At the moment when it was announced that Margaret Thatcher had died, Prime Minister David Cameron must have been having breakfast and preparing to strong-arm Europe’s leaders into concessions for Britain, just as she had done years ago. He must have leapt, in mid-croissant, onto a plane for London, where — pink and puffed — he delivered his verdict on our “greatest peacetime prime minister,” who “didn’t just lead our country, she saved our country.” This was the message peddled by the BBC for most of the day. Britain was “a country that was on its knees” in 1979, despised abroad as “the sick man of Europe,” let down by its “failing state monoliths”: the remnants of rampant socialism at home. And then along came Thatcher. And look at us now.
The BBC did find an ex-miner from Durham who spoke of “a legacy of destruction” and a woman who believed Thatcher had “ruin[ed] the country,” and showed brief shots of people dancing in the streets of Glasgow and Bristol. Charles Powell, one of her advisers, has said that she’d have been disappointed if there had not been celebrations of her death.
The only time I ever saw her was during her “milk snatching” days in the early 1970s. As secretary of state for education, “Maggie Thatcher Milk Snatcher” abolished free milk for school children aged 7 to 11. I remember thinking her extraordinarily pretty.
She was, no doubt, accomplished. As a woman and a “grocer’s daughter,” she got to run the Conservative Party and to petrify a world of snobbish men in grey suits into doing her bidding and then spending the rest of their lives expressing their gratitude to her.
She set out to demolish the welfare state, to shift power from the government to the market, to reduce the authority of big-city governments and put as much as possible into private profit-making hands. And her successors are busy continuing to shrink “the state.”
There are women who have spoken and written interestingly and with surprising restraint about her as, of course, a role model, but also as a woman who opposed feminism and may even have set it back in some respects. She once told an interviewer that she didn’t “like strident females.” Only one woman ever got into a Thatcher cabinet, which was regularly filled with her adoring and often empty-headed male admirers. She seems to have had no women friends, and never mentioned her mother.
Glenda Jackson, once a famous actress and now a Labour MP, showed her no mercy in her parliamentary tribute: “Everything I had been taught to regard as a vice — and I still regard them as vices — under Thatcherism was in fact a virtue: greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker, sharp elbows, sharp knees. They were the way forward.”
Thatcher’s death has been a windfall for this government, a marvellous distraction from their cuts and muddles. Yet their contemptuous talk of “scroungers” and “shirkers” is bound to remind us of the devastations Thatcher’s government delivered to industries, workers and communities across the country, especially in the north. Many of the 3 million people who became unemployed in those years never worked again, and in all too many cases their children have grown up in the wasteland created by Thatcher’s policies, for there have been no concomitant attempts to replace work, repair communities or encourage hope. Council tenants were indeed invited to buy the homes they rented, but those who couldn’t afford them were consigned to the worst of such housing, and it was at that point that the post-war house-building boom slowed down, never to recover.
Russell Brand, a young comedian and actor who was born the year Thatcher became leader of her party, testifies to the effect she had on him as he was growing up in the 1980s, as he worries about his “inability to ascertain where my own selfishness ends and her neo-liberal inculcation begins. All of us that grew up under Thatcher were taught that it is good to be selfish, that other people’s pain is in fact a weakness and suffering is deserved and shameful.”
Hyperbole and deflation seem inevitable responses to this woman of extremes and contradictions.