after the poll tax riots and resulting dips in her popularity. The Conservatives are remarkably ruthless when they think a leader has become a liability, even one as iconic as Margaret Thatcher.

So they got John Major instead. He survived the 1992 election, so ended up being quite a long-standing Prime Minister. In 1997, Labour, under Tony Blair, trashed the Tories and stayed in power until 2010.

Counterfactuals are often used in politics. What if X had stayed in power, etc, etc. Actually, we just don’t know. Because the external forces and how you react to them are the determining factor. Party politics hardly matters in the final analysis. 9/11, for example. Or the banking crash.

So all the talk about how Margaret Thatcher changed Britain is fine, but it doesn’t mean no-one else would have done it. Because most things are a reaction to those external forces, and at the end of the day, the politicians of most of our parties will react to them in similar ways. The rhetoric may be different, and credit to Maggie, she knew all about rhetoric.

But in the end, it’s just dealing with the world…

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love outside work: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. And anything else that I happen to think is worth writing about!
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4 Responses to Some reflections on the Thatcher era

  1. Rob Atkinson says:

    A balanced view, reasonably appealing even to a rabid anti-Thatcherite like me. I think maybe some mention might have been apt of “The Falklands Factor” which undoubtedly salvaged her Premiership for her, enabling her to win the ’83 election when she’d been destined beyond reasonable doubt to be a one-term, one-off PM. But a highly readable, beautifully written piece, made all the more vivid by the personal nature of the recollections.

    • John S says:

      Thanks, Rob, for the comments. Glad you liked the piece. I think you are probably right about the Falklands factor, though, again, there were plenty of reasons not to vote Labour at the time, as it was an absolute shambles.

  2. Rick says:

    From this side of the ocean, I admired Margaret Thatcher. But, I was a fan of Reagan, too. As I tell my classes, all national leaders do good things, and they all do bad things. It’s the nature of the position. All we can ask is that they make the best decision with the information they have. I believe our two nations have had leaders who wanted the best for their nations. That doesn’t mean we all have to agree with it.

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