A Nation Divided After All These Years
The death of Baroness Margaret Hilda Thatcher seems to have taken us right back to the terrible divisions of the nineteen eighties, more especially the later nineteen eighties, with even young people who never experienced those times getting on the bandwagon. I'm amazed and saddened at the reaction by many in this country. It seems no one wants to take a balanced look at things even now, after all these years we're still a nation divided.
I'm not a huge fan of Margaret Thatcher. In my heart I feel that overall she changed our nation for the worse. However I'm appalled by the people celebrating, holding parties and writing gloating messages on-line. I can understand holding parties to celebrate the death of Hitler after years of war, but despite opinions to the contrary Margaret Thatcher was not a tyrant.
Celebrating her passing demeans those who celebrate, it affects her not one iota, it merely hurts her friends and relatives and helps her enemies to maintain their own bitterness and hatred. In short it hurts those who do the celebrating most of all, would that they were sufficiently sophisticated to realise it. I have great sympathy for the mining communities and manufacturing communities who suffered and who still suffer today, great sympathy, and the restrained comments of some of their leaders do them justice. Unlike Mrs Thatcher I do believe in community.
I must say that although students are often the conscience of a nation I particularly object to student celebrations of Mrs Thatcher's passing. Many millions of us lived through the cold war, the winter of discontent, Irish terrorism – indeed one of my best friends was killed by an IRA sniper when he stopped to help the victim of a road traffic accident. Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, some thirty four years ago and left number 10 in 1990 some twenty three years ago.
Given that young people go to university at around eighteen to nineteen years of age as a rule and graduate a few years later they did not experience any of it. Had they been students in the Thatcher years they may well have had a grant instead of a loan and would not have had to pay tuition fees subsequently introduced by a party of a supposedly socialist persuasion. You know students – never let anything get in the way of a party, but come on, you can have a party every night of the week without this abusive theme.
George Galloway and Ken Livingstone are another pair of opportunistic crooners glorying in Mrs Thatcher's death. George Galloway leads a party called Respect, it's a shame he doesn't understand the word. I often times find I can respect someone whilst not sharing all their views. Margaret Thatcher was a colossus on the world stage, neither Galloway nor Livingston will achieve half so much. Mrs Thatcher's constituents from her time in parliament will tell you that she regularly ran clinics in the constituency and never forgot her obligations to them, even whilst dealing with much larger issues of national concern. George Galloway respects his constituents so much that he appears on reality TV to boost his personal profile rather than do the job they elected him to do.
Ken Livingstone, whose policies have swayed between left of communism to right of fascism as the mood takes him, or rather the opportunity to make a name for himself, has his own axe to grind, still bearing a grudge for the axing of the wasteful, profligate GLC. A move which many of us who suffered under it greatly welcomed at the time, but which brought Mr Livingstone personally down a peg or two. Now that's unforgivable!
So much for the rather sad reaction and the opening of old wounds, lets try and take a balanced look back at what actually happened and how it affects our lives today. I said at the outset that I felt in my heart that overall Mrs Thatcher had done more harm than good. Let me explain why. I remember the nineteen sixties and seventies as well as the nineteen eighties and I believe that as well as destroying the coal mining industry and much of our manufacturing base, the greatest harm Mrs Thatcher did was to initiate and preside over a cultural change. Post Thatcher it was all about making money, we became a far more selfish nation in my opinion and the current banking crisis reflects that.
However those who want to blame all our current ills on her are simpletons. There is little that's black and white in politics and one act can do good and harm at the same time, and it's often hugely difficult to predict ahead of time in what measure.
Before attempting to write this article I sat down with a piece of paper and made two lists under the heading good and bad. I ended up with about eight items in the good column and about four in the bad. I say 'about' precisely because some of her actions produced both good and bad results. In addition there's the question of scale, which is why my heart still puts me, but only just, in the camp which believes that overall she was bad for us. This despite placing more items numerically on the plus side of the account. Therefore I can understand why a goodly proportion of the nation still regard her as a good thing and a great leader. In the search for balance I realised I don't entirely share that view, but I understand it and some, actually much of what she did was hugely beneficial once the blinkers are taken off.
Lets look at some of the items on my balance sheet. I've already mentioned her commitment to her constituents and I believe she was a patriot who loved this country and worked damn hard to serve it – at least in the beginning. Certainly I think her intentions were more pure than many who enter politics. It is my profound belief that no Prime Minister should ever serve more than two terms, they start to trust their own judgement too highly and I believe that's mostly where things went terribly wrong.
