So, Margaret ‘the Bag’ Thatcher is dead.
The heroine of the Falklands, the scourge of the miners, the ‘most divisive’ Prime Minister in recent British history, maybe any British history, has finally kicked the bucket. Legions of trendy-lefty commentators are dancing in the streets, and people far, far too young to have any recollection whatsoever of what Dame
Margaret Hilda Thatcher actually did, are filling their Facebook drivel, er, pages, with claptrap about how much they hated her and are glad to see her gone.
Well, I remember her reign, and indeed it was not pleasant. But what is forgotten, perhaps wilfully, by those celebrating her death, is what it was like before Thatcher. They forget too, that without her, a great part of what the ‘British’ now accept as normal, simply would not exist.
Well, I remember the years before Thatcher very clearly. I remember the television broadcasts being switched off at 10pm in order to save electricity by sending everyone to bed early. I remember the rolling blackouts and the enforced three-day working week, to do the same, and going into my mother’s shop where the only light was from candles, not because she couldn’t pay the bill, but because there was no electricity in the wires, since the miners had cut fuel supplies to everyone, including the power stations. I remember the refuse piled high in the streets to rot for months, stinking and breeding rats. ‘Wildcat’ strikes were a daily occurrence across the country, and every service was routinely and regularly disrupted by ‘industrial action’.
I remember too, the stranglehold that the unions had on the workplace, and the ridiculous hoops I personally had to go through to get my NUJ card, without which I could not sell my work to newspapers…but I needed to be selling work to get the ticket, duh. And I was not alone in this; labour practices in the UK were arcane and frankly outrageous.
Just changing job was a nightmare that involved, for many, having to apply to a new union to see if they might permit you to work in this new role, and then, wait for it, having to apply to your old union to see if they would release you; and all this after you had been offered the job. I specifically remember one man, who despite the best efforts of his local union officials, was prevented from moving from a job as a Photographic Printer (where he had to be a member of the National Graphical Association) to being a Photographer (exclusive to the National Union of Journalists) for literally years even though he had been offered a job and had won many photographic competitions. When he was finally permitted, by the lords of labour on high, to change jobs, he was not allowed to do so in the same city and had to move himself, his wife and his young family to another. The so-called ‘closed shop’ was an appalling abuse of human liberty.
Before Thatcher, to get a mortgage to buy your own home meant saving with a Building Society for a minimum of two years, and building up a deposit, of at least 20% and often more, depending on the society; and woe betide you if you disliked the society you were with’s terms and conditions, since changing was a nightmare designed to make you lose all will to even try, or indeed to live.
Most people in the UK lived in rented accommodation and were prey to Rachmanite landlords. Most were paid in cash at the end of each week. Very few went on foreign holidays. You took the doctor you were assigned to and if you didn’t get on, or if he or she was just useless, tough titty on you. You probably didn’t have a bank account and if you did it was almost certainly a savings account with a passbook. Cheque guarantee cards (remember even those?) didn’t exist.
The amount of money allowed out of the country was tiny, £50, (because, unsurprisingly, the country was broke and needed to hang on to it) and I remember my father stuffing his socks with enough fivers for us to actually leave the hotel on a two-week package to Marbella. The Black Market thrived.
Little Hitlers were everywhere, and they plied their trade with impunity, making the lives of the rest of the population as miserable as they could. I clearly remember one officious ‘Immigration Service’ prick holding up an international flight for forty-five minutes while he interrogated me on why on earth I might want to leave the glorious UK and where I might think I was going…or was it just because he knew he could?
If that were not bad enough, add into the package systemic inflation that made it far cheaper to buy a guitar on the never-never and pay outrageous ‘Hire Purchase’ (a con of scandalous proportions) charges, than to save for the damn thing, since in the same time the sticker price would have gone up by more than the vig. And the prices! My first reflex camera, a Mamiya Sekor 1000 DTL, came at £129 (plus carriage) at a time when a manual worker made £25 a week at most–that’s five weeks’ wages for a very basic instrument. You can buy an infinitely better camera now for that price, which equates to roughly a quarter of one weeks’ wages for an average earner; so across the board, real prices today are twenty times less than they were then. Buying anything at all was a struggle.
On a more general and perhaps more important level, the UK was known as the ‘sick man of Europe’ and enjoyed a financial reputation roughly equivalent to the one Greece has now. The International Monetary Fund had taken over UK economic policy with the same level of ruthlessness as is being seen today in Crete and elsewhere. And back to the personal, being self-employed was only for those who were born rich.
Income tax rates were as much as 95%, admittedly for the highest earners, but almost everyone paid a far higher basic rate than today; I remember the deductions from my wage slips which left me with around 60% of what I had actually earned, and that was not a lot. And yet the infrastructure was collapsing, the housing stock was appalling and the celebrated National Health Service was on its knees, with outdated hospitals and insufficient health professionals
Why had things come to this pretty pass? Because of something known as the ‘Post-War Consensus’ which had turned the UK into a socialist state, suffering exactly the same problems that finally caused the USSR to collapse. Because governments since the war had piled bureaucracy upon bureaucracy, red tape upon red tape, inefficiency upon inefficiency. The Labour Party was controlled by the unions, who decided its policy through the invidious ‘block vote’, and the Tory Party lacked the guts to confront this and roll back the tide of state control.
Now, I recognise that she had a personal manner that was at best regrettable. I recognise, as a Scot, that for me and many others she epitomised all that was most hateful about the English ruling class. I recognise that she caused huge upset and social problems. I recognise that her policies destroyed whole communities.
But would I want to go back to what the UK was like before Dame Margaret? Not a chance. And if you were honest, neither would any of you.
I don’t regret the passing of this iconic and iconoclastic politician. She had a long life and I hope she died peacefully. I find the crowing of people without the slightest knowledge of what they are talking about both uncharitable and offensive and they should be ashamed of themselves.
Some things I know for absolute certain: If Margaret Hilda Thatcher had not done what she did, someone else would have had to. Her political life was the necessary purging of decades, one might argue centuries, of inefficiency, bureaucracy and privilege. She was the full stop that finally killed the deferential society, a process that had begun in the bloody fields of Flanders seventy years before. Thatcher was the lance that punctured the festering boil of the unions’ perversion of democracy at last, and the iconoclast who tore down the self-righteous shibboleth of state socialism.
And whatever else she might have been, she was the right person, in the right place, at the right time, and we should all be grateful for it.