Tramp the dirt down

Thatcherdigs2

You may recall the Elvis Costello song from his 1989 album Spike. It began:

I saw a newspaper picture from the political campaign
A woman was kissing a child, who was obviously in pain
She spills with compassion, as that young child’s face in her hands she grips
Can you imagine all that greed and avarice coming down on that child’s lips?

In 1989, Margaret Thatcher had been in power for ten years. Still riding high and roughshod over the remnants of our society. Within the year, she would be driven, tearfully, down Downing Street and away to a well remunerated dotage ($250,000 a year for being a “geopolitical consultant” for tobacco giant Philip Morris, anyone?), only latterly diminished by senility and a series of strokes. For anyone who remembers the 1980s, she looms large. She was the leader who wrote the instruction booklet for what David Cameron and George Osbourne are trying to do now: that is, to squeeze public services and sell off as much silver as possible to the private sector until we have a shareholder-run state which answers only to the bottom line.

She is dead now. Death was explicitly wished upon her many times, and not just in protest song, and now those casualties on the road to serfdom have their wish. Her loss is lamented by those on the right who regard her as a figurehead, an achiever, an icon. Some on the left are organising street parties, which seems a bit harsh now that she’s actually died. I wonder if Elvis Costello is planning a trip to St Paul’s. Maybe he has mellowed since 1989. They do say you get more right wing as you get older. I find I get more left wing.

I would love to rewrite history and say that I despised her and her monetarist policies from the day she swept to power in 1979, but I was 14 at the time, and not politically educated. My politics, such as they might have been described, were simply handed down from my father, the sort of benign provincial Tory who put his working-class background firmly behind him, reads the Telegraph and believes in lower taxes, but who is anything but a foaming-at-the-mouth old colonel. I thought of him then, and think of him now, as a gentle, fair-minded soul. I did not feel indoctrinated by him. But I had to leave home and get to London before a more informed and passionate politics overtook me.

Educated by the NME – hard to credit that by looking at it now, but in the early-to mid-80s it was powerfully polemical and driven by Marxist doctrine, like much of the best music of the era – I read a book from the library by Jeremy Seabrook about the failure of the Labour movement called What Went Wrong? and it set me on the path I’m still on today. It was actually fashionable to be left wing in that decade, and I don’t mean to make voting Labour seem like a hollow lifestyle choice, it’s just that it meant something more profound and full-blooded than a party-political cross in a box. It was tied in with CND, and the GLC, and Red Wedge, and the NME, and Anti-Apartheid and, in Scotland, with the SNP.

The zeitgeist was embodied by the 1930s protest song Which Side Are You On?, powerfully covered by Glaswegian folk firebrand Dick Gaughan in 1985 for the miners’ strike. You were either with Thatcher, or against her. To be against her was, in my experience, to be alive.

Thatchercovers

I was a student between 1983 and 1987. As a constituency, we were hardwired to bristle at Tory policy. Listen to the contempt Thatcher has for students, as related in her second memoir, The Path To Power, (this comes from a chapter on her years in the Dept of Education, 1970-74): “This was the height of the period of ‘student revolution’ … it is extraordinary that so much notice should have been taken of the kindergarten Marxism and egocentric demands which characterised it … the young were regarded as a source of pure insight into the human condition. In response, many students accordingly expected their opinions to be treated with reverence.”

She idolised Macmillan-government ingenue and national curriculum cheerleader Keith Joseph – and later, of course, brought him into her cabinet, where his education policies were so punishing, my Dad wrote a letter to the local paper complaining about them – and, in The Path To Power, she defends Joseph against charges of being a “mad eugenicist” after an infamous speech in 1974 at Edgbaston where he said that “our human stock” was “threatened” by mothers “pregnant in adolescence in social classes 4 and 5.” As far as she was concerned, “the speech sent out powerful messages about the decline of the family, the subversion of moral values and the dangers of the permissive society.” That the permissive society was tied up with the liberation of women, and that the “decline” of the family was a coded Tory way of encouraging women back into the kitchen helps us to understand why Margaret Thatcher was no feminist.

In an article she wrote in the Telegraph in January 1975 when she was shadow Education Secretary but challenging Ted Heath for the leadership, she defended what she called “middle class values” as “the encouragement of variety and individual choice, the provision of fair incentives … for skill and hard work, the maintenance of effective barriers against the excessive power of the state and a belief in the wide distribution of individual private property.” She ranged these against “socialist mediocrity.” She won the leadership by appealing to the Tory party’s misty-eyed nostalgia for these values, which, when you break them down, are about looking after yourself: “individual choice … individual private property.” She was, if nothing else, consistent, right through her reign, which began here.

