There was never any sense that she respected these men or the dangers they endured; no sense that these people were fighting for something real and good and irreplaceable. She wore an international sneer and seemed to me like Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life or the unforgiving bosses in Germinal. Hugo Young, her biographer, later said she became harder than hard. But to us Thatcher was always a politician made of hard dogma, almost sociopathic in her inability to see the human beings behind the percentages she wielded like knives.
We used to gather tins of food for the miners. The wives ran soup kitchens for a year during the strike but the Barony colliery was eventually closed in Thatcher’s time. Those who want to test the view that Mrs. Thatcher’s government had excellent recovery plans for Auchinleck and New Cumnock should visit the towns today. Unemployment and social problems have destroyed community life there and in March 2013 New Cumnock was voted Scotland’s most dismal town. There are no shops, there are derelict houses, the town hall is facing closure, and the church is empty. And that is only one of hundreds of towns in Britain that felt the impact of the Thatcher revolution. “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie. Out, out, out.” I can still hear that every time I think of her, shouted by men and women who brought out something cruel in her.
There was a vanity in Mrs. Thatcher, much copied by her followers, that the enmity she stirred up in people was merely a reflection of her toughness when it came to “getting things done.” But it was mindless of her to think so. Politicians have always been disliked and always blamed, but Thatcher appeared to many people in Britain to have no feeling for the people whose lives were hurt by her policies. No feeling and no understanding. Her stridency appeared to excite boys who remembered their nannies, but to other men and women, the poorer sort, she was the incarnation of blind authority. She knew there were real families out there in Britain’s hinterlands or northern lands, yet, like a crazed statistician or a bad novelist, she couldn’t really imagine what their lives must be like.
The summer before going to university I got a job with the Manpower Services Commission, at the Job Centre, working the front-line desk with the unemployed. It was 1986 and I’ll never forget those lines of men coming up to the desk to inquire about their suitability for work. There were no jobs. They could try for something in a bar or a hairdresser’s, but fifty-year-old men weren’t going to get those jobs and I was instructed not to send them for interviews. Norman Tebbit, one of Mrs. Thatcher’s proudest and crudest lieutenants, told them to “get on your bike and get a job.” And here they were, skilled tradesmen with thirty-five years’ experience, asking if I could put them forward for a job they weren’t going to get collecting glasses in a bar. Mrs. Thatcher came up with various schemes, such as Restart, where the unemployed would be called in and interrogated about what they were “actively” doing to seek work. And I was told to talk to each of the men about the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, by which the government would give them a grant to start up their own business. The notion that some people are simply not entrepreneurial was lost.
Maggie was basically saying: “Stop being who you have been. Stop being who your parents were.” And she did it to the accompaniment of national bands and flag-waving. She mocked the values of families that weren’t like hers. After she became prime minister, she opposed gay rights at every turn, promoting the infamous Section 28 passed by her government in 1988, which banned state schools from depicting homosexuality as an accepted relationship. Most of all, she patronized the people who were unable to share her vision. She made an enemy of them and that is why they hated her, not because they were extreme people—most of them were not—but because they recognized an abuse of power when they saw it.
The word “divisive” has been much used in the coverage of Maggie’s death. But you had to be there, as they say, to really know the ill effects of the divisions she installed in those communities. The Britain that Orwell describes in his essays is a place of fairness, a place of differences gently tolerated, for the most part, and a country where one could be fair even about Stalin or about toads. And that is the place that ended with the advent of Mrs. Thatcher’s stridency.
“Can’t pay. Won’t pay.” That was another slogan born around the same time in response to the Poll Tax introduced by Mrs. Thatcher. The idea was to levy the same local rates regardless of income, a boost to rich people on large incomes in the south but a misery for those struggling in the north, which was already blighted by industry closures. It was the final nail. Even her biggest supporters recognized that, with the Poll Tax, Mrs. Thatcher was contravening a basic tenet of fairness that had always, at some level, seemed crucial in Britain. (Even if it wasn’t: it seemed so.) It wasn’t fair what she was doing and the fact that she tried out the Poll Tax in Scotland before bringing it to England felt like a beastly act. It was probably the single biggest contributing factor to the resurgence of the Scottish National Party and the later establishment of a devolved Scottish parliament. She hated the idea of such a parliament but it can be counted as one of her unwitting creations.
