Iron Lady: Rust in peace

“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony,” Margaret Thatcher told the British public as she entered office as the first female prime minister in 1979. And yet ironically, for something that started with a quote from St Francis of Assisi, Thatcher became one of the most divisive figures in British history.

Death hasn’t changed this. In the last week you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped back in time to the 1980s, with the street demonstrations, and the burning effigies, and the chanting. Only this time it wasn’t “Maggie! Maggie Maggie! Out! Out! Out!” it was  “Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Dead! Dead! Dead!”

The death of the Iron Lady has also ignited contemporary platforms for debate, our modern day speakers’ corner: the social media. One interesting aspect I have observed is how views of her differ so greatly globally. Social media statuses posted from friends overseas have been very respectful, dubbing her a “feminist icon” – though we would do well to remember Thatcher’s own views on feminism: “I hate feminism. It is poison,” she reportedly once told her adviser.

But home-grown statuses from British friends have largely consisted of six words; “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead.” Indeed, at the time of writing, Judy Garland’s version of the Wizard of Oz song is on its way up the iTunes chart, after a huge internet campaign to get the song to number 1 in time for her funeral this week.

I was only two years’ old when Thatcher came to power in 1979, but she was a dominant force throughout my childhood. I was, I suppose you could say, a child of the Thatcher era, and from ostensibly working class stock, immigrants on my mother’s side, unionists on my father’s – two of the most hated demographics by Thatcherism, so it’s fair to say the power she wielded directly touched my family more than once.

One of my earliest memories was watching footage of the 1984-85 miners’ strike on the 6-o’clock-news. I was too young then to understand the graphic images of men waving placards and fighting with policemen, but as I grew I came to understand that Thatcher and her government were no friends of people like us.

The mining dispute was simple, the National Coal Board planned to close 20 coal mines, with an estimated loss of 20,000 jobs, decimating entire communities across industrial Britain. The move was part of a wider plan to deindustrialise Britain, moving away from nationalisation to privatisation.

Thatcher’s Conservative government wanted to break the trade union movement, the National Union of Mineworkers being the UK’s strongest. In a speech to the Conservative’s 1922 Committee in 1984 Thatcher famously spoke about defeating the “enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty”. The Ridley Plan detailed how it would be done.

After announcements of “accelerated closures” of pits by the Coal Board in 1984, with just 5 weeks’ notice, president of the NUM Arthur Scargill announced a national strike in March of the same year. The following month soup kitchens were opened in the northern county of Yorkshire, for the first time in 60 years. Local schools began giving free school meals to children from families affected.

The dispute raged for a year, during which time 11 people lost their lives and thousands of pickets were arrested after violent clashes with police. But unbeknown to the picketers, anticipating strike action, Thatcher’s government had stockpiled coal at the country’s power stations, wary that railway workers would come out in sympathy of the miners, they secretly recruited fleets of road hauliers to transport the coal. The miners never stood a chance.

The episode was widely regarded as a triumph for Thatcher in “breaking” the unions and their state monopoly. Nationalised Britain was running at a loss, Thatcher’s rationale was to liberate it from the stranglehold of unionism and open it up to privatisation. This sounded good on paper, but the reality was quite different for the majority.

Pits were closed almost overnight with no viable alternative being offered for the thousands of workers. Many tout The Iron Lady as a “champion” of the working classes, freeing them from a life of dependence on the socialist state, but in reality this “liberation” was only felt by the lucky few, mostly in the south-east of the country, strengthening the north-south divide and leaving many towns and cities little more than wastelands.

In a movingly poignant piece about the fabric of society built by mining towns, Ken Capstick described how “they built and provided their own welfare facilities and, well before today’s welfare state was built, miners created their own welfare systems to alleviate hardship. They rallied around each other when times were hard. They recognised the need for cohesion when at any time disaster could strike a family unit or indeed a whole community.”

But for Thatcher, such socialist values were intrinsically opposed to the neoliberal macro-economics she sought to impose on the country. The woman who decreed “there is no such thing as society” set about doggedly making that dictum a reality. For the mining communities of Britain, left little more than ghost towns, whose families were left living below the breadline, Thatcher’s vision had become a reality, there was no such thing as society anymore.

