I was going to write my weekly blog this week about the crisis in North Korea and what steps we could take in the West to actually stop some kind of nuclear madness in the Far East. However, when the news broke at lunchtime about the death of Baroness Thatcher it seems churlish not to add to the masses of views being expressed, but try and do so from a slightly different angle.
Let me start by stating the obvious, so as not to give the wrong impression. It is a sad occasion when any human being dies, whatever you think of them personally or in their political, professional or personal life. In this occasion two children have lost a mother. That does not, however, mean that we have to pretend that we liked everything about someone or agreed with everything that they did in political and public life. I also make a declaration that I was only born in 1986, and therefore have no recollection of anything Mrs Thatcher did while in office. I grew up in a household where she was referred to in glowing terms as the saviour of the nation by some, and simply as ‘milk-snatcher’ by others.
There are those who adore Thatcher, and will be affected by her passing in a real way. Those who got rich on the back of the deregulation of the banks in the 1980s and those who paid for the shares in many of the privatised companies she created from the old nationalised telecoms, water and gas companies, among others. There will be those who love her because she defeated socialism in Britain, changed the Labour Party into an essentially right-of-centre party and smashed the Trade Union movement beyond all recognition.
Then there those who will be far from mourning the passing today. These will be the people who may well take to the Internet behind their pretend identities and say some pretty nasty things and most other people will call them names. Some of these people will have (what they think are at least) valid reasons for their comments. Whether they were miners, public servants, trade unionists or believers in nationalised utilities. The sentiments will be shared by many, especially in the northern cities and the rural areas that formally relied on mining.
It’s hard to explain to someone who was either totally in love or totally hated Thatcher that she did some good things and some bad things. She will most likely be remembered for two key events which are seen very differently depending on how you see them. The first event is the Falklands War, with supporters believing it was Britain defending the Empire and coming to aid of those poor Islanders who had been overrun by the Argentines. Those against point to the chronic waste of money and human life involved in retaking an ultimately pointless piece of land 8000 miles away, most of all the sinking of the Belgrano as it sailed away from the UK fleet.
Secondly there is a miners’ strike. It was either the crushing of the over-powerful unions and the enforcement of the law in the place of an illegal strike or the once and for all blow against the working class, to exert the authority of the state over the working man. It was all about showing them who was in charge. It is hard to find anyone who would hold an opinion which falls somewhere between this two positions.
What is not in doubt, however, is that she continues to cast a shadow over both the country and the political system. Liberal economics and the rampant deregulation of the UK economy laid the foundations for the economic crash which occurred in 2008, with the consequences we live in now. She also instilled a small state ideology in the Tory party which is partly leading to the wild slashing of the state we see today. Most importantly for the political system, her election views in 1983 and 1987 changed the Labour Party into one which is now almost indistinguishable from the people in her own party who Thatcher called ‘wets’. Ed Miliband is even trying to rebrand his party as ‘One Nation’.
But now that she is dead, why have we gone so loopy for the afternoon? Complete suspension of usual TV and radio programmes. No other news stories for the entire afternoon. These may be expected given the stature of the woman and the fact that there isn’t anything else massively dominating the news agenda today. But is it really necessary for David Cameron to return back from his European tour? What exactly is he going to do when he arrives back in the UK?
Then there is the Labour Party, who haven’t helped their critics who say they have become too much like the Tories in recent years. No one would expect them to say anything other than that they are sad; it should be possible that they don’t say anything at all. The fact that they have also decided not to continue to campaign for the local elections in May will do nothing to appeal to the people who they seek to represent, especially as much of this campaigning would have been in the communities that still bare many of the scars of the Thatcher years.
I’ll end with the words of Tony Benn, one of Thatcher’s fiercest critics during the 1980s and unafraid to speak his mind on all occasions. Refusing to jump on the bandwagon of the love-in this afternoon, Benn said that he “couldn’t think of one thing she did which he agreed with.” He did mention, in as close to a tribute as he would ever be likely to get, that “she did what she said she would do given the chance, always said what she meant and meant what she said” and perhaps that is the best way that she could be remembered. She might not be the last conviction politicians, but most of those who have followed appear to be following her own convictions.