In reading her autobiography, which ends as she enters Downing Street, at which point the book turns into a sort of manifesto, I felt I understood a bit more about her character. She seemed interested only in politics and policy, from a very young age. There was little sense of a human being interested much in culture. (This probably explains why she cut arts spending.) She was, if nothing else, dedicated to her line of work, and to work in general, famously sleeping for four hours at night at her peak.

And she was confident that she was right. She treated the men around her in the cabinet as lower life forms, and forged on with what she felt she needed to do, and in the end, they turned on her, probably trying to claw back a bit of self-respect after years of emasculation around long tables. She believed in the individual over the state, in private over public, in self over society.

These tenets found purchase in a Britain previously beset by industrial unrest, which she attempted to wipe out by crushing the unions and literally removing the industries where they flourished. (If you read The Enemy Within by Seamus Milne, and it’s a set text as far as I’m concerned, you’ll see how Nicholas Ridley was charged with preparing for a showdown with the miners that would lead to the dismantling of the coal industry in order to give a boost to the British nuclear industry.)

All because she had read Hayek and Friedman and Walters, who warned against state intervention in economics (“central planning”), which Hayek claimed, in 1944, would lead to totalitarianism. He believed that the economy should be left “to the simple power of organic growth,” and it sounds so harmless in that phrase. But it’s the market we must bow to, and yet the market which has left this country in tatters – left, as it heinously was by New Labour, untrammeled on their watch – so that the current Tories can bulldoze their own ideological notions through the wreckage.

Well I hope I don’t die too soon, I pray the Lord my soul to save
Yes, I’ll be a good boy, I’m trying so hard to behave
Because there’s one thing I know, I’d like to live long enough to savour
That’s when they finally put you in the ground
I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down

It’s difficult on the face of it – even mean – to celebrate the death of an 87-year-old woman with dementia, who hasn’t wielded political power since 1990. Except that her policies, pushed through with the trademark defiance and zeal that her admirers credit as her greatest qualities, linger on. Where were you when you heard that Thatcher had died? The same place as me: in her long shadow. She did change this country. Or at least, she saw its dark soul and changed the way we thought about ourselves. She championed Reaganomics before Reagan. She unleashed the selfish bastard within, and sold council houses and privatised utility shares to an electorate apparently desperate to improve their lot at any price. The price we paid was the loss of community, the loss of compassion, the loss of perspective.

When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam
And the future looked as bright and as clear as the black tarmacadam

The blanket media blitz has been predictable. (It doesn’t take a newspaper insider to surmise that her obituaries have been “on file” for quite a few years.) The not-quite-state funeral next Wednesday – and oh how appropriate that it’s a public-private finance initiative – will hopefully draw a line under all the nostalgia. Blair was as much of a statesman as she was a stateswoman, and there my admiration for both ends. She was more honest than Blair, and more forthright than Cameron. She fed the satire industry while taking apart all the other ones, and comedians will never have it so good again.

I’ve heard miners on the radio and TV unabashed in declaring their hatred for a dead woman. You can easily understand why. But I think I would find it difficult to concentrate at a street party – or do a dance on the dirt – when her legacy is all around us, not least in the anecdotal and statistical evidence of a nation convinced by a right-wing press and a few scare stories that the welfare state is a bad idea. Beggar thy neighbour? It’s what she would have wanted.

I never thought for a moment that human life could be so cheap
But when they finally put you in the ground
They’ll stand there laughing and tramp the dirt down

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25 thoughts on “Tramp the dirt down

  1. Thanks Andrew. A well put together post. I am really struggling to put together any feelings other than a rather immature joy at Thatchers passing, and a total, complete and utter apathy about it (24hours news blethering does that to me). I was born in 1972, grew up in Surrey, raised on a GLC employees wage. Thatcher made my Dad redundant, but then he got a job in a thriving blue-chip solicitors firm opposite St Pauls Cathedral. And we did very nicely thank you very much. The news, and the newspapers made me think that anyone north of Oxford Street W1 was a whingeing loony leftie. We owned a car, a nice house, had lots of spare money.
    Not until many many years after her fall, now that i work in Social care for the elderly, do I see the fruits of her policies.
    She sold off our water, electricity, phone lines, gas, railways. Destroyed our heavy industry and our ability to not be at the mercy of Russian gas. She sold off our social housing ‘lifting the working classes out of the dirt’, leaving most people on minimum wage now at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords and a benefits system that is being pulled apart. She cared not about the unemployed, she cared not about Northern Ireland, and she sent us to war over something that should never have been fought over.
    I think her funeral through the streets of London is a grotesque statement of how out of touch our government is with a country that moved out of her shadow 22 years ago.
    I think, like Princess Diana, her coffin will be pelted, but not with flowers. But with the souls of millions of jobless, heartbroken people and communities.
    She didn’t, couldn’t sell off our pride though.