Many of these communities have never recovered, but have instead been left with the heavy burden of mass unemployment and spiralling rates of divorce, homelessness, suicide and depression as the life-force was ripped from their heartlands. It is interesting to note that when news broke of Thatcher’s death Scotland’s Daily Record’s front page headline read simply “Scotland will never forget”, whilst both Sheffield’s The Star the South Wales Evening Post led with just five words: “We can never forgive her.”

But the NUM was not the only union to come under attack, working with her ally Rupert Murdoch, in 1986 Murdoch’s News International set about smashing the print unions, with the help of Thatcher. Murdoch had become a trusted friend of the Iron Lady when in 1979 his populist tabloid The Sun, a paper with huge political sway in Britain, had switched allegiance to the Tory party and helped get Thatcher elected.

In 1981, after covert meetings between the pair at Thatcher’s country house, Murdoch’s bid to buy The Times Group Newspapers was waved through without referral to the competition committees (given that he already owned much of Fleet Street), this sealed a beautiful friendship between the pair.

During the 1986 ‘Battle of Wapping’, Murdoch, frustrated by unions’ control over the industry, launched a crusade to move his operations from Fleet Street to Wapping, in east London and streamline the production process. Demanding the unions agree to a no-strike policy, abandon their closed-shop arrangements and adopt new ‘flexible working’ patterns, the battle began.

The unions refused, and over 5000 workers went on strike after negotiations collapsed. Murdoch, quite literally, moved operations to Wapping overnight and dismissed all striking workers, hiring rogue traders to man “Fortress Wapping”, TNT couriers to distribute the papers, and reportedly offering £2000 to journalists not to join the pickets. Throughout the episode Thatcher promised Murdoch full police support on the picket line, fostering the close ties between News International and the Metropolitan Police force, that some argue led to the 2011 phone hacking scandal.

“After 15 months of so-called negotiations on the move out of Fleet Street, Rupert Murdoch provoked the strike that he had cynically wanted in a plot cooked up with his lawyers. Overnight, 5,000 people were sacked, and Murdoch’s plan was put into action. His secret workforce, men and women lured from unemployment black spots with a promise of a prosperous future, arrived by the coach load,” wrote union man Barry Fitzpatrick for The Independent.

“Week in, week out, I attended the demonstrations and as the weeks turned to months, I watched the lives of people I’d known and worked with for years unravel. There were suicides, marriage break-ups; people lost their homes. Twenty years may have passed but those sacked overnight – secretaries, researchers and cashiers as well as printers – still bear the scars of Wapping today.”

The quid pro quo relationship between the ‘Dirty Digger’ (as Murdoch was dubbed) and the Iron Lady continued throughout Thatcher’s premiership, indeed she is still widely despised in Liverpool following her support of Yorkshire Police’s conduct in the Hillsborough disaster and The Sun’s front page splash blaming fans. Many believe her backing of the ensuing police cover up was a sideways wink to repay them for their support during the miner’s strike.

In 2011 it came to light that following the 1981 Toxteth Riots in Liverpool, amid calls for a massive cash injection to stabilise the area from social decline Thatcher’s government toyed with the idea of a “managed decline” with one of her minister’s commenting that putting money into Liverpool to alleviate the widespread poverty would be like “pumping water uphill”.

But of course it was not just Thatcher’s demonisation of the trade union movement that crippled Britain, throughout her tenure, fuelled by a belief in free-market economics the country was transformed to one of the most unequal nations in the Western world. In 1986 Thatcher deregulated the City of London, the Big Bang delivered new legislation for stockbrokers, banker’s bonuses soared, relaxing many of the old rules which were seen to ‘fetter’ the marketplace.

Many saw the move as a revolutionary act, a breaking of the Old Boys’ Network of the markets. The face of Britain was changing, traders wearing top hats were replaced by Barrow Boys. American investment flooded the City. Entrepreneurial spirit flourished, and people who had hitherto been “enslaved” to the unions in state jobs began starting up their own companies, and buying shares in the ones they used to work for.

The emergence of the nouveau riche caused huge resentment towards Thatcher amongst the Tory Old Guard, reinforcing her status to many as a champion for the working man, offering up opportunities where once there had been none. But with the privatisation of previously nationalised industries in coal, iron, steel, gas, electricity, water, railways, trucking, airlines and telecommunications, what followed was the birth of yuppie culture, a society built on consumer credit. The inflated “greed is good” ethos permeated its fabric, and almost certainly contributed to the 2008 financial crisis as unregulated casino bankers took bigger and bigger risks.

