I almost cried when I heard Margaret Thatcher had died, but I held back the tears, opened a bottle of beer, and listened to sad music instead.
I used to say I grew up in Thatcher’s Britain, but it wasn’t Thatcher’s Britain and I didn’t grow up. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister from before I left school at 17 until after I left England at 26. The government was Thatcher like the chips were soggy, the beer was warm and the weather was rain.
I guess it’s difficult for Australians to understand the loathing many English people continued to feel for her long after she left Parliament. In truth, it became a cliche, and you hated Margaret Thatcher like you loved football – that is, you said you did, even if you didn’t. You knew you were on safe ground.
Margaret Thatcher changed the ideas English people held about what a government was for. In 1945, the men and women who’d fought and won World War II overwhelmingly voted out their wartime leader, Winston Churchill, and elected Labour’s Clement Attlee on promises of full employment, a National Health Service and a welfare state. It was something short of socialism: government as a kindly grandfather, dispensing pocket money and pats on the head, ensuring fairness among fighting children, watching out to ensure no one got hurt.
Margaret Thatcher did not believe this was the role of the executive. She thought people’s first responsibility was to look after themselves and their families, and that welfare infantilised adults and made them unwilling or unable to stand on their own two feet.
She was elected to curb unemployment, but in fact she grew it, from 1 million to 3 million. Many industries in the north and Midlands were left – or even encouraged, in the case of coalmining – to disappear. In the face of the social calamity that followed, the Tory response seemed to be that the jobless should move south.
But I was on the dole and found myself, like many others, feeling stranded on the wrong side of Watford Gap. Rents were much higher in the London area, and benefits didn’t cover the extra cost, so it was extraordinarily hard for people – particularly people with families – to relocate to look for work, unless they could get a rent-subsidised council house. Then the government began to sell the council estates.
The hapless, inert unemployed were branded as ”scroungers” by the Conservative-supporting tabloids, as if Britain had suddenly suffered a massive, inexplicable bout of grasping indolence, rather than a major industrial restructuring. When you’ve never worked, you begin to believe you could never work, and that’s only a short step from concluding you probably can’t do anything at all. When there are no jobs anyway, that starts to feel like it’s not much of a handicap and, eventually, your ambitions can disappear under a cloud