When Mrs Thatcher came to power people were talking about Great Britain as being something rather less than great. The sick man of Europe was a phrase much bandied about and it's hugely ironic that the trade unions were damaging industries whose loss we blame on Mrs Thatcher, probably correctly and which we mourn today; however, had the unions been left in charge, and they really did run the show to a huge extent, then we would still have lost those industries, just in a different way. It's hugely sad that Mrs Thatcher made unions behave responsibly, then went on to kill much of our industry by other methods – three terms! Therein lies the biggest problem.
At the get go Mrs Thatcher did improve things, she gave the nation back a sense of direction and pride. I can remember how the miners brought down the Heath government and I remember the winter of discontent, rubbish in the streets and all the misery and uncertainty. We need trade unions, we need rights for workers, we need the right to strike; but we also need properly regulated trade unions who ballot members, work with, not simply against management as a doctrinal thing and who look to the long term. Unfortunately, what we got was a war between trade union leaders and the government and Arthur Scargill is probably as culpable as Mrs Thatcher for the stupid, wasteful destruction of his own industry. It became a fight to the death.
Indeed as I look back I realise what a troubled time it was, The Cold War, Irish Terrorism, divisions over Europe, riots, Briton against Briton and the only war in which Britain has stood alone since 1940. Mrs Thatcher had plenty to contend with.
Moving on from union reform we get the EC rebate. As a negotiator, at least in her heyday Mrs T had few who could hold a candle to her. Ted Heath's motivation for leading us into Europe was pure and good, the deal we got was not. Mrs Thatcher saved us billions of pounds, believed in the pound and guaranteed sensible levels of independence for Britain, whether we want a federal Europe is a huge question, but I think not! Are we glad we're not in the Eurozone? I think so! And she made other European Governments realise we were not there just to feather their nests. A change of no little significance then.
The right to buy council homes. I hear cries today that Mrs Thatcher was responsible for today's housing market problems and a lack of social housing. Come on people, get real. Those who had paid council rent for years and years, not the most affluent in society I think it's common sense to say, got the chance to own a home to put the value of that home in their own pocket so to speak, to and have an asset to pass on to their children and down the generations. There was a formula that took account of how much you had already paid, it became as if you'd already been paying a mortgage down, when in reality you'd been paying rent! If I didn't know better I'd say this huge opportunity for hard working, but not wealthy people was a socialist policy! It certainly accords with my idea of socialism, which includes spreading the wealth out, not keeping it all in the hands of wealthy aristocrats and landowners whose families date back to The Conqueror.
Of course it doesn't work for everyone, there are people for whom buying beer and ciggies is more important than paying the mortgage, but those are the same people who will default on the rent, and councils are, quite rightly, loathe to put families and kids on the street – so who pays for that? Rate payers of course. Overall, the right to buy was hugely good and for the people who needed it most. It was popular and council estates blossomed with new paint, home extensions, new fences, glazing and doors as people took a pride in the home they now owned! It brought about a DIY boom and glaziers and painters and decorators and other tradesmen weren't complaining either.
A lack of social housing today? There are other reasons for that. One in particular is that on the back of a handful of rogue landlords subsequent legislation has made being a landlord a nightmare. As always the pendulum swings too far in the other direction. Someone doesn't pay their rent for months on end and the central heating fails, the landlord has to fix or replace the boiler, that's the law, heaven forbid free-loaders should get cold. And there are many more daft stipulations that make providing rented accommodation a less desirable business to get into than it really should be. Something the current government would do well to take a look at. We really cannot blame every malaise in this country on Mrs Thatcher.
Terrorism was one of the greatest scourges of the Thatcher years as they've become known. The end of all out war in Ireland is a complicated subject. Mrs Thatcher did not bring that end about. I give most of the credit to the people of Northern Ireland, who, led by the women's movement finally said enough is enough. There are lessons for other troubled places in the world from that, but it's just a hugely complex subject and there are so many factors.
Mrs Thatcher's refusal to cave in, is actually one of those factors, despite the loss of the great World War Two hero Airey Neave, Mrs Thatcher's personal friend and the killing of Earl Mountbatten, another great Briton just for the record and again, despite the devastating Brighton bomb Mrs Thatcher stood firm. The pressures must have been enormous, if you can't admire that bravery and steadfastness you are missing something. The Anglo Irish agreement signed by Mrs Thatcher was also a factor and finally Osama Bin Laden was a factor.
