Monday, 8 April 2013

Reflections on the Thatcher era

I sat through the extended BBC news bulletin on the death of Margaret Thatcher and can’t say I really learnt anything much I didn’t already know. One of the problems with such huge figures is that their lives have already been so analysed and picked over that there is nothing much left to say when they finally pop their clogs.

For me, the announcement of the Iron Lady’s demise actually provokes surprisingly little emotion. If I do feel anything, it’s probably at a personal, sentimental level. It’s about the people I knew and the places I visited as a left-wing teenage activist in the 1980s. Memories of a time in which in which Thatcher was dominant and omnipresent. A malign force which banded us together. There was a great camaraderie among activists involved in organisations such as CND and Anti-Apartheid, although on occasions it seemed like the camaraderie of the damned. Maggie really did go on and on and those years passed excruciatingly slowly.

The first demonstration I ever went on was against the war in the Falklands. A friend and I came back from Trafalgar Square clutching a placard, having listened to worthy speeches from the likes of Tony Benn and Dame Judith Hart, who’d been ministers under Harold Wilson. I remember the turn-out being pretty dismal and the fact that people were shouting the slogan “Falklands, Malvinas... they are Argentina’s!” Even as a 14-year-old, I realised this kind of pro-Argentinian posturing would get the campaign nowhere and I certainly didn’t join in. But I had been outraged by the jingoistic fervour stirred up by the tabloid press in favour of the war and was glad to be able to protest.

Within a year, I was actively involved in CND and took charge of running a street stall for the campaign in a south-western suburb of London. This involved stocking up on endless supplies of badges. If you didn’t wear a badge or two at that time, you weren’t a committed activist. I guess the modern-day equivalent is adding some kind of ribbon to your Twitter profile.

It’s important to remember what those years were actually like. People would literally spit at me in the street for selling those CND badges. 1983 was the year Peter Tatchell unsuccessfully fought a by-election in Bermondsey and was subjected to an outrageous campaign of intimidation and abuse, simply because he was gay and left-wing. In fact, the climate was poisonous. And by the time another year had rolled by, the miners were on strike.

My personal view is that this period was an epic low point for the UK. Probably the lowest point since the days of the Blitz. We were a nation in flux, caught between the stifling collectivism and union domination of the 60s and 70s and the brutal free-market philosophy of the new right. When these tectonic plates crashed against each other, all hell broke loose.

As Thatcher worked to destroy the National Union of Mineworkers, she simultaneously pursued a campaign to abolish the democratically elected Greater London Council. Although Ken Livingstone had a much better understanding of the way in which the world was changing than Arthur Scargill – and managed to fight a much more sophisticated campaign against Thatcher – he still ultimately lost the battle. Britain’s first woman Prime Minister seemed to be all-powerful. Perhaps even superhuman, given her remarkable ability to step out of the Grand Hotel in Brighton alive after the IRA bombed it in October 1984. (I was in Brighton a week later and saw the hole they blasted in that building. To this day, I find it hard to understand how she survived.)

And the conflict went on. Riots in 1985 on Broadwater Farm in Tottenham and a number of other locations around the UK. The print dispute at Wapping a year later. I remember going down to the picket lines on a couple of occasions and pushing against lines of riot police in the dark. I think there was some vague idea of stopping ‘scab’ lorries driving in and out of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper plant, but it shows you just what a crazy time this really was. Here was a middle-class boy from the suburbs, travelling across London with fellow students from his further education college and risking getting hit over the head with a police baton in support of a completely doomed cause.

That was the 80s in a nutshell for me. Lots of very good, well-meaning people doing their best to stop the bad guys prevailing. But losing. Time after time after time.

It wasn’t until the late 80s that the tide started to turn for the left. There were two major issues on which they were more in tune with the public mood than Thatcher. The first – a warm-up, if you like, because it was international rather than domestic – was Apartheid. Thatcher’s support for the bankrupt racist regime in Pretoria ran counter to most people’s ideas of basic justice. There’s no doubt that popular campaigns to boycott companies which invested in the South African regime helped to play a part in its ultimate downfall. By the time Botha resigned in 1989 and De Klerk took over as leader, the writing was on the wall. Thatcher had invested a lot of time and political capital defending the indefensible. But she looked more and more isolated and out of touch on this key international issue as the years rolled on.

Then came the poll tax. Don’t be fooled when people tell you that Europe finally finished Thatcher. Europe was the rift that was starting to tear the Tory Party apart, but it was the popular anger surrounding her local government ‘community charge’ that really acted as the trigger for her downfall. It gave those people such as Heseltine, who opposed her views on Europe, an opportunity to attack. At last, the Iron Lady could be shown to be seriously out of touch. Someone who was no longer a winner, but a liability.

Perhaps one day I’ll be an old man and people will talk to me about the 80s as a period of long-distant history. My own memories will probably not be as sharp as they are today. But my over-riding image will, I think, be of a nation at war with itself. Driven apart by ideology and locked into a cycle of endless, unproductive battles.

We can argue until we’re blue in the face about how far Thatcher’s policies were necessary and inevitable. But the manner in which she pursued those policies was brutal. So when she’s given her ceremonial send-off, I won’t be yelling through a megaphone from the side of the street, but forgive me if I don’t get my flag out.

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