Callousness came to stay. “Did she have a heart?” wrote Matthew Parris in The Spectator’s current tributes to their favorite leader. “In two years of working with her, I never reached a conclusion, yet my personal admiration for her only grew.” Historians fell for her, too: “I loved doing things for her,” wrote Hugh Thomas, while Andrew Roberts began to cry the day she resigned and turned up at her door with flowers. We learned that successive British politicians were cowed by her popularity. They tried to do what she did—foreign wars, small mercies—and even now they feel destiny is kind to leaders with “strong moral vision” beneath their faults. Listening to Ed Miliband or Tony Blair or the Labour Party deputy leader Harriet Harman the week of her funeral, one is left in no doubt that we are living through a long Conservative era, for not one of them, even on principle, could take real issue with what she did that was wrong for Britain. Not one came out to attack the harshness of her philosophy or recognize the grief it brought about for so many. None noticed how she divided the country and brutalized the north. It was as if none of them really has a morality: they only have politics.
The Economist, still admiring her linkage of low taxes and the end of the cold war, sees that she was too often driven by something punitive. “Hatred, it is true, sometimes blinded her,” said the magazine in a recent editorial.
Infuriated by the antics of left-wing local councils, she ended up centralizing power in Whitehall…. Her stridency, from her early days as “Thatcher the milk snatcher” to her defenestration by her own party, was divisive. Under her the Conservatives shrank from a national force to being a party of the rich south.
She couldn’t hold the nation together, indeed she drove it apart, and that is because she didn’t really believe in the nation except as a sentimental or martial entity. That’s the strangest legacy of all about Maggie: if you listen to those who loved her and thought she was manifestly right, you find, after a while, that you are with people who don’t know their own country and don’t like it either. They think they like it because they don’t like Europe, but in fact, they abjure both. They like their own lives, of course, and their own kind, but they imagine the rest of Britain is mainly an unspeakable place of aliens and scroungers. This feeling borrows heavily from Thatcher and her notion that there is no such thing as society. We heard it recently from George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, when he spoke about people who are dependent on housing benefits, and you can find the same stuff every day in those apocalyptic screeds against the poor that adorn the Daily Mail.
She wasn’t fair and she didn’t know the meaning of the word. If she had, she would have helped, not opposed, Nelson Mandela in his fight against apartheid. She wouldn’t have personally ordered the sinking of the Argentinian warship General Belgrano even though it was outside the defined exclusion zone. (Three hundred and twenty-three men died that night.) She wasn’t fair and she wasn’t just, either, otherwise she would have seen—as many of her ministers did—that the Poll Tax would only make life harder for people who were already struggling.
None of her acolytes will grasp the irony of her political life: that, with Thatcherism, she set out to save the soul of the nation and ended up selling it off to the cheapest bidder. By the end of her reign people loathed her ideology and loathed her style; even the Conservative Party—by whom she was hung, drawn, and quartered in no time—came to see that her famous obstinacy was really a form of madness that would only lead to defeat.
Spite came to live in Britain during her time and we became partisan to the point of psychosis. Those who questioned the rise of get-rich-quick-ness as a responsible way to live and a decent way to support the population were treated as Communists. Speaking personally, I never particularly liked the manners and corruptions of a certain bullying group of trade unionists. But still, looked at with open eyes, one might argue that the excesses of those union men were a little smaller-scale, a little local, when compared with a good many of today’s bankers and oligarchs. To Thatcher’s metaphorical children there is no argument there: a free-market criminal is always preferable to a left-leaning one, even though, as we have discovered, both can be state-sponsored.
Mrs. Thatcher gave the modern world a new kind of distrust for liberal values whenever they came up against market demands. She thought people who didn’t agree with her revelations were “the enemy within.” People who didn’t agree with Mrs. Thatcher were just not “one of us,” they deserved no empathy, had to be beaten, and Britain for a while found her drama of certainty addictive. It was Maggie’s good luck to come along at a time when her brand of intimidation could appear like a refreshing change. Her ferocious talent entered the community like a wrecking ball and her lack of subtlety perfectly matched the spirit of the age.
One of her allies told me that she spent much of the last period of her life feeling she had failed. She saw a country half-changed—run now by a legion of whimpering men without the potency either to extend or reject her ideas—and she regretted that she had not done better on two fronts: by being more present as a mother and by being stronger when it came to opposing the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. But even that was long ago. By the time of her death, sitting in a chair upstairs at the Ritz, she was lost to nearly everything but silence. Her political servants on all sides will sing her praises, but she didn’t sing theirs, and nobody else will, either. Margaret Thatcher’s greatest legacy will be to have made Britain a place more out of love with the idea of tolerance. There was, appropriately enough, a gun carriage and a military procession in London on the day of her funeral, while 378 miles away, in the former mining town of New Cumnock, the third-generation unemployed put their dole money together to throw a street party.
‘Maggie’ June 20, 2013