    • A stirring post. And your experience – honestly relayed – is very instructive. My Dad also seemed to be doing alright in the 80s, and his thinking was: if Labour get in, they’ll raise taxes, and that will hit my pocket. This may have been true, but it takes a certain disregard for the wider needs of society to think only of your own pocket. It was this instinctive self-preservation that she – and Reagan, another influential leader – exploited. And it worked.

      • Thanks for the comment Andrew.. Following further rumination, I am reminded that I (proudly at the time) used my first vote in the ’92 election (as a Carter USM lovin’ 19 yr old – hows that for a dichotomy?) to vote for the Tories, using exactly that rhetoric that yours and my Dad used, that Labour would raise taxes and we’d all end up under the jackboot of Arthur Scargill. I said this to the faces of guys that had been involved in the poll tax riots a couple of years before (I worked at HMV Trocadero 1990-92), and I am probably lucky i didn’t get a kicking.
        Mrs Thatcher and her supporters, old and new, always use the excuse that she and her government put the country back on its feet after it being decimated by successive Labour governments (ermm.. Edward Heath on his yacht, anyone? – (NO relation by the way) ) – but in modern terms, she did it with a payday loan, by selling off the family silver (ALL of our services and industries) and in true payday loan fashion, we are STILL making the repayments, socially and financially, 30+ years later. The Tories told us we would sort out social ills with hard work, Golf GTIs, breeze-block sized mobile phones and filofaxes, except, look at the London riots recently. Nothing has changed. Except that now, our youth are so apathetic they don’t vote, and don’t care. That’s her legacy.

  2. Good article, I enjoyed reading it.

    We must be of a similar age, I was 12 when she came to power, old enough to have some pre-Thatcherite memories associated with a dingy 70s of blackouts and a wobbly black and white TV.

    One thing I do find hard to determine – how much of the undoubted seismic change that the UK underwent during her tenure was down to her and her policies, and how much was down to, well, just change. Those years from 79 to 91 were marked by huge shifts in society, technology and culture and in some ways some of those would have happened anyway, and fed back into politics and the society in which I grew up.

    I can look back now at the events of my teenage years and beyond, and try to understand some of the politics that passed me by at the time. I was brought up amongst a vitriolic hatred of her and everything she stood for.

    I think she became her own caricature, and a lightening rod for all that dissent, some of which was warranted, and some that I think, in retrospect, wasn’t. I think in part that Thatcher has become an excuse for some of the changes in society over the last 3 decades.

    • Interesting question. Those changes in technology – and changes out there in a globalised world – would have happened without her. But their impact would have been very different if we’d had a leader, or government, who strengthened out industry and our infrastructure, rather than pulling both to pieces. Everything was either privatised or deregulated under Thatcher, leaving Britain open to having its manufacturing and export base sucked out of the back door. Parts of this country are economic wastelands thanks to the removal of the industries that defined them: mining, shipbuilding, steel etc. She did that.

  3. Just as aside, as I wrote the reply above, I have radio 5 on – and the House of Commons ‘debate’ on her legacy is ongoing. In what way is that a valued use of Parliamentary time ? listening to the plummy tones of Howard et al and his ‘funny’ anecdotes, one is reminded of the separation between politics and real life.

  4. Sorry Andrew, I couldn’t reply directly to your response.

    You’re right – she was certainly instrumental in, at best not providing support for those whose lives were destroyed by the systematic dismantling of industry, and at worst were victims of a definite policy. I do think that industry in the UK at that time was already in dire straits – her fault was in not assisting it to change and adapt and provide a good manufacturing basis upon which the UK could build. She wholly failed to see any potential in it, or of the consequences of decay, particularly in the northern industrial heartlands. In that sense I do agree that she failed Britain. I don’t think that she caused the decline in manufacturing that was already well underway before her tenure.

    I agree with you completely re. privatisation.

  5. Another beautifully judged piece. You’ve captured that sense of lingering anger – I don’t want to go to a street party to celebrate her death, but I sure as hell don’t want people to lose sight of how reviled she was either. Thankfully almost all the coverage I’ve seen has acknowledged just how divisive she was – I’d been worried that if she survived long enough, there would be a generation who couldn’t remember her, and the Daily Mail and its ilk would pull off the same insane hagiography that surrounded Diana.
    What I particularly hate about Thatcher and her acolyte Blair is that between them they shifted the country so far to the right that they killed my political fire. They created a society where self-interest is so entrenched that if I say that I think public schools should be abolished, or that there should be no such thing as private healthcare, I sound like some insane crypto-communist, when actually all I want is for every person to be on a level playing field. They made the concept of fairness an irrelevance, a quaint historical notion.

