Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Why I won't celebrate the death of the Iron Lady

One evening in 1985 ... or it may have been 1986 ... I was standing in the rain outside the Cavalry and Guards Club on Piccadilly in London. Despite the best efforts of my police-issue raincoat, I was soaked to the skin; the coat may have been waterproof but my trousers weren't and osmosis was ensuring that no part of my lower body was missing out on a good wash. I'd been standing there, as part of a security detail for something like an hour when suddenly the doors opened and a conga line of well-dressed people emerged, umbrellas fopping open as they dashed for taxis and their chauffeur-driven cars. No one acknowledged me, let alone said anything. My own boss, the then Commissioner of Police Sir Kenneth Newman appeared and, without even a glance at me, waddled to his car and was whisked away. And then a lady stepped out dressed all in blue. She was only about 5'4", and half of that height was made up of carefully coiffured hair, but she exuded all the confidence and power of a tiger in a room full of hamsters. And then, to my utter surprise, she walked over to talk to me. But more than that, she waved to one of her aides to come with her and hold a large golfing umbrella over us. She apologised for the fact that I'd had to stand in the rain for so long. She thanked me for my diligence. She shook my hand. And then she went slowly on her way to her car. There was no audience to see this, other than her aide. There were no photographers, no reporters. That was my first encounter with Margaret Thatcher. There would be a couple more over the next couple of years but none quite so intimate. And now, when I look back on the incident, I have very mixed feelings about it. I still find it very hard to square that image with the Thatcher that did so much harm and who many people, with justification, hate to the very core of their being.

I was not, and never have been a Tory voter. I grew up in Liberal Cornwall and I've remained staunchly Liberal ever since. Oh alright, I did have a little flirt with the SDP at one time but they eventually merged with the Liberals so that hardly counts. That said, in the last two elections I've voted Green; not because I think that they can necessarily form a government, but because it would be nice to have a few people in the Commons with informed opinions on environmental issues. I hadn't been a political teenager either. In 1979, when my school decided that us Sixth Formers should hold a parallel General Election to see if the results mirrored the real thing, myself and my two best mates formed The Cheese and Wine Party and bribed the voters with a barbecue and beach party. We won a landslide victory, we pissed off all of our teachers and I became Minister for Alcohol. There was something powerful in that act of silly anarchy. It was a celebration after years of hardship; rather like I imagine people felt during the Restoration in 1660. After a decade of Puritanism, people were ready to party. They wrote bawdy comedies and drank and made merry. The shift from the 1970s into the 80s had that same fin de siècle feel about it.

Throughout the late 70s it had felt (to me anyway) as if we'd been at the mercy of a whole new breed of puritans. They were called 'The Unions'. The so-called Winter of Discontent 1978/9 had seen widespread strikes across many areas of industry. Garbage wasn't collected, libraries were shut, even bodies remained unburied. In the previous couple of years, there had been rolling power cuts - something unthinkable today when we are so reliant on technology - and TV shows were cancelled left, right and centre. It was 'thanks' to the unions that my beloved Doctor Who was cancelled mid-season and why it would be another decade before I would get to see any of the Douglas Adams-penned story Shada. It was thanks to the unions that I had to walk to school during one of the harshest Winters we'd had in decades because the bus drivers were out. It was thanks to the unions that there was no heating in the house and we'd had to put coats on our beds to keep warm. Everyone was fed up with the Labour government under Jim Callaghan who seemed to kowtow to every demand made by the Shop Stewards. But it was the unions that angered us the most; they were the bogeymen who appeared to be using our discomfort as a bargaining tool in their wage negotiations. Of course, I now understand that whole era much better and I fully appreciate why the unions were doing what they were doing. But back then there was no internet and only three TV channels - assuming there was any electricity with which to watch them - and we didn't have everyday access to anything like the deep political debate and analysis we have today. So, when a sharp-nosed, sleepy-eyed lady Tory appeared and said that she was going to give the unions a damned good thrashing, we sat up and took notice. And when she said that she and her party could make Britain great again, an awful lot of people decided to give her the chance to prove it. Which was why, in 1979, the Tories swept to power. Four years later, with Thatcher still at the helm, the Tories slammed it again, increasing their majority from 43 to 144 (The Falklands Campaign helped immensely - nothing stirs the national breast more than a good war). A third General Election in 1987 saw a third win and a majority of 102. But, by this time, attitudes to Thatcher had changed both inside her party and in the greater population. The bubble had started to burst and people now understood just what sort of person she really was. Consequently she was ousted by John Major in a bloodless coup and Major went on to win yet another election in 1992. I mention all this because I think people forget that the great British public voted her into power twice and her party four times in a row. That's right. We had a Tory government from 1979 until Tony Blair's first win in 1997. She didn't stage a coup or force anyone to vote. The British public wanted her in charge.