The “flogging off of the family silver”, as many still refer to it, enabled foreign ownership of a great deal of formerly state-run utilities, meaning companies paying lower taxes, with limited accountability, were able to hike prices, sending the British cost of living soaring. In a climate where the decimation of the manufacturing industry, and most of its skilled jobs, were replaced with white-collar service industry posts offering paltry salaries and poor working conditions with no union protection. In the sell-off of Britain that ensued, even these jobs were eventually lost in most part, and outsourced to cheaper emerging labour markets such as India.

The hangover of such policies was the creation of mass unemployment, a housing crisis and a reliance on state benefits in the devastated deindustrialised communities the Tories had created. Thatcher’s proponents shout loudly that unemployment was down under her reign, but even this is smoke and mirrors, it is widely accepted now that the Conservative government fudged official figures by putting many they had just rendered jobless on Incapacity Benefit, instead of unemployment benefits, in order to keep official unemployment statistics down.

Thatcherites will tell you that her policies like ‘Right-to-Buy’ in which council houses were sold off to their tenants was a good thing, enabling the social mobility of people who would’ve been unable to buy property in any other way. But what of the social cost? When huge swathes of the country’s social housing was sold off, which netted the government an estimated £18 billion; local councils were instructed not to invest the money in building new council houses to replace them.

What resulted was a housing crisis that still plagues the country today, there are no more council houses for our most disadvantaged citizens, who are forced into the private rental sector, paying exorbitant rents they can ill afford to private landlords. In my town, which is by no means the gritty inner-city, the waiting list for a council house currently stands at 8 years, unless you are high priority (and by that they mean that you have a dependent), in which case the waiting list is 5 years. The reality for many has been temporary housing in B&Bs, or homelessness. There are an estimated 1.8 million UK citizens on council housing waiting lists today.

In truth, the liberation that Thatcherism embodied did not better the lives of the majority of Britons, it dismantled the historic post-war social gains made by Labour Prime Minister Clement Atlee: The improvement of workers’ rights, the creation of the National Health Service, improved conditions for women (including the implementation of financial support for women raising children), the establishment of our welfare state to offer social security for those in need, large scale house building programmes to offer good quality accommodation to the deprived.

The so-called gains of Thatcherism, which were mainly financial, for a minority of people, completely ignored the plight of the majority who were plunged into poverty by her politics. Free-market economics had no place in decimated industrial communities; there was nothing left to barter with. What Thatcher created was a society of haves and have-nots, a society that did not care that some people will never be entrepreneurs, or go to university, or that some people suffer illness and infirmity and require care. If you didn’t fit the upwardly mobile Thatcherite mould then, tough, there was no one there to catch you when you fell.

The eradication of democratic socialism also completely eroded the sense of community that Britain had always prided itself on. Because socialism isn’t all about reliance on the state, it is also about group responsibility, looking after those that, for whatever reason, are weaker or unable to do so themselves. In Thatcher’s Britain there was no room for weakness, it was every man for himself. The psychiatric patients told to fend for themselves and placed back in the community following mass closures of scores of long-stay hospitals which were considered “not financially viable” being the ultimate example of this.

In 1990, the Tory government, under Thatcher introduced the Community Charge (colloquially known as the Poll Tax), changing the old rates system based on the value of a house to a flat-rate tax payable for every adult living in the house. The move sparked mass protests across Britain, the worst civil unrest seen for decades, and images of OAPs being charged by mounted police became commonplace. Campaigns of civil disobedience became routine as people simply refused to pay.

I was thirteen at the time. And I remember it well, Britain was hurtling towards recession, and my father, a bricklayer had been out of work for months as trade in the country slowed to a standstill. The introduction of the Poll Tax for families like mine, already living below the breadline, meant financial meltdown. My most pervasive memory of the time is seeing my father, a burly tradesman, a man’s man, weep as the banks threatened to repossess our house. Our family simply could not pay the tax. The price of not paying? Imprisonment.

For my family there was only one way out of the continued battering by Tory policy, and that was for my father to take his skills to mainland Europe and work there. He was not the only one, most of his friends, also tradesmen, packed their bags, waved their families goodbye and went to Germany, where a building boom was taking place at the time. This saved our family from financial ruin, but it came at a high price.

We only saw our father every 2 or 3 months after that, for years. During that time I witnessed countless relationships of my parents’ friends end as they became increasingly untenable after years apart, countless families broken. The human cost of the only financial option no less savage than the financial ruin they were trying to avoid.

For our family the end came with my father’s death, before the age of 40. The time he spent away from us is never lost on me, or my sister, our tragedy was that we never got to spend those precious last years of his life with him in any meaningful way, and that is the real cost of the type of rampant social vandalism that Thatcherism championed.

Beyond the statistics, beyond the hyperbole and political rhetoric, the real impact of neoliberalism with total disregard for humanity is that real people get hurt, little people get hurt, communities are left ruined, families ripped apart, children robbed of time that could have been spent with their now-deceased parents.

So when President Obama described Thatcher as a “great champion of freedom and liberty” following her death, I like many other Britons, tuned out in disgust. The irony of using such adjectives to eulogise a woman who described Nelson Mandela, a true freedom fighter, as a “terrorist”, who counted Augusto Pinochet as a personal friend, who introduced a bill banning the teaching of homosexuality as acceptable in schools, who allowed 10 men to die in the Northern Irish hunger strikes, who was the only European head of state to oppose the ban on the ivory trade and to oppose the sanctions against Apartheid South Africa, is hard for many on these shores to swallow.

For families like mine, and the mining communities, and the black and Asian communities who suffered continued police harassment and limited opportunities (leading to the race riots of the ‘80s), and the scores of working classes that her policies ravaged into the under classes, there was no freedom, or liberty. There was only poverty and inequality and destruction and a dismantling of the very heart of our communities, our families, and our hope.

There has been much disgust in the media about the bad taste of partygoers lining the streets to celebrate Thatcher’s death, in the south London suburb of Brixton revellers celebrated with pints of milk, a reference to her abolishment of free milk for primary school children (an act which earned her the moniker “Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher”). But what of the bad taste of the moralisers trying to rewrite Thatcher’s vicious assault on the working people of our country? Where is the compassion for them?

This week Britain’s taxpayers will foot a £10 million bill for the funeral of Thatcher. It is not, we are told, a state funeral. Only it is. In all but name. The woman who brought our country to its knees and told us to look to the state for nothing, is receiving a send off fit for a queen paid for by it.

In her later years the grocer’s daughter from Grantham was said to decline into dementia, a heartbreaking reality for many, but this OAP had the good fortune to meet her maker whilst staying at The Ritz. This is more than my elderly grandmother, who also has dementia, can look forward to as she sees out her days in a fetid state-run care home, as social care budgets continue to be slashed.

And this is our reality: the reality of working class Britons that lived through the Thatcher era, and the society inherited by the generations that came after it. Thatcherism didn’t end when Thatcher was kicked out of her own party in 1990. The values she instilled rebuilt Britain, fashioned on a type of “screw-you capitalism” that completely eroded our moral code, and our spirit, packaged it up and sold it off to the highest bidder.

Nothing was a better illustration of this than the 2011 London riots, where all that was ugly about the consumer-driven, aspirational materialism rose to the fore as rioters looted shops for bigger TVs and better mobile phones. And why not? The kids involved in those riots, the grandchildren of Thatcher, had been brought up being told by our culture that the only human value is monetary value. That status is everything. That what you have defines who you are. They had watched the bankers loot our country, teaching them that selfishness was acceptable and greed was good.

On May 4 this year, exactly 34 years after Thatcher entered Downing Street, an anti-austerity demonstration is planned in Trafalgar Square, a protest against the current Conservative government’s savage benefits reform. The Sons of Thatcher, Cameron and Clegg, paying the Iron Lady the biggest tribute by carrying on her assault of the working classes. Thatcher may be dead, but the immoral stench of Thatcherism certainly is not, millions of ordinary Britons are still living its heartbreaking, humiliating reality.

So, as Big Ben falls silent on Wednesday and the Iron Lady is laid to rest with full military honours, there will be many who will be unable to shed a tear for the woman who ruined their lives. Perhaps the last word should be given to the anonymous graffiti artist in Northern Ireland, who this week, following news of her death, scrawled simply on a local wall: Iron Lady: Rust in Peace.

© Laury Jeanneret, 2013.

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