Monday 15 April 2013

My father and Mrs T

In the fractious debating society that was my childhood, my father would sometimes grow eloquent on the evils of socialism. By his own account, he had fallen for left wing ideals in his youth, but had come to see the error of his ways. Education paid for by the state, healthcare free at the point of delivery with government-issue orange juice thrown in, a generous family allowance to be collected every week from the post office – we benefited from all these provisions, and I never heard him utter a word against them. But socialism he was definitely against.  

This might sound like a paradox but it made more sense back then. For one thing, there was a lot more socialism around. When my father complained about socialism he wasn’t thinking about health and education. He wasn’t thinking about pensions either, or the Gas Board or British Rail.
He'd grown up in harder times. He pursued education as long as scholarships would allow, but at 16 he was apprenticed to his father’s trade and became a carpenter and joiner. During the postwar housing boom, he worked as a foreman for a house-building firm. After a couple of years, he asked for a pay rise. When the boss refused, they got into an argument and he was fired on the spot. Living in a company house and with a wife and seven children to support, he decided to go into a partnership with a friend who had £1,000 to invest, and embarked on a precarious business as a speculative builder.  We might have been children of the welfare state, but he was a self-made man.

What he was really talking about when he talked about socialism was stroppy workers holding the country to ransom, and people thinking the world owed them a living, and union leaders with the power to bring down governments lording it over the rest of us with their beer and sandwiches at number 10. When Margaret Thatcher was elected Conservative leader in 1975, he and my mother finally joined the party they’d been voting for all those years, and from then on their faith never wavered.

I heard about Thatcher’s death from a homeless man sitting outside Holborn tube station. He held a scrappy cardboard sign that said: RIP Thatcher. Dingdong the witch is dead. I had no idea this old song was about to go viral. The homeless man looked about 28, too young to remember Thatcher in office, a generation too young to have rioted against the poll tax, bought his own council house, lost his job in a Yorkshire coal pit or bought shares in a newly privatised utility company. I was surprised he cared one way or the other.  

Next day I learnt from the front page of the Daily Mail that he was part of a movement: “30 years of left wing loathing for Lady T explode in sick celebrations of her death”. Violence had, apparently, “erupted at ‘death parties’ across the country”. More young people with eerily long memories. Even so, it struck me as an odd choice for a conservative paper to relegate to the inner pages all its pictures of their heroine with her children, and with the Queen, and with victorious troops in the Falklands, so that it could lead with THE FLAMES OF HATRED. But I suppose the Mail knows how to keep its readers happy.

American TV took a more upbeat view. From a quick sampling of CNN and MSNBC I gathered that Thatcher’s greatest achievement was working with Reagan to bring the Soviet Union to its knees, though no one asked how the two leaders had brought this about, and that without Thatcher Britain would have turned into Greece, though no one explained why it might not just as easily have become Sweden. Mysteriously, Thatcher was also credited with being Britain’s first working class prime minister. I wondered what her father, Alderman Roberts, whom she revered for his business acumen, would have made of that.

For a more nuanced view, I turned to the Guardian. They had Philip Hensher on hand to imagine an alternative history in which Thatcher lost the Tory leadership election, leading to a present in which “Perhaps we would be waiting six months for a mobile telephone, and paying the bills to the post office… I don’t believe it would be a very advanced telephone, either.” Scary stuff. On another page, Ian McEwan was explaining that “There was always an element of the erotic in the national obsession with her… She exerted a glacial hold over the (male) nation’s masochistic imagination”. This put my father’s enthusiasm in a whole new light, though it didn’t explain why, to the day she died, my mother kept a commemoration Thatcher plate on display among her very best china.

Personally, I won’t be worshipping at the Lady’s shrine, but I won’t be dancing on her grave either. I’ll admit it’s hard to forget the particular air of vindictiveness that she brought to the task of redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich, a job her successors have attended to with greater tact and more polished smiles. But although she seemed to make it all happen by sheer willpower and self-belief, there have clearly been larger forces at work in our increasing subjugation to unregulated markets. 

Thinking about those debates of my childhood, I recognise now that what allowed me to fulfil my parents’ aspirations for me was neither pure socialism nor untrammelled capitalism, but a mixed economy, with scope for individual enterprise, support for those who needed it such as mothers with children, and the opportunity for anyone from any background to achieve their potential. The educational doorway I stepped through, which was opened by Atlee’s Labour government in 1946, has been squeezed shut in successive stages by New Labour and the ruling coalition. You can’t pin that one on Thatcher. And she didn’t bring down the Soviet Union either, and she didn’t invent global capitalism, and she wasn’t actually a witch.