On the news this evening I watched a group of students - most of which weren't even born when Margaret Thatcher had any real influence - dancing around singing 'Ding Dong the Witch is Dead' and chanting to the effect that they were overjoyed that Margaret Thatcher had joined the Choir Invisible. It made me cross to see it. Why? Because they were exhibiting the kind of 'me me me' behaviour than Thatcherism brought to the UK. I wanted to say to them, 'Ahem, do you know anything about recent political history? Or are you just jumping on the bandwagon because Twitter is stuffed full of ire and Facebook has a special page for you to express your hatred for this woman?' Those sorts of scenes make me feel quite ashamed to be British. We're better than that. We don't dance on the graves of people we don't like. I also wanted them to tell them to get some perspective. When all is said and done, Thatcher didn't execute millions of innocent people in gas chambers. She didn't torture people and laugh at their suffering. She didn't stick skewers in puppies. What she did was follow a particular political ideology built on self-servicing greed. She eschewed the idea of society and told us all to grab what we could and fuck everyone else. And we bought it, hook, line and sinker. We started to buy branded goods to look better than our friends, we bought bigger and better cars and houses, we dressed like utter tits. The 1980s was a decade of excess. Meanwhile, the Tories were dismantling the infrastructure of Great Britain and re-assembling it as UK Plc. Where before the trains and the water and the electricity had been owned by us, now it was owned by a small group of fat cats who would clog their arteries on our hard-earned cash as we all got poorer. Thatcher's boot boys sold off the social housing stock - great news for people who otherwise could never have got onto the property ladder - but then utterly failed to build any new houses for the poorest  members of society to live in. She destroyed whole communities - miners' wives and children were just treated as collateral damage in her war with the unions. She created a dangerously unhealthy 'survival of the fittest' culture and widened the gap between rich and poor to such a degree that I'm not sure it can ever again be bridged. That's what she did and, for that, she should forever be held up as an example of everything that is worst in politics and in, indeed, in human beings.

I will never have any love for Margaret Thatcher. She decimated the industries in my home county of Cornwall and made it the poorest in the UK. She used me and my police colleagues as political tools during the Miners' Strike and forever damaged the relationship between the police and the public. She made me feel dirty. She made me feel like a traitor. But even after all that I can't bring myself to celebrate her death because that would make me feel even dirtier. It would make me feel as heartless as she seemed to be. I try to be a caring, sensitive human being and, whatever she was as a politician, she was also a wife, a mother, a grandmother. That's the person I briefly saw outside the Cavalry and Guards Club all those years ago and that's the person who is being mourned by her family right now, the majority of which are blameless. It's distressing enough to lose a loved one without the waves of hatred being directed at the family name. I intend to show a little compassion for their sakes, if not for the so-called Iron Lady herself.

Margaret Thatcher was instrumental in creating a whole new breed of selfish, greedy, uncaring Briton for whom compassion was seen as a sign of weakness. That's not who I want to be and I don't want to be part of a society that celebrates that kind of behaviour. I'm a humanist and I'm not going to stoop to her level. Margaret Thatcher is dead and she is not going to be any more dead if I burn a straw effigy of her in the street. I'm not saying that anyone should admire her - her faults far outweigh her achievements. I'm not saying that people shouldn't hate her - Lord knows so many people have good reason to. What I am saying is that having a party to celebrate her death may make people feel momentarily empowered but it will do nothing towards fixing the damage she did. The money spent on booze and bunting could be far better spent on projects to rebuild and reinvigorate the lives of those communities she damaged. Downloading a copy of 'Ding Dong the Witch is Dead!' only increases the profits of Thatcher's beloved multi-national companies that destroyed our local shops and decimated our High Streets. Remember how we all mourned the loss of HMV just recently? I can't even encourage you to stand around a piano and have a sing song. What for? She can't hear you. How much better to use all of that energy and hard-earned money to campaign against unfairness and greed. That would really cock a snook in her ghost's direction. And, more importantly, at the people who continue to follow her policies. Besides which, every celebration of her death keeps her in the spotlight. I'd much rather she was unceremoniously lowered into the pit unregarded and forgotten. We should surely use her death to spur us on to creating a much better society to live in than the one she envisaged.

