The violence and bile unleashed by anti-Thatcher demonstrators following her death is astonishing. And pitiful. You have to be an especially inadequate kind of person to bottle up that amount of hatred for 23 years, never mind those who weren’t even born at the time. So I would like to deal with that hatred by trivialising it. I would like to explain Margaret Thatcher’s record and what Thatcherism stands for by referencing a few hit pop songs.
In the first two decades since Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister, three other prime ministers came and went and wreaked real, not imagined, damage on Britain. And Britain is in a dreadful mess, let’s not pretend otherwise, but let’s put the blame where it properly belongs. John Major, a Conservative, was hamstrung by an unworkably tiny majority in the House of Commons while his government was torn apart by divisions over Europe. Tony Blair openly clothed himself in the Thatcher legacy to offer a “third way” for British politics. That turned out to be handing the keys to the Treasury to Gordon Brown while spinning whichever way the political wind took him. Then he resigned and allowed Gordon Brown to take over at Number 10. Brown, first as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then in his turn as Prime Minister, created the conditions for the economic mess we are in today. They were a disastrous double act. While Blair was slavishly following everything successive American presidents were doing, such as invading Iraq and lying about the justifications for it, Brown was slavishly following everything Wall Street was doing, such as unleashing the banks and removing every means of regulation.
And those hateful individuals who rejoice at Thatcher’s death acknowledge none of this. It’s as if every woe, and there are plenty today, is her fault and hers alone.
What they also choose to forget is what Britain was like before Thatcher. Or maybe, just maybe, they know all too well what Britain was like before Thatcher and it is the fact she swept it away that is the root of their ire.
So let’s remember some of it, shall we?
The unions, remember them? Remember how the norm was beer and sandwiches at Number 10 while the union bosses told whoever was the prime minister what he had to do? Remember the sheer arrogance of their power, how it was wielded openly and contemptuously? Scargill sending pickets to close down a coking plant and forcing Edward Heath to concede a 27% pay rise for the miners? Remember how Red Robbo was caught on camera lying about a vote to strike? He’d called a mass meeting at British Leyland where a show of hands was overwhelming against strike action. A forest of hands had shot up. He called for those in favour of strike action and far fewer hands went up. Without missing a beat he declared the vote in favour and car production was halted yet again. This was caught by a television camera filming through a gap in the fence.
In the run-up to the 1979 general election, which was Thatcher’s first win, here’s what we had. We had gravediggers going on strike leaving bodies unburied and piling up in dis-used factories in temporary storage. Refuse collectors went on strike too, leading to mountains of rubbish piling up on city streets. Lorry drivers went on strike causing petrol shortages and rationing. Ambulance drivers and hospital ancillary workers went on strike meaning 999 emergency calls went unanswered and patients, even cancer patients, couldn’t get essential treatment. Train drivers went on a series of 24 hour strikes. Those were just the headline grabbers, the background was strikes, lightning-strikes, walk-outs, work-to-rules and go-slows everywhere and this all happened before Thatcher and under a labour government. Union power was unassailable as this Strawb’s hit, “You Don’t Get Me I’m Part Of The Union” from 1973 so well encapsulates with its mock triumphalism.
I was in the Royal Air Force and based in Germany in the mid-70’s. We were acutely aware of the real and ever-present threat from the Soviet Union, the same USSR that our trade union leaders were all in thrall to. We were well briefed on the danger they posed to us and we carried out regular military exercises. One evening I was watching German TV news and there was a report from Berlin about how young East Germans were flocking to the beaches that summer and tuning into banned Western radio stations. It was an eye-opener for me. There were these young people, my age, happy and openly disobeying the communist authorities. It was clear they were also aware of the lifestyle they were missing and I knew it could only be a matter of time before the dam burst. This was one of the hits they were listening to, and it still brings to my mind those images of young East Germans on the beach.
Those young East Germans could well have identified with this next song if they’d known about it. As a young boy living in Aden in the 1960s, I remember it very well. It’s not glamorous by any stretch, but what it says to me is how much freedom matters more than material possessions. The drifter is happier being on the road, independent, and selling his labour to get the few things he needs, when he wants them, on his terms. He doesn’t need the government to find him a job or a trade union to negotiate his pay and conditions.
And then came Thatcher.
Thatcher took on the unions in sometimes long and often bitter confrontations, but she was not to be intimidated as James Callaghan had been before her. There were fundamental problems with the UK and they needed radical solutions. These were not days for the faint-hearted. Union reforms include abolishing closed shops, and a requirement for secret ballots before strike action. The first was needed because it gave unions the power to have any worker dismissed if he or she did not toe the union line. All they had to do was expel him from the union and because it was a closed shop and he was required to be in the union the employer would be compelled to sack him. The second reform was to end the obvious abuse of unions calling strikes that had no support from their members. Other measures included banning flying pickets and secondary picketing, by which means unions could mobilise mobs to lay siege to an employer who was standing out against them and physically shut them down by bringing in workers that had nothing to do with the dispute.
