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09/04/2013

A Few Thoughts on Thatcher

Laid up in bed with a throat and ear infection, I caught the breaking news yesterday of the passing of Margaret Thatcher. I caught it so early that I was admittedly tempted to tweet it before all the usual high-profile British political tweeters did - for some reason I didn't though.

Growing up in 1980s and early 1990s Sheffield, and still very much a patriot when it comes to my home city despite the time spent away, I cannot help but have mixed feelings about this political figure, her government, and the party from which she hailed from.

I respect her as a British citizen who rose up from relatively lower class roots and took the top job, and not just that, the fact she was a woman - who even now face many more barriers in reaching the highest echelons of society. I respect her story as someone who believes in meritocracy.

I respect her as a politician of brave ideas. Coming from dissenting Protestant roots, with a Methodist background, I have listened with interest and a degree of admiration to some of her interviews where she outlines her philosophy with a simplicity, conviction and forthrightness. Paddy Ashdown spoke on the radio yesterday that had the left-wing of British politics developed and demonstrated the same intellectual rigor, things may have been very different now. It seems in the current age we have lost the basic clash of ideas in politics, superseded by a more sophisticated, more vacuous clash of political machinery and marketing.

I also respect her simply as a human being. I read around the newspapers this morning, still being laid up in recovery mode, and read a typically sympathetic article from the Daily Mail about her long decline. For all the talk of her being the 'Iron Lady' world figure and the ideological daughter of Adam Smith, she was ultimately subject to the same everyday issues we all face should we be fortunate enough to live to a long age. In her final struggle with dementia, she reminds me of my recently passed Grandad Joe.

So in this sense I will not be dancing around city streets with champagne as some apparent advocates of left-wing, working class politics are doing. I do not regard her as a witch. Just as I do not regard the dancers as noble knights of the left.

Having said this, I do share similar sentiments expressed by David Blunkett MP and other Sheffielders in The Star, the city's local newspaper. 

My own early memories of Sheffield in the 1980s and early 1990s was of a greying, decaying city. It was a feeling, even as a very young child, of living somewhere that felt recklessly, and ruthlessly, abandoned by a government 'out there, somewhere far away'. It was also one of polarisation, a sense that some ordinary people had and others didn't - and that you should somehow feel guilty and ashamed for not having.

There are two distinct, defining memories I have that sum this up. 

The first is of travelling on one of the old red and cream SYT buses one day from the city centre with my mother. A fellow passenger, who I seem to remember wearing scruffy full denim and a moustache that was fashionable at the time, had turned around from his seat and was talking with my mother about his lack of work etc. He then got off at a stop which was around half way on the journey to ours, at the Kelvin Flats. He finished the conversation dejectedly with, "and now I've to go back home to here." My mother nodded sympathetically and even as a small child I also felt great sympathy for him because I knew 'The Kelvin' was a terrible place to live having heard  various horror stories of crime and suicide, much of which I have since found out had truth in them. The Kelvin Flats, just like the more famous Park Hill Flats which are now being regenerated as accommodation for young professionals, were a symbol of Sheffield's decline and were eventually demolished around 1992 - 1993. Built in the aftermath of World War Two, these were imagined to herald a brave new world of working-class living yet under Thatcher, her government and her party they became a symbol of Sheffield's decline as its industrial heart was destroyed with nothing brought in as a replacement.


The second memory is living in a generally working-class suburb on the edge of the city next door to a businessman and passionate Tory who we nicknamed 'Flash Gordon'. My father at the time was unemployed and we lived under their constant scorn. Interestingly enough, on reflection, ours was a happy household at that time - despite the hard times we were experiencing - whereas Flash Gordon's household was one of constant shouting and screaming. But our neighbour wasn't the only example, the so-called 'aspirational working class' who apparently benefited under Thatcher were dotted around the area and tended to lord it over the rest of us who in Norman Tebbit's slightly misquoted words, needed to 'get on our bikes and look for work'.

My father may now deny this but I do remember him referring to Margaret Thatcher as 'The Bitch'  whereas interestingly my maternal grandfather, Grandad Roy, was said to have voted for her. I suppose this is the great paradox of Margaret Thatcher. She was a provincial, working-class, state educated (albeit via a grammar school) woman who smashed through the ceilings above her and passionately believed in helping other people of similar background do the same - she spoke eloquently of individuals having the freedom, and the responsibility, to shape their own lives. There is much appeal in this and I can see why many working-class people voted for her, particularly those who had found the industrial action and subsequent socio-economic turbulence of the seventies to be debilitating rather than liberating.

Yet many of her policies - particularly in northern England, Scotland and Wales - clearly did the opposite because ultimately it was the industry and public services, which she systematically decimated, that empowered these communities in the first place - that provided the individuals within them with the material means and security to have a greater measure of freedom and responsibility over their futures.

And the heirs to her legacy today, both the Conservative Party and sadly the Labour Party, are generally a set of London-based, upper and middle class, privately educated men who espouse the same views but from a very different place. The class structure of British society may well have become more diverse and fluid, as recent research seems to show, but the ceiling preventing ordinary people taking power has seemingly been repaired and strengthened. There remains in place a 'domination system', as Progressive Christian theologian Marcus Borg would say.

We certainly don't need a reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher, as some commentators in our largely right-wing press are suggesting, but we do need a new generation of politicians with similar stories and similar characteristics.

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