Many Americans of Irish descent (who probably had no idea about Irish history, or even which community their ancestors belonged to) contributed to Noraid a fund raising organisation for Irish terrorism. I'm sure some non Irish Americans contributed too. America had suffered little from terrorism before the Oklahoma bombing which turned out to be home grown. The 9/11 attacks changed everything, the realities of terrorism hit home and a loss of funding suddenly made a political settlement in Ireland seem much more appealing to the men of violence I'm sure.
Having looked at the terror war there are two more wars to consider, the Cold War and the Falklands War. Just so you know I write this from the perspective of a confirmed pacifist. War is the single most immoral thing human beings do, end of. The causes of war and the solutions are once again complex, but it seems to me we must one day agree on some basics and the first of those is that we can't change the past, only the future, so leave the past where it is and do not attack anyone else, on any pretext and particularly not for material or territorial gain.
If that makes sense to you then the invasion of the Falklands was immoral, I certainly believe it to have been immoral and if we don't stand up to immorality we let it take over. At the time I had huge misgivings about sending men thousands of miles to kill and to die. I don't believe for one minute that Mrs Thatcher found that easy to live with either. I suspect she knew her decision pretty quickly, it seems to have been in her nature, however her obviously emotional responses as news came in did indicate a caring and principled human being. I think the decision to sink the Belgrano was wrong personally, but history tells us only what did happen, what would have happened had we taken another course is always speculation. I don't believe the Argentinian government would have treated the Falkland islanders humanely, let alone fairly, hell they didn't even treat their own people humanely. Mrs Thatcher's decisiveness and steadfastness again stood Britain in good stead and people recognised that as the next election proved. (I think Argentinians are also better off as a result though they probably cannot see it judging by recent clamouring over there).
It's easy to forget that Mrs Thatcher was democratically elected and three times to boot! And that's the sad part in a way; had she gone sooner I might not feel that despite all these great achievements, that overall she damaged our country. I have to accept though that even despite my belief that she did more harm than good I cannot see where we would be today had she not been elected. A leader of a lower calibre may well have sold out the Falkland islanders, may well have caved in to terrorism and may not have helped bring about the end of the Cold War. These are enormous issues.
At the time it was easy to mock Mrs Thatcher's relationship with Ronald Reagan, I did enjoy the jokes actually. At the end of the day though Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan stood shoulder to shoulder and shared mutual respect. Mrs Thatcher was no lackey to President Reagan, in the way that Blair was to Bush. Further, the Soviets respected Mrs Thatcher, That's where her Iron Lady moniker came from and many Eastern Europeans under the Soviet yoke were inspired by her. Yet again she brought her incredible powers of negotiation and her ability to reason and influence to bear on a hard nosed, tough, former KGB officer called Gorbachev. Thatcher, Regan and Gorbachev brought the cold war to an end between them and many Eastern Europeans subsequently had their first taste of liberty and self determination. These things improved the world we inhabit today.
The problem is that, whilst I believe the world at large is a better place for Mrs Thatcher, unfortunately I'm not so sure about Britain. Her detractors will say the world is not a better place at large and they will site her comments about the great Nelson Mandela, but Mrs Thatcher was an enemy of apartheid and influenced F.W. de Klerk as she did many others for the better. It was later, when Mandela was both free and able to lead that we really came to understand the amazing humanity and incredible abilities of that great man. I think she was wrong about Pinochet too, but overall her international record stands up pretty well to scrutiny.
It's crass to blame Mrs Thatcher for all our ills more than twenty years after she left office and I believe she loved the country and wanted to make it better, but I personally feel in this she failed. Of course the biggest issue and the one which I think polarises people the most is the miners' strike. Second to that comes the poll tax, third probably privatisation and some will attack her for banking deregulation.
On the subject of banking deregulation it wasn't all bad. Making it easier for ordinary people to buy shares, invest and participate in things that had been the preserve of wealthy elites is not especially right wing and I feel was a very good thing. Deregulation went further than that of course and subsequent Labour governments took it further still. Personally I feel she did more good than harm here and that since no one has a crystal ball it was the responsibility of subsequent governments to keep their eye on the football and keep the banking industry under control once it started to run amok. In practice subsequent governments actually made it easier not harder for bankers to abuse their trust and that's not Mrs Thatcher's fault.
