And so Baroness Thatcher died yesterday. I caught the one o’clock news on the BBC yesterday, and it appeared to be the case that the news had only just broken and no-one knew quite what to say – indeed, the time of her death seems to have been attributed by The Sun today at 11.28am. There was a rather dignified and solemn atmosphere; Sian Williams was conspicuous in black, as was the Deputy Political Editor called upon to pass on the first reactions to the news. Browsing Twitter in these early minutes, there was already a clear split between the respectful and reverential and the palpable sense of relief from those who loathed what she stood for. Needless to say, the 24 hour media bandwagon has been wallowing in the story ever since her death was announced.
For those who remember her reign – and I find myself using the words one might ascribe to royalty already, such was the weight and power of her influence through the 1980s – we find ourselves reflective again, and I for one am trying to look beyond the general loathing that I feel I have for her policies and the sort of Britain that she stood for.
I was eight when she came to power. For much of the 1980s, I was a teenager, aware of the Falklands and the miners’ strike, Scargill and Greenham Common, but more concerned with how on earth Timmy Mallett had managed to muster a number 1 record. Even by the time the Poll Tax was policy, and rioting had again started, I was hardly a deeply politicised person trundling off naively to university with my grant and my expectations in a couple of suitcases. My political consideration is retrospective; I can’t be sure that what I feel now, I felt then; I don’t know how much is my brain mucking me about because I remember the 80s and what happened, and have a view on how it lead to now.
Anyway, here we are in the early 21st Century, over 20 years since Thatcher left Downing Street, and we’re still talking about the impact she had on our lives. For Conservative voters, there’s no doubt that she liberated them, delivering wealth and comfort. She gave people property, opportunity and responsibility. Which was all fine if you were in a position to take advantage of it, and I can acknowledge how they might feel quite smug about it now. The flip side of that it that for those who could not partake, they were set adrift. Many people found her approach deeply unfair, deeply divisive and cold.
There’s a lot that I feel can be traced back to her. There’s the decline in manufacturing innovation and the ability to make things; there’s the erosion of art and culture as an integral part of our heritage and culture; there’s the legacy of (largely) terrible architecture and bad planning, resulting in monotonous anywhere houses and retail parks sucking the lifeblood out of town centres; there’s the rise of the importance of money, the perpetual need to buy ‘stuff’ as the sole path to happiness, and the awful in your face attitude of those that had it; the decline of public transport as the need for more than one car suddenly reared its awful head (linked to bad housing and retail parks, naturally); privatisation putting wealth in hands of few and edging toward the path where big business doesn’t give a hoot about the customer or their service because competition will make it all lovely (when in fact it’s just survival of the fittest, biggest and/or wealthiest).
One of the worst legacies is the lack of housing available now. The right to buy Council houses, combined with the restrictions on Councils building houses, with no clear strategy as to how this gap would be plugged (except by reliance on the market) has left the country short of houses, with prices inflated beyond the means of many and power in the hands of landlords and landowners. Had Council houses remained within Council hands, we might now be able to exchange properties between families within estates so that they do have homes appropriate to their circumstance, rather than having to impose bedroom taxes and instil fear in people that they might be moved far from where they are established.
Worst of all, Thatcher made fear a central part of our lives. So, the rich got richer and could have what they wanted, but it was shut behind high walls and gated communities, watched by CCTV and private security guards. Privatisation was rife; town centre streets got covered with malls and we were no longer allowed in them in the evenings or if we wanted a short cut, but commercial properties were protected in their brick and concrete tombs; public services were no longer deemed important enough to be run for and by the public. Cars got alarms that went off if someone breathed nearby. People with homes suddenly didn’t want to mix with people who didn’t have homes, or were desperate to protect the view of the green fields from new incomers needing new houses, even though their ridiculous mock Tudor executive house obliterated someone else’s view and their own kids had to live with them into their thirties because they couldn’t find a house. Whilst this country has a long history of incomers, and an equally long history of trouncing other countries until they surrender to the British way, suddenly immigrants were all bad and shouldn’t be allowed in (whilst we still live on egg and chips in Spanish beach ghettos); the fear of crime rose even though the probability of being a victim of crime reduced; men can no longer help a child in a playground for fear of looking like a paedo. We’ve been in an almost perpetual state of war since the eighties, pointing missiles at the latest rogue state. Society polarised, communities broke down, trust broke down, the wealthy feared the poor, the poor got angry and tensions increased. Thatcher’s term is littered with conflict, rioting, aggression. It’s embedded now, and it’ll take another generation to turn it round.