No-one living in the UK in the 1980s can fail to have an opinion of Margaret Thatcher – former British prime minister (1979-1990) who died today.
I distinctly remember the moment she was elected as leader of the Conservative (Tory) Party, in 1975.
In my chemistry class, at an all-girls’ private school, our teacher came in to announce the decision of the leadership ballot when Thatcher won control of the Tory Party.
Our teacher, Mrs Crabbe, wore very smart clothes, lots of make-up, bleached blond hair, slim as a rake, and was always sneaking out for a fag. We all loved her to bits. There weren’t very many of us, around ten or so, as doing physics and chemistry for ‘O’ level was not popular. The other choice was doing physical science and biology which most girls chose. Two sciences were required at our school, and physics and chem was regarded as the harder option.
So there we all were, pens poised at the ready doing our chemistry equations and doing the periodic table, while Mrs Crabbe was busy filling her lungs with smoke out in the corridor. Or in the science block teachers’ staff room.
‘Girls!’ she announced, on her return from the fag break. ‘I have some great news. Margaret Thatcher has won the leadership of the Conservative Party.’
‘Hurrah!’ we all shouted in unison. We spoke like that back then. We were a posh school, technically direct-grant/private/independent (which is far too difficult to explain for non-UK readers – but it is basically partially paid for by parents, partially funded by local taxes, and partially funded by trustees).
Some of us were from working-class backgrounds, others from professional ones, all aspiring to get somewhere, and here is a woman chemist who has just acquired the leadership of a political party putting her in the running to lead the country.
No wonder we all shouted HURRAH!
Before that, her fame was as the milk snatcher when she reduced free milk to schools when she was Secretary of State for Education. Thatcher Thatcher, Milk Snatcher. No doubt if she had retained her maiden name of Roberts no-one would have made anything of it, but the rhyming was too good an opportunity to miss for a bright journalist.
And did anyone actually care? All those of us who had freezing cold milk that was at least half ice, at our mid-morning break, or worse, freezing cold milk warmed up on cast-iron radiators and tasting disgusting, or ghastly warm milk in summer, would have been extremely grateful had the bloody stuff never been a part of school life.
My partner told his teacher he couldn’t possibly drink it or he would be sick. ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said his teacher. He drank the milk and vomited all over her. Thatcher the milk snatcher did a hell of a lot of kids a favour. She put academic quals before free school milk and so would I. Any day.
But moving onto my university years, I made my first vote in a general election in 1979. I voted Conservative. I was surrounded by students who wore badges saying ‘Don’t blame me, I voted Labour.’
This may come as a shock to those of you who are possibly aware of my rather more left-wing views. But there you go.
Thatcher years were marked by union disputes. While she was leader of the opposition before she came to power, we had the Grunwick dispute (photo-processing in a London factory).
Later we had Wapping (newspapers) and the miners’ strike.
In the UK at the time, it was always held that the three powerful unions were mining, print and publishing, and teaching. So let’s get rid of at least two of the big three unions – mining and printing.
Thatcher wasn’t content with having a go at mining and printing, she also went for the health service, wanting to privatise that on an American-style model.
The biggest dispute was of course, the miners’ strike. I lost interest in it. I cleared off around the world. It was still happening when I was in Australia.
Meanwhile I met my partner out there. He’d previously been working at a British Leyland car plant spray-painting in the UK. Being a union delegate he’d challenged Ian MacGregor, who managed to decimate not only the British steel industry, the coal industry, and the car industry too.
‘Will the plants be closed?’ asked the Union Activist Partner.
‘I have no knowledge that will be the case,’ (or some such shit) said MacGregor.
Made no difference to Partner as he was off to Australia. Within two or three months the plant was closed. As were a load of pits and steel plants.
Signs of the times. Or rather the eighties in the UK.
But when we returned from Australia, we reaped the benefits. Oh, the lovely Nigel Lawson and the economic boom if you lived down south. Although only if you bought and sold houses at the right time.
Perhaps one of the most defining moments of Thatcher’s rule, was taking Britain to war. Over the Falklands. I thought at the time it was a totally political decision to win the next election. How I criticised it. These days, living in Gib, I would love a Thatcher. How we change in our old age.
So my views of Thatcher. Great on foreign policy and nationalism. Did nothing for a lot of people in the UK, shagged British industries in the arse, destroyed the trade union movement, council housing, the benefit system, and tried to destroy the National Health Service (but medics rule OK).
First British woman prime minister and first woman leader of the western world. Longest-serving Brit prime minister of the 20th century. Obama’s tribute about shattering the glass ceiling rather misses the mark however.
Seriously stuck to her guns, so to speak. Got to admire that.
I ended up not admiring her policies, but did admire her conviction.
There are many tributes and quotes kicking around, but my favourite was always:
‘Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.’
Whatever your view of her, as others say, the greatest British post-war politician.
Sweet dreams, dear. Even if you did stuff all for feminism.