It takes a lot of energy to hate and I have more constructive things to do with that energy. What I'm going to do is take the wise advice of Billy Bragg who, despite the fact we were on 'opposite sides' during the Miners' Strike, has always had my greatest respect and admiration and who posted this today: 'This is not a time for celebration. The death of Margaret Thatcher is nothing more than a salient reminder of how Britain got into the mess that we are in today. Of why ordinary working people are no longer able to earn enough from one job to support a family; of why there is a shortage of decent affordable housing; of why domestic growth is driven by credit, not by real incomes; of why tax-payers are forced to top up wages; of why a spiteful government seeks to penalise the poor for having an extra bedroom; of why Rupert Murdoch became so powerful; of why cynicism and greed became the hallmarks of our society. Raising a glass to the death of an infirm old lady changes none of this. The only real antidote to cynicism is activism. Don’t celebrate – organise!'

Hear hear.


  1. You're braver than I am to try and show her some respect in death. Whilst she may not be in the same vein as certain mass murdering political regimes, it's hard not to look now at all of the people dying because of the society she helped and encouraged us to embark upon, The old, the mentally ill, those reliant on state services, they are all going to get left by the wayside. She has some responsibility for that.

    For my own experience with her government, she forced me to pay what was essentially property tax on a dwelling I didn't own at university, effectively taking a large portion of my student money. We were told pay up or face criminal charges. What a choice: buy books for studying, buy food for living, or pay for a dwelling we already overpaid to live in whilst at university.

    I don't think it's wrong to be glad someone like that is dead. I know I am not the good human being you are though. So I'm glad you're out there to balance me out a little :|

  2. Liz - x

    Sleepy - I can't blame anyone for hating Thatcher, especially if their lives were ruined by her policies. Who can blame the miners for having a party to celebrate? My issue is this whole bandwagon of hate upon which people are jumping willy-nilly. Thatcher was the driving fore behind Tory policy in her day. She wasn't the only one to blame. And her legacy is the current Tory-led coalition government who are carrying on her dirty work.

    The death of Thatcher changes nothing. Change has to come from action.


    1. Oh yeah i fully agree with people who haven't even heard of her or suffered through her being a bit nitwitty for partying, I just believe you're a way better person than I am, having lived through it so personally via your career to still have the humanity that she very rarely showed. I don't think good manners have a lot to do with who you are as a person when you're a public figure, I think that's just good 'politics' ;)

  3. Beautifully put. I grew up in her era and loathe her politics but met the woman and spent a day with her. She was curiously human and fallible. Hate the sins but not the sinner.

  4. When you think about it, the most hated people in history have still had someone who loved them. And they've had positive moments at some point to. Just because someone's ultimate legacy is one of piss and vinegar doesn't necessarily mean every second of their life was that way. So to have a mixed bag because you had a positive encounter with an otherwise negative person is understandable. Ultimately I think that we should all let the dead lay, and carry on.

  5. It is a mark of the power of her name that I am not confident in posting this in anything other than Anonymous, for which I apologise.

    Born in late '73, Thatcher was really my first PM. It is bizarre to consider for a while that my generation grew up not believing that there could even be a male PM. Imagine.

    I am not an apologist for her, and her decisions, but I do wonder if the Left have mythology issues of their own. Since 1990 we have had 4 Prime Ministers, two of each persuasion, and 23 years of goverment. In fact in this period the Left have won more elections than the Right, yet none of them have decided to roll back her reforms; repeal the more unfavourable decisions. Her foundations are still in place, with the tacit approval of both sides of the political argument.

    The Left need Thatcher just as much as the Right, despite her removal 23 years ago, long enough to have voters who never had what I had, a woman PM.