    • I came here to say Andrew’s piece was marvellously judged and said what I would have said for me – but also wanted to agree with you – I feel like a loony communist every time I mention that kind of thing, too. Add in being self-employed and the expectations there, which must have been formed by Thatcherism, too, and it makes things so uneasy!

  6. Nicely judged Andrew. You expressed how I feel about the woman. I was 20 when she came to power and lived in Yorkshire so I saw first hand the damage she caused to the steel and mining communities. Its sad how many people’s memory that of a great leader that should be admired and not the bombastic bully she was. How people forget!

  7. Great piece Andrew. My Dad’s outlook was rather different from yours. He was a disillusioned and embittered Labour party member at the time and the palpable sense of (expected) disappointment on May 4th 1979 made an impression on my 13 year old mind, although like you I was politically naive enough not to imagine the horrific scale of what was to come.

    The hagiographies of the last few days in the Tory press, not to mention the BBC’s rather shameless collusion in the Thatcher nostalgia-fest have been at the very least drearily trite and at the worst historically revisionist. In particular, the notional ‘consensus’ around the idea of Thatcher being a ‘towering’ but admittedly ‘divisive’ political figure, such as has been constructed by the media in the last two days is especially worthy of criticism.

    We were, as you rightly say, all in her long shadow wherever we happened to be when we heard about her death, and depressingly that shadow isn’t likely to recede in the near future even assuming a Labour victory over the Tories at the next election.

    Despite all this, I did allow myself an admittedly tasteless musical frolic on Monday by listening to Patti Smith’s ‘Gloria’ disturbingly loudly! I think ‘Streets of London’ by Ralph McTell played along the funeral cortege route next Wednesday might be somewhat appropriate, if any protesters feel so inclined.

  8. Well said. I do hope the same people who are partying at the moment are keeping some bubbly on ice for when Gordon Brown is summoned by the great beautician in the sky, because I rather think he (and the people who voted for him) have as much if not more to answer for..

    • You’re right in that I didn’t mean “diffidence”, but nor did I mean diligence. It was “defiance” all along!

  9. I think what annoys me is the hypocrisy of her farewell speech outside Downing Street in 1990. Here was someone who criticized the working class of the industrial heartlands destroyed by her policies as being over-sentimental and self-pitying; yet that was exactly how she appeared upon losing her job. At least she had a peerage and consultancy work waiting for her; no need for her to “get on her bike”.

  10. Thanks for the comment Andrew.. Following further rumination, I am reminded that I (proudly at the time) used my first vote in the ’92 election (as a Carter USM lovin’ 19 yr old – hows that for a dichotomy?) to vote for the Tories, using exactly that rhetoric that yours and my Dad used, that Labour would raise taxes and we’d all end up under the jackboot of Arthur Scargill. I said this to the faces of guys that had been involved in the poll tax riots a couple of years before (I worked at HMV Trocadero 1990-92), and I am probably lucky i didn’t get a kicking.
    Mrs Thatcher and her supporters, old and new, always use the excuse that she and her government put the country back on its feet after it being decimated by successive Labour governments (ermm.. Edward Heath on his yacht, anyone? – (NO relation by the way) ) – but in modern terms, she did it with a payday loan, by selling off the family silver (ALL of our services and industries) and in true payday loan fashion, we are STILL making the repayments, socially and financially, 30+ years later. The Tories told us we would sort out social ills with hard work, Golf GTIs, breeze-block sized mobile phones and filofaxes, except, look at the London riots recently. Nothing has changed. Except that now, our youth are so apathetic they don’t vote, and don’t care. That’s her legacy.

  11. Thank you for saying what I’m thinking, as usual. I have been getting personally annoyed at all the comments out in the world of Facebook etc. about Southerners not being as affected / vitriolic as Northeners – what’s that all about? Just because I grew up in the Tory heartland of the home counties (Kent, in my case) doesn’t mean I thought she was great! We had mines, too, and I remember her coming into power and thinking oh, she’s scary, because I was seven, but, well, this is annoying me about the whole legacy …

    – I grew up one of Thatcher’s children, I can barely remember anything different, so I should be a greedy materialist capitalist – um, no. Voted Labour as soon as I could vote, with brief forays into Liberals. Parents were always Tory voters as far as I could see, busy buying up shares then being made redundant when those very companies became privatised …
    – I grew up in the South so I am a natural Tory – um, no, again. We had mines. We identified with the miners even from our comfy detatched houses. Somehow I learned to eschew private education when offered it (I blame my naughty elderly neighbour with her CND membership, home made wine and seditious literature – thank god for her!).
    – I am self-employed and doing OK – therefore I will be fiddling my taxes and cross if I creep into the higher-rate tax band. This one is insidious. I’m still the same person I’ve always been. I give to charity, I do my taxes scrupulously and pay what I owe, and if I pay more on the top bit, fine: I have enough to live on, so if I can contribute to society, so much the better.

