Yesterday started the same as many days for me. I finished the last of my night shifts and headed home for bed, careful to avoid any news web-sites or social media, as I’d recorded something on telly and didn’t want to spoil anything for myself. When I settled down to my show in the early afternoon, I couldn’t resist a quick peek at my Facebook notifications. There were lots of messages and event requests for parties to ‘celebrate’, but what were we celebrating I wondered. My answer soon came when a friend sent me a tweet to say Margaret Thatcher had died. This was now a day that would go down in history.
The party invites were to Thatcher’s Dead parties. My initial reaction, as a Christian, and I hope a half-decent person, was one of shock. I know a lot of people within the trade union movement, as well as the general public, held a strong dislike, or even hate, for the woman nicknamed ‘The Iron Lady’ – but a party in honour of her death? Was that not a step too far? Whatever her sins, she was still a mother and grandmother. Every life is deserving of some respect and each death, of dignity.
The people rejoicing in her passing are people I consider friends. People I admire and people I respect. They are intelligent, highly educated individuals, who compaign tirelessesly for inclusion, fairness and respect. They are not the sort of people who would dishonour someone’s memory or take pleasure in the grief of a family who had just lost a loved one. I admit that my knowledge of Britain’s only female prime minister is limited and that’s why I had to find out what she did to invoke such strong emotions in so many.
Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister on 22nd November 1990, one month after my third Birthday. At that time, my priorities included Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and watching the traffic from our fourth-floor council flat in Ealing, west London. During her time as prime minister, Maggie chalked up such achievements as the highest levels of unemployment Britain had seen since the 1930s, selling off many of our utilities to private companies, multiplying the country’s nuclear weapons by three and the loss of 256 British lives during the Falklands War, at a cost $1.19 billion (Thatcher’s figure).
I knew these facts already, it was certainly no secret that she was the least-liked post-war PM this country has had. However, she was never my PM – she never snatched my milk, made my parents unemployed or tricked them into buying a home they could never possibly afford, whilst the upper-classes got rich off of tax cuts, continuing their champagne lifestyles blissfully unaware of the poverty and deprivation many of their fellow Brits were living in. Politics didn’t exist growing up in the Tooley house (apart from the troubles in the North of Ireland, which were always discussed away from my English father). I know I don’t like much of what Thatcher did, but when I think of her, I can’t feel the same pain, anger or sorrow as many of my friends. I understand it though and I empathise.
The lasting effects of her uncompromising stance and tough policies are still felt today, by myself and many others of the post-Thatcher generation. Particularly cuts to education funding, including unaffordable fees for further education and savage cuts to museum funding. We are suffering a new housing crises, with local authorities unable to offer an acceptable level of social housing to the people who need it because all the council houses were sold-off and never replaced. The 6.5% interest I pay on my mortgage payments are nowhere near the levels under Thatcher, but they are simply unaffordable for the majority of young people. You can’t buy a house, the council can’t rent you one, where do you live?
I have deliberately left this part for last, as I don’t want this to come across as propaganda. I want it to be factual, but regardless of my position within Britain’s most militant trade union, one cannot ignore the destruction this woman did to our movement. Margaret Thatcher came to power in May 1979, following The Winter of Discontent, where many industries took part in strike action, with rubbish famously piling up in the streets and the dead of Liverpool lying unburied. It was Thatcher’s view that the unions needed to be brought under control and stripped of their power and status. She achieved this by destroying the economy, all but eliminating British manufacturing and presiding over more than three million out of work. In consequence, trade union membership also plummeted. Mobile picket lines were banned and laws were introduced making ballots compulsory, which reduced the unions effectiveness. In the past, companies ran ‘closed shops’ where every employee who worked for a company – and reaped the union-fought benefits – would have to be a member of their trade union. Thatcher’s Tories outlawed this too.
Most memorable was her showdown with striking miners, who walked out for almost a year between 1984 and 1985 – which also was the first year of my brother’s life – as many pits, including those making profit, were closed down or sold off to the private sector. Maggie infamously compared the striking miners to the Argentine’s who killed those aforementioned 256 British soldiers in the Falklands war. Did I mention that the only reason the Falklands were invaded was because Mrs Thatcher removed the only Navy presence on the island? – though I’m sure that could have been a coincidence. This is what she said, “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.”
Former mining towns have never recovered. They have suffered levels of unemployment higher than the national average ever since the closure of the mines and property prices are typically lower than the rest of the UK also. When I walked the streets of Liverpool and saw the empty houses, the poverty and evidence of drug use, which has become another higher-than-average statistic for these communities, I feel. It is a stark contrast from my cosy life in London – and let me tell you, I grew up poor. If I’d grown up in Thatcher’s Britain then I’d probably be attending a death party, but for me, as I am now, it would feel like going to the wedding of a couple I’ve never met.
I won’t rejoice in the fact that this woman is dead – I don’t think I’m that type of woman. The type of woman I am is a strong, committed, tenacious one – words that have all been used to describe Thatcher. She may be dead, but her policies live on. I am “the enemy within” Mrs Thatcher and I am dangerous, as are all of my brothers and sister within the trade union movement. April 8th 2013 is a day that will go down in history, but the lasting legacy will be the never-ending fight and success of trade unionism in Great Britain.
Margaret Thatcher – gone, but never forgotten.