Thatcher was about giving people their rights back. Millions lived in council houses, “projects” in American terms, and were as much at the mercy of their councils as they were at the mercy of the unions at work. Giving people the right to buy their council homes was a core policy of Thatcherism, so let’s have a short interlude from appropriately named Madness.
It’s hard to appreciate how all-pervasive the state was back then. The state owned much of the nation’s housing stock, it ran schools and hospitals, owned and ran train and bus services, it even built the trains and buses, as well as cars, aircraft, and ships and supplied the steel to do all that with. The state mined for coal, supplied gas, electricity and water, funded the monopoly radio and television services, and ran the telephone service. Back then it would take months to get a phone installed in your home. I had some friends who were expecting their first child and they were told they could use that as an excuse to get bumped-up the priority list. It was a wonderment to them that they had a phone installed in a matter of weeks. As well as relying on the state to fix their phone if there was a problem, the state also repaired gas and electric cookers. Remember the gas board showrooms where you could go to pick one out? Or the electricity board showrooms? Think about that for a moment, competition in those dark days was a choice between a state-run gas showroom and a state-run electricity showroom. What right did the state have to have a monopoly on selling, installing and maintaining a gas cooker?
There’s an old communist joke about a guy who goes into a showroom in Moscow and after much negotiation does a deal on the car he wants. He asks about delivery. The salesman gets out his diary, flips through many pages to a date five years hence. He scours the pages and eventually announces a date, Thursday 23rd February. “Ah,” says the Muscovite, “morning or afternoon?” The salesman is incredulous, “What do you mean, morning or afternoon, it’s five years away, what difference will it make?” “Well,” replies the Muscovite, “the gas man is coming in the morning to fix the cooker.” Not so funny when you’re living it as we were.
Privatization was the solution. Every state-owned enterprise was put up for sale. It wasn’t universally popular with some of the old Tories, “Selling the family silver” they called it and that was part of the mind-set that Thatcher had to change. But it was hugely successful with the people which was what really mattered. Millions of people bought shares at each successive privatization. It was popular and it was populist. Here’s an ad promoting the sale of British Gas. Okay, so one that’s not music then.
The left fought long and hard. It’s where the hatred they still feel today emanates. I used to enjoy watching Labour Party conferences on tv, so much more fun than the boring old stage-managed affairs the Conservatives used to put on. There was real debate, and real emotion and at the height of Thatcher’s power, the Labour Party was bitterly divided over how to respond. One side saw the writing on the wall and wanted to modernise, particularly regarding Clause 4 of the Labour Party constitution which essentially mandated nationalisation. They wanted to drop it. The hard-left would have none of that, it was at the heart of their credo. Eric Heffer, who was Old Labour and very much hard left, was outspoken on the topic. I remember watching him being booed by conference as he tried to defend Clause 4, and as he walked away from the microphone and out of the hall he was jeered. He was terminally ill at the time and the catcalls were to tell him to go to his beloved Russia for treatment, although rather coarsely expressed. I admired Eric, although he was a Marxist he was genuine in his beliefs and he sincerely wanted the best for the ordinary working man. I can always respect that. That’s not something you can say about everyone on the left. So this next “tune” is that old stalwart of Labour Party conferences that is still sung today, “We’ll Keep The Red Flag Flying Here.” What I like about this version is how badly it is sung.
A more tuneful rejection of Thatcher’s policies came from Pink Floyd who had a hit with, “Another Brick in the Wall,” an irony-free tirade against the benefits of a decent education and a school choir singing “We don’t need no education.” In many ways this might be the perfect metaphor for the left: they don’t want the next generation to understand the facts, they just want left-wing myths propagated and the truth suppressed. The last thing they want is an educated electorate. The left was vocal throughout Thatcher’s time in office, and wrong on every issue including education. When Labour was in power, Grammar Schools were a particular target, the left hated the idea that some people were getting a better education. Instead of bringing standards up in the public sector, their approach was to bring standards down in the private. It was another aspect of the politics of envy that drove them.
The pressure was telling though, it was utterly relentless and as well as the left, Thatcher had her hands full dealing with the “Wets” in her own government who also resisted everything she tried to do. It required as much strength of purpose on her part as anything else she had to contend with. The problem issue was one that dogs us to this day – Europe. The Conservative Party has long been split into pro-Europe and anti-Europe camps. That’s not to say the anti’s don’t like the French or the Germans or whatever, far from it, it’s just that they haven’t signed up to the project to create a united Europe. Take me for example, no-one can say I’m not pro-German having lived there very happily for so many years, but I’m certainly anti-EU. The more the project morphed from a common trading area into a European superstate, the more bitter and deeper those divisions became. Thatcher defended Britain’s interests and resisted as much as she could of the tide of European legislation that we as members of the EU were obligated to adopt. She negotiated opt-outs where she could and a sizeable rebate on the amount we were paying into EU coffers each year.
