I was 4 years old when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister on the 4th of May, 1979. I was just under two months away from my 18th birthday when she was ousted from power in November 1990. I first voted in my first ever General Election in 1992, when John Major led the Conservatives back to their 4th successive victory at the polls, keeping them in power for a few more years until they lost to Labour under Tony Blair in 1997.
So I grew up a child of Thatcher Britain. I was one of the kids who had their milk taken away at school by “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher” (a policy she actually introduced as Education Secretary in 1970, before she ever became Prime Minister). She was the only Prime Minister in power throughout my childhood; though her approvals ratings were always low – invariably lower even than that of her own party – it seemed as though she would be Prime Minister forever. Whether you supported or opposed her, it was hard to imagine a Britain without her at the helm; she was an icon of the 80s. You can’t think of 80s Britain without also thinking of her, regardless of how you personally feel about her.
I grew up firmly working class. My father was a postman, and as such a member of the CWU – the Communication Workers’ Union. Everyone remembers the miners’ strike of 1984, but the NUM were not the only union to lock horns with Thatcher and come off worse; she was committed to destroying the power of the unions as a whole, an aim which she arguably achieved. I was 11 at the time of the miners’ strike, and I remember the Post Office having several strikes during that time in support of the miners. It wasn’t good news for us; my father didn’t get paid whilst striking, and money was extremely tight. I remember my mother nibbling cream crackers whilst giving us tea; she would usually say she wasn’t hungry and would eat with our father later on, but looking back with the hindsight of adulthood and as a parent myself, it’s clear to me that she was going without so us kids wouldn’t go hungry.
And yet, I can’t say I am happy at her death. The woman who died today was not the woman who presided over the Britain of my youth; she was a frail old woman, mind mostly gone from dementia and an earlier stroke long before the stroke that finally ended her life today. I’ve seen the ripples of shock and disbelief spreading over social media; it reminds me of the sense of shock when she was ousted from power in 1990. Back then, it seemed inconceivable that she would not carry on forever as PM; in much the same way, there was the sense that this aged battleaxe would linger on for years yet.
Yet though her death brings to an end an entire era not just in British but world politics; Reagan is dead, and the Soviet Union disintegrated decades ago. Thatcherism still lives on however, in the economic policies of both the current coalition government – and also modern Labour. Not all of her policies and ideas were bad – like any politician, they were a mixed bag, some better than others. But it is the lasting negative impact on British life that is her main legacy she is remembered and derided for – though people seem to forget that Thatcher didn’t bring any of her policies in single-handedly. She was not the ruling dictator people like to think; she was the figurehead of a government that enacted those policies. Each one was not her own personal brainchild. It’s all too easy to scapegoat one woman for the failings of a whole government though.
I’m not sure entirely how I feel about her passing. Despite having been personally adversely affected by her policies whilst growing up, she was a familiar, consistent figure throughout my childhood. I’m not celebrating; it’s not my way to celebrate the death of others. Perhaps a feeling of regret for all that could have been achieved that wasn’t. There was so much hope for the future at the end of the Cold War, and it all turned sour so fast; and when Tony Blair swept “New Labour” to victory in 1997 we only swapped the Conservatives for another form of Thatcherism under a different name. It could have been so much better. It wasn’t.
I don’t think we’ve had hope in British politics ever since. I wonder if we ever will again.