    A muddled response I fear, but I am sure that this selfishness and the attitudes that are coming out in this Long Shadow are down to Her.

    I don’t know what to do on Wednesday. There is talk of people going down but turning their back on the procession – a passive protest. But what if there’s a riot? What does one do in this case?

  12. Nice piece! As you say, many of her policies eg trade union laws, privatisation, emphasis on financial services, no building of new social housing, “care in the community” – live on today, despite her having left office in 1990. Did she, then, win all the argument in the minds of leading politicians across all the main political parties? Or were those leading politicians who disagreed with her just not up to the job of implementing policies they themselves believed in?

    It seems to me her policies fall into two broad categories…

    The first category of polices is one where you can at least make an intelligent argument that they were in some way “right”. You could argue, for example, that privatisation some companies made sense, given that they were failing when nationalised and subsequently flourished when privatised. I’m not asking for anyone to AGREE with that, by the way, just to accept that there’s at least an intelligent argument to be had there.

    The second category, though, is to me quite puzzling. These are the policies that seem to make no sense at all – whether you’re on the left or the right. Having a strong manufactuing industry is surely a good thing, isn’t it? Dealing with the lack of housing stock in the country by building more houses is surely a good thing, isn’t it? Caring for the most vulnerable members in our society is surely a good thing, isn’t it? It’s genuinely a mystery to me why no-one in the leadership of any of the main political parties – on the left or the right – has done anything about this since 1990. The only way this make sense to me is that, post Thatcher, the leaderships on both the right and the left have been either incompetent or don’t care about implementing policies that improve the country. Have I missed something?

  13. “Parts of this country are economic wastelands thanks to the removal of the industries that defined them: mining, shipbuilding, steel etc. She did that.”

    But not singlehandedly. How many coal mines closed under Wilson compared to under Thatcher? Did any government, Labour or Conservative since the beginning of the decline of coal production in the late 50s successfully reverse the decline? I believe it is a fairly straight line down from about 220 million tonnes in 1958 to about 16 million tonnes in 2010.

    • I never said that coal mines didn’t shut before Thatcher. But The Enemy Within by Seamus Milne makes it crystal clear: she was going to break the unions, and the NUM were one of the most powerful, hence: coal mining and the communities that relied on it were on her hit list. She succeeded.

      And now we import our coal. Brilliant.

      • Problem was that Scargill fell for it hook line and sinker. He was tactically outmanoeuvred by them, even giving the government chance to sequester the union’s assets by not waiting for the official ballot result. Perhaps he thought he might not have won. And coming out in spring was suicidal – with a carefully gathered stockpile of coal and the winter over, Nick Ridley’s job was made much easier by these fundamental miscalculations (I don’t think it was hubris).

        Of course, all this would have resonance with Hillsborough. The South Yorkshire police HAD to be exonerated there. Not to would be to ask questions about their conduct not just on that day, but earlier too, in the crucible of the strike.

        On Wednesday, I won’t dance on her grave. But neither will I mourn. I’ll do the one that she would have been most angered about: I’ll ignore her, and let her funeral pass me by: I have better things to do.

  14. I don’t know what to do with this post Andrew. I want to send it everywhere. I have come back to read it a second time after posting it to all and sundry the first time. It ‘s an excellent-oh-‘post’ seems to diminish it-article? Anyway-I am not ‘blowing smoke up your proverbial’-I just want to say that you put your point across very powerfully and emotionally-and more people should read it.

    • For what it’s worth (and thank you, by the way), around 1,600 people have read it, and that’s just the number of visitors to the actual blog entry, hundred more may have just clicked on Main Page while it was up there – and, as people are always pointing out, people who subscribe to a feed may well not be included.

      Also, for comparison, the one I wrote on April 1 about the welfare cuts was read by around 2,700 people. Which is very gratifying. I ascribe this to Twitter, really.

      It’s lovely to have a readership. If only I got paid!

      • Put that one down to the Facebook, too – I shared it on there and about 8 of my friends shared it, too. If that happened for everyone who shared it there, that’s pretty cool!

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