Now we get on to the biggies: the Poll Tax, privatisation and the miners. The net result of privatisation was a change of culture, everyone wanted to make money out of everything. Building Societies wanted to be banks and have shareholders, water, which every human needs just to survive became a for profit industry. Railways went back to being businesses, safety suffered, jobs were lost and fares rocketed. Much the same happened in the power generating sector, people began to fear for the NHS, museums started charging entry fees, I began to think they'll charge me to breathe soon. Everything became short termism and all about profit. Coal was becoming uneconomic it's true, but to fill mines with concrete so they could never be reopened if the price of coal rose was madness. The Germans subsidised their coal industry. Here in Britain everything was about profit right this minute.
There were other forces at work too. I suspect the Thatcher government wanted revenge for the fall of the Heath government, largely brought about by the miners. Accordingly the Thatcher government laid in stocks of coal and went to war with an equally short sighted miners' leader Arthur Scargill. As always ordinary people suffered. Communities tore themselves apart, families were divided and much of the blame lies at Mrs Thatcher's door.
Not all of it though, some miners were violent from the start and the police did not always conduct themselves as they should. The main picture on Page 7 of the London Metro newspaper Tuesday April 9th is remarkably eloquent. If you haven't seen it, it depicts a mounted policeman swinging a baton at a perfectly respectable looking chap standing to one side with nothing more threatening than what looks like a camera case. Individual acts of violence such as this and I'm sure many others should be laid at the door of the perpetrators rather than the policy makers, unless said policy makers incited violence.
In the end communities were destroyed. I have huge sympathy with the sentiments expressed in the movie Brassed Off. If you haven't seen that I commend it to you. Unlike Mrs Thatcher who believed only in families and individuals I do believe in community, until we are all brothers and sisters we'll never end war and violence and other ills. There were communities all over the country where everyone knew everyone, where risks were shared, whether down the mines or on the seas, where help for a neighbour was always forthcoming, where front doors could be left open, where people genuinely cared about one another.
Those communities are largely lost to us and for a long time were in despair, most will never recover their former character, our culture has certainly changed. In general museums are once again free, but Mrs Thatcher went too far, the disease of the third term and Blair followed suit; so now we have a nation of individuals in debt as well as a nation in debt. I don't believe for a moment that was Mrs Thatcher's intention, I think she wanted people to be investors, home owners and savers, share holders not credit card holders, but she failed and in the terminology of the present time created spectacular collateral damage. Neither side in our combative political system really has answers and we have politicians that are largely small men such as he who lives free in a stately home but says he could live on little more than £50 a week if he had to.
The Poll Tax as it became known, the Community Charge as proposed was Margaret Thatcher's undoing. Once again we saw violence on our streets. On the face of it some of it sounded reasonable. The idea was that everyone should contribute towards local costs, the things councils pay for; roads, rubbish collection, libraries etc. The Community Charge would replace the rates, themselves calculated on the value of a person or family's home. Sounds reasonable in a way, since we all benefit from these services whether we share a home or not and that was the thinking behind it. It was an error of judgement though. Many people share a home because they're too poor to live alone, an extra bill to those people is often a disaster. By this stage in her third term Mrs Thatcher believed she knew best about everything, as with Blair she'd become a liability to her own party as well as to the nation. Politics is a dirty business and she was duly stabbed in the back by those around her, but it was necessary.
We should learn from this and prohibit third terms. In addition, rather than celebrating the death of an old lady in front of her children and grandchildren, those who do so are imbeciles in my view, we should look at the current situation and work to make our future better today – as individuals and as communities. Margaret Thatcher undoubtedly started with the best of intentions, she rose to high office democratically and despite incredible obstacles. She changed the world for the better and was good for Britain's security and standing in Europe and the world at large. Those same qualities caused enormous problems at home, largely as a result of going too far, doing too much, for too long. I understand why she still arouses such passions. Culturally and ultimately economically I believe she damaged us but that was not her intention, it's been exaggerated in some quarters and made worse by subsequent politicians whilst in other arenas she got a lot right.
Many places in the country, with good reason, rued Margaret Thatcher's existence. Nonetheless it's not good to gloat; energy would be better spent working to recover what we lost and being grateful we're a free nation to do so. Let us not return to the divided and oft times violent days of the eighties. Please.