In a time of economic and social turmoil, the people need a Government with decisiveness and new thinking. Margaret Thatcher had both of these in spades.
In that sense, she would be welcome back as Tory leader today, as the current leadership has neither of these facets. In fact, you could say that her huge imprint on British politics is the reason that the past 2 Governments have been unable to bring anything meaningfully new to the British economy. Both surfed the wave of the big banking boom without realising it was about to wipe out, and we (or to be more accurately, Scotland) still think North Sea Gas and Oil is the future of UK energy, rather than our other abundant natural energy sources such as wave, wind and tidal (and coal?).
She also in effect caused the Labour party to abandon socialism as a way to gaining the middle-ground, and with it power, and in doing so continue Thatcherism well into the 1990s. By doing this, Labour has robbed us of any meaningful political alternative – just 3 equally bland parties with very few differences of opinion on the main topics.
So we are all still living in the shadow on Thatcherism. We have more purchasing choice in most things (whether we wanted it or not), many people gained economically from Right to Buy and utility privatisation (whether we wanted it or not), and there is no meaningful economic or political alternative to get us out of our current malaise.
However, some people feel Thatcher’s shadow much more deeply than others.
A tour of Thatcher’s Britain in 2013
You don’t need a theme park to visit Thatcher’s Britain – it still exists in the former industrial towns of the north.
Sheffield is still scarred by the massive and sudden collapse of the steel industry in the 80s & 90s, but being a major city, has had it’s share of regeneration and gentrification (as have Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle etc..) I think for those in the south that viewed Thatcher’s Britain from a bubble of prosperity, the fact that the icons of the north now have nice enough city centres and “even actually some rather nice restaurants” makes them think the 80s are dead and buried.
However, if you want to take a tour of Thatcher’s Britain you still can. Get a car and a map of Yorkshire. Cross out any city, rural area, coastal area and the whole of North Yorkshire (let’s face it, it’s not really Yorkshire – it’s a northern enclave of Buckinghamshire). Then just go, well, basically anywhere!
The whole of the rest of Yorkshire is basically a series of small to medium sized towns built on single industries which, whilst in various levels of repair by the 1980s, were utterly ground down by the 1990s. And most have never recovered.
It only takes one generation to go from very well paid ‘jobs for life’ to decades of unemployment, struggle, cold, evictions, and a lack of opportunity and hope for their children for an entire area to become a ghost town. Why would businesses invest their money in such dark, grey, crime and drug addled regions? Why would the clever children stay and fight the hard fight when there are more opportunities in nearby towns. Why wouldn’t the unemployed and immasculated former breadwinners, facing handing a bleak future to their children, not just hang themselves (many did). These places aren’t hideous because the people there are inherrently idle, devil-dog owning, binge-drinking idiots (though many are) – it’s because they had their heart ripped out, and replaced by nothing but bitterness, despair, hate and regret.
And if you think I’m exaggerating, I know a lovely campsite in Grimethorpe you can visit…
The North’s Myth of Thatcher
Growing up in an irreligious family in South Yorkshire in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher was the nearest thing to the Devil that we had. No-one simply said ‘Thatcher’, they spat it. But being only 12 when she left power, I wasn’t able to really understand this bile – I just had to accept it as truth. I’d never met an openly Tory voter until I went to University age 18. I Never mind didn’t know different, I couldn’t know different.
What many in the south don’t understand, though, is that this culture wasn’t about loyalty to unionism per se (or Communism, as I’m sure many thought). It was the fact that everyone knew someone who had lost their job as a direct result of Thatcherism, and few people could see any of the positive effect felt by the ‘Essex men’ that Loadsamoney satirised.
Not just this either. Men lost jobs, and sons and daughters lost any hope of ever having a job. The ‘benefit reliant’ culture the Tories so despise now was created by the Tories in the 1980s. The great towns and cities of the North were created during the industrial revolution by the influx of people escaping rural starvation and deprivation. For most songle-industry towns of the North, Margaret Thatcher returned them to this state.
