I was 14 when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979: to say that she cast a shadow over my youth is to vastly underestimate her impact on my life then, and my life now. When I heard about her death I didn’t really know what to say or to think. Mostly I felt numb – and lots of memories came flooding back. Lots of feelings, lots of emotions. Not exactly anger, just a kind of empty sadness. It’s hard even to write about it now. It’s not sadness about me, or about her, but more about humanity in general – because what I learned as one of ‘Thatcher’s children’ more than anything else was that all too often, the ‘bad guys’ win.
I was a politically active teenager, full of hope and optimism – Thatcher’s victory in 1979, and then even more so her landslide in 1983 did their very best to destroy that hope and optimism. It felt as though everything that I thought was good about people – fellow-feeling, community, caring about each other, even love – was being subsumed beneath things I thought were bad about people – selfishness, greed, hatred, divisiveness, aggression. Pretty much all the things that I liked about the way our country worked – the NHS, the comprehensive education system, the transport system – were being systematically degraded, insulted and taken apart. I remember when the buses were privatised where I lived, and suddenly the last bus home in the ‘evening’ was at 5.20pm. I remember the glorification of war-mongering in the way the Falklands War was celebrated….
I was hugely insulated from the real damage, and only saw it peripherally. I lived in leafy Cambridge as a teen, then went to work in London in 1986, when the greed-riven culture was at its peak. I was an accountant in the City when Thatcher won again in 1987 – I campaigned fruitlessly for Labour, and wore a lapel badge on my suit, to the huge laughter of my colleagues. The seeds were sown then for the disasters that we’re all feeling now – the deregulation that Thatcher began bore its real, poisoned fruit in 2008. Then, though, I was told, again and again – and almost came to believe – that I was wrong about everything. Greed really WAS good. Selfishness really WAS the root to success. There really was no such thing as society.
There was a good side to it too – a side that still gives me pleasure when I remember it. All those protest marches – some great times. Singing ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, OUT, OUT, OUT!’ Picketing Barclays Bank for their involvement with Thatcher’s beloved Apartheid South Africa – and getting a result, much to her disgust. All that brilliant anti-Thatcher music – from the Beat’s sublime Stand Down Margaret to UB40’s Madam Medusa, from the Specials’ classic Ghost Town to Elvis Costello’s excoriating Tramp the Dirt Down – and later that whole genre of anti-Thatcher films. Pete Postlethwaite’s speech in Brassed Off still brings tears to my eyes.
The main lesson that I learned from Thatcher, as I said at the start of this, was that the bad guys do win. Often. And in ways that seem to suggest something about human nature that is, to me at least, hugely unpleasant. And yet even that can be a good lesson – not to let yourself be too beaten down. No matter how badly they hit you, no matter how much of a minority you feel, no matter how much you feel that you’re losing, never give up. I have to remind my self of that now, as the same thing seems to be happening again in so many ways. The echoes of the 80s are all too clear, and not just in the Conservative Party. That’s the saddest thing – but the thing that makes me clearer than ever that I’m not going to give up. Even if everyone else thinks I’m wrong, I’m still going to fight for what I think is right.
Thatcher taught me that – I don’t think it’s what she wanted to teach me, but that’s what I learned. I don’t feel emotional about her as a person – her death leaves me curiously numb – but I care deeply and passionately about her legacy. It’s probably pointless, but I’m not going to give up. I don’t want a society where greed, individualism and selfishness dominate – and I don’t believe that’s the only way. Maybe it’s pointless, maybe we’re bound to lose… but even if it is, I’m not going to give up.