In 1815, The Duke of Wellington met Napoleon on the field of battle. It was a crucial battle because the future of Europe depended on it. Lose, and Napoleon would be free to sweep across the continent and bring it all under his domain. Win, and Europe is saved. The site of the battle, of course, was Waterloo which I think is a fitting metaphor for Thatcher’s campaign to save Britain and Europe from this slow-motion disaster that is the European project. It is an on-going struggle.
Another struggle was dealing with the institutionalised lethargy of the civil service. Their attitude couldn’t be changed overnight and they were wedded to the doctrine of managed decline. British influence in the world had been seriously harmed by Labour’s misrule, particularly when they had to go to the International Monetary Fund in 1976 and ask for a bail-out because our economy had hit rock bottom. The Foreign Office was defeatist and accepted decline as an inevitability, it sought to resolve problems by adopting a strategy of conceding everything. It was less a policy of, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…” it was more a policy of “Don’t even try in the first place.”
In particular, the Foreign Office had bent over backwards to appease Argentina which had it’s eye on the Falkland Islands. The fact that their claim to the Islands was entirely without merit mattered not, the mandarins at the FO made every kind of proposal to try and fob the Islanders off and hand them to Argentina. Incredibly, Argentina rejected everything. Argentina was ruled by a military Junta that had been waging what was euphemistically called a Dirty War against its own people. Thousands of dissidents and those just plain unlucky disappeared, mostly tortured and murdered. Deeply unpopular, the Junta sought a diversion. On the 2nd April 1982 they invaded the Falkland Islands and at a stroke they were instantly popular. Britain, however, was plunged into crisis. Almost everyone, in her government and not, advised Thatcher that Britain could do nothing about it. Save one lone voice, the Chief of the Defence staff, Admiral Lord Lewin. He wasn’t even supported by everyone at the Ministry of Defence when he told the Prime Minister that he could put a fleet together, sail to the south Atlantic and liberate the Islands.
Thatcher showed her true mettle. She was steadfast in her belief that the Falkland Islands must be recovered and the Falkland Islanders liberated. We don’t need to go into the details of the short war, or the outrageous falsehoods the left concocted to tarnish her reputation, we just need to note that the armed forces showed extraordinary skill and bravery, in the full glare of the world’s media, the USSR getting an especially close look with spy trawlers that shadowed the fleet. This hit number from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita was eagerly adopted by the troops.
The great skill shown by our forces, overcoming incredible odds to defeat a larger, well prepared army that was equipped with modern Western weapons and trained in Western tactics was a revelation to the Russians. And deeply worrying to them. Thatcher increased the pressure on Russia by welcoming American cruise missiles to bases in England, again in the teeth of bitter and violent opposition from the friends of Russia. She also encouraged Reagan to develop his Star Wars programme. But the sheer scale of the West’s technological superiority was not driven home until the first Gulf War which happened after Thatcher had left office. Michael Gorbachev, however, already knew the score and on a visit to Britain before he became president of the Soviet Union, he and Thatcher unexpectedly hit it off. She told president Ronald Reagan, her political soul mate, that Gorbachev was someone she could do business with, and she encouraged him to do likewise. This was a pivotal moment in the ending of the Cold War. The working relationship that she, Gorbachev and Reagan established would lead ultimately to nuclear disarmament talks and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. And thus I am reminded of those young East Germans sunning themselves on the beach while listening to Western pop songs. It took a long time to come about, but they got their freedom in the end.
But are the left happy? I don’t care. Thatcherism was never about making them happy, it was always about giving the people of Britain the freedom to choose what they wanted, which was her first, last and only concern. I can confidently state that is not how the left see it. They will decide what is good for the people and the people don’t get a say in the matter. Just like it used to be in the old Soviet Union, just like the left wish it was again today.
So I’d like to conclude with Nimrod, from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This will be played at the conclusion of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral which, given the presence of Falkland’s War related military personnel, makes this YouTube composition highly appropriate.
In conclusion, Margaret Thatcher accomplished a great deal in her time, becoming a Member of Parliament when women were very much second-class citizens in the world of politics. Going on to lead her Party and then to win three general elections is unparalleled. But in addition to all that, she was a wife and mother; she graduated in chemistry specialising in x-ray crystallography; she studied further and qualified as a barrister specialising in taxation. She clearly had the aptitude to study and understand difficult subjects so she was very well equipped to cut through the waffle and get to the heart of any matter. The facts and the evidence mattered a great deal to her and to us.
Thank you and God bless, Margaret Thatcher.