However, let’s not kid ourselves. The other Myth of Thatcher in the North is that she destroyed all industry single-handedly.
This is simply not true. Nationalisation started during the war and powered Britain back to health in the 1950s, but the peace and prosperity of the 60s also started gloablisation. As a trading nation, Britain more than any other could not remain parochial. The Japanese managed to make huge inroads in the UK car market through the simple innovation of building cars which did not fall to pieces after a few years, as most British cars did. Steel existed in Sheffield due to its closeness to the raw materials, but new methods, cheaper transport, and cheaper wages elsewhere was starting to make mass manufacturing in Britain uncompetitive. The Germans noticed this and moved towards precision and specialist engineering. Sheffield did this too (Firth Rixon and Forgemasters excel in this), but much too late.
Coal, though. Maybe that’s a different issue.
Britain led the world in coal production, and the Coal Board had invested in new methods and machinery in the 1960s & 70s (Tungsten Carbide Drills, anyone?). The things that set coal apart was the collective power of its Trade Unions.Despite what we were told to think in the 1980s, Trade Unionism is a wonderful thing. It fought for improvements in safety and treatment of workers that are now taken for granted in all industries. It raised standards for every single person in Britain. It created the NHS. It even created the Cooperative movement which yielded well-run local savings and loans that were later turned unto voracious investment banks during the Big Bang! And in mining at least, these gains were not a Victorian thing – they happened in the 20th century during the lifetimes of many of the workers caught up in the Miners’ strike of the 1980s.
Here’s something that my Dad might disown me for, though. The NUM were wrong. Thatcher took on the unions because of their power in general – their power in a politically opposite direction to hers – but she was able to succeed with public opinion partly due to the 3 day week etc… but also because the NUM became undemocratic. You can very easily make the case that Arthur Scargill was fully vindicated – mines were being targeted for closure for political and not economic reasons, but by denying a vote and wielding collective power individually, the NUM simply confirmed all the fears the press had been propagating – this was an attempted Communist takeover of Britain (a ridiculous theory, but I’ve already heard many Tory commentators over the last few days essentially saying this very thing).
So, Arthur Scargill is maybe not the great hero of the miners, but Thatcher is still the villain. It was still personal. You only have workers’ unions if they have work, so she put them out of work. The evidence of this is that if you want to move the country on economically, you work on putting something else in place, and you wind the industry down slowly. Within 10 years of the miners’ strike, virtually all deep coal mines had closed. Were they uneconomical? I don’t have the knowledge to say this, but what I do know is that David Cameron is touring the world desperately looking for something we can export to the developing world. As I write this, I am sat on it.
Are Banks the new NUM?
So the NUM allowed Thatcher to succeed by becoming undemocratic, but at least they were on some level democratic. Any miner could join the NUM. Not anyone can get on the board of a major multi-national bank. You can buy shares, but how much influence does that really give you? Fred Goodwin answered to no-one, just like Arthur Scargill. But even if the Unions were trying to bring down Britain, or turn it Communist, or whatever they claimed at the time, they didn’t do even half as well as the banking industry – unleashed by Thatcher’s policies to replace industry in the country’s economic makeup – have done. Maybe someone else can tell me if it was even possible for the whole of British heavy industry in 1980s to have lost nearly £30bn in a single year, as RBS did in 2009. But have the Government sent the police and armed militias in to Canary Wharf, as it did at Orgreave in 1984? I think you know the answer.
I thought I had become pretty sanguine about Thatcherism over the years.
Sure, I’d enjoy a good game ‘The Thatcher Blame Game” with any pure blue Tories I associate with (this is where you seek to blame Margaret Thatcher for any of today’s ills, no matter how illogical. It really riles them up), but I stopped blaming her in reality for everything years ago (that’s what actually meeting and talking to Tories can do for you – take note South Yorkshire). However, reading this post (a bit of a stream of consciousness piece) it seems I still am pretty bitter after all.
And I’ve had a pretty nice life. I even work in financial services (oh, there’s no need to boo).
Imagine how someone who was really affected by the turmoil feels…