When my colleague popped his head around my office door the other day and said “did you hear that Margaret Thatcher died” my immediate reaction was to say “Is this some sort of joke”.
You see, to my mind she was indestructible. The ‘iron lady’, a force to be reckoned with. Not some footnote in history, or a demon to frighten the kids with. She was very real to me as I grew up and I couldn’t believe she was now dead.
‘Maggie’ was the real political McCoy. A strong and determined leader, who demanded and got respect from both sides of the political landscape. A lady who wasn’t for turning, despite the enormous pressures placed upon her by our democratic institutions.
Now at this point you would be forgiven for thinking that I might be a fan, but I’m not, in fact far from it.
When I was growing up, she was the opposite of everything I believed in and I was pretty sure I hated her for it. Much as I hated everything about her entourage of evil. Nigel Lawson, Norman Tebbit, Michael Hesseltine and John Major to name but a few.
They just made me feel so angry and impotent. Because no matter what we did to confound them, they just kept marching forward. Eventually dominating eighteen years of my adult life.
So lets take a moment, while I remind you about the seventies and why the political landscape changed so much that Thatcherism was inevitable. As indeed were the deep divides which made her tenure so hotly debated even today.
What strikes me, (if you pardon the pun) looking back, is how very different the world was in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher came to power. In the previous years I can clearly remember, for example, my parents discussing their fears about ‘the three day week’ as they tried to explain to me why we were sitting in the dark with only a candle and a calor gas heater for company.
I can also remember scenes of rubbish piling up in the streets and local parks, and unburied bodies in Liverpool as union action affected every household in the country. This was shown intermittently on a television set that would often go blank during Doctor Who, but was in any case officially switched off by the government at 10.30pm every night to conserve electricity supplies. (No really).
No one would disagree that seventies Britain was in a mess and as the result was that on 4 May 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first woman prime minister, winning convincingly at the polls and ushering in a new era of Tory rule.
I was sixteen years old at the time and becoming increasingly drawn towards the left of politics, influenced no doubt, by my friends and the teachers at my school. Through their eyes I saw a country which was broken and needed fixing, but surely not by this simpering woman standing at the front door of 10 Downing Street and quoting St Francis of Assisi!
“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
Did she live up to the promise of her own rhetoric? Not as far as I am concerned.
I don’t remember a whole lot of harmony, truth, faith and hope. What I remember is greed, despair, anger and more greed.
I also remember the frustration many of my generation felt about ‘this woman’ and how she was ruining our lives. This is why I fought her tooth and nail at every opportunity.
In my pre-student days I developed my love for music and this led to me becoming part of the Rock against Racism movement. I also joined the Anti-Nazi League because it wasn’tt difficult to feel uncomfortable around the generational and institutional racism prevalent at that time.
I also wanted to get the troops out of Northern Ireland and felt that Apartheid was a terrible thing. My politics were to the left and I couldn’t understand why everyone else couldn’t see these things too.
The eighties were really really what started the dramatic change we still live with today. Out with the old and in with the new. Loss of heavy industry, privatisation, clumsy culling of union power and the rise of the money markets. This was change that genuinely bewildered and frightened older people and they rallied gratefully to the old-fashioned values of Margaret Thatcher’s government..
Yet ironically she was the blunt instrument creating this unbelievable change.
Nowadays this era is viewed with great nostalgia and if you listen to any of the many soundtracks and musical compilations, all you will hear is a sanitised version, full of fun times and playful lyrics.
Seldom do you get to experience the raw anger inherent in much of the punk and new wave bands that didn’t sell out.
My personal soundtrack was full of protest music from the likes of the Cure, the Jam, the Specials, the Clash and of course the Sex Pistols.
I loved punk and new wave and I love it now. In fact ‘White Man at Hammersmith Palais’ is still one of the few songs I can sing word-perfect from end to end.
My dress style was combat trousers, doc martins a Killing Joke t-shirt and the ubiquitous red and black ‘Dennis the menace’ jumper. To complete the look I wore a red star earring, all colours designed to reflect those of anarchy.
I was a rebel looking for a cause and my god there were plenty to choose from.
- Nuclear power? No thanks! The threat on my doorstep, but also the beating heart of nuclear weapons. Many of which were pointed at my doorstep from the plains of Russia.
- American bases on British Soil? No way! Get rid of them, we are not an aircraft carrier for a foreign power!
- Apartheid? A subject which got the blood up and no mistake, everyone, apart it seemed from Maggie Thatcher, could see that it was wrong.
- Poll Tax? How dare she inflict it first on Scotland (even though rates had recently been reevaluated there and were really hurting people).
- Taking on the unions… and here it is, the real sore which divided the people of Britain then and a subject which still hurts today.
Thatcher had a gift for alienating people, yet paradoxically was considered a good listener. She talked tough then would go out of her way to support places like Ravenscraig (twice before it eventually closed).
Meanwhile the real collision for power was looming as the miners union flexed their collective muscles and prepared to take on the government. Or was it the government that was preparing to take on the miners?
Arthur Scargill was public enemy number one.
By now I was a student in Newcastle and apart from direct action to support the students my big political contribution was leading the student union activity in support of the local miners.
It became a real people thing you know, as time went on and the miners families really started to struggle. I remember raising money for them, wearing with incredible pride my ‘coal not dole’ sticker and joining the ‘Zulu’s’ at a Nottingham miners rally (where trouble broke out and we had to run for our freedom from a somewhat aggressive police presence).
We put on gig after gig to raise money, working ever more closely with the local band scene, taking buckets round the town centre in our spare time and attending rallies.
It was all for nothing in the end. But I will never forget the pride and energy that came from these local communities and often wonder if the government couldn’t have handled it better. Reaching out to them rather than alienating them.
Thatcher won that battle and then went on to win a war. This time against Argentinean forces hell-bent on taking the Falkland Islands in order to boost flagging political fortunes amongst the military junta.
Ironically this played straight into the iron lady’s hands providing her with the opportunity to boost her own political fortunes instead.
The lady wasn’t for turning and despite being a close run thing; she returned the islands to British sovereignty.
To the delight of the masses.
The war made Margaret Thatcher a hero, consolidating her position as leader of the Tory party and prime minister of team GB.
The media loved her and with a ground swell of popular support she was ushered back into power in 1983 smashing the Labour and SDP into humiliating defeat.
Could the Labour party ever beat this woman? It certainly didn’t look that way and in 1987 the Conservatives made history with a third successive win, beating Neil Kinnock and setting the stage for yet more Thatcherism.
Strangely it wasn’t Labour that finally beat Margaret Thatcher, it was her own party, becaming ever more greedy and corrupt and eventually consuming the very person who had led them to the promised land.
Without her the party creaked on until 1997 when the dawn of New Labour did for the fat cats once and for all (or so we thought).
Fast forward to 2013 and the world is once again very different. Yet mention Margaret Thatcher and old wounds are soon opened.
As I write this ‘Ding dong the witch is dead’ sits at number three in the charts as the result of a clever and yes amusing social media campaign to mark her passing with an appropriate musical salute. The first time I can remember politics entering the musical mainstream since the eighties.
So how do I feel 34 years on since she came to power? Well, numb and if I am honest slightly saddened. With the clarity of age, experience and perspective I realise now it was her policies and her government that I hated, but that I never really hated her.
I am proud to say I helped change the world, but then so did she. God knows what it would have been like without her.
If I can grow up, then perhaps it is fitting for some of the other ‘comrades’ out there to do so too. We don’t need to dance or spit on her actual grave. Instead we did that in 1990 on her political career as she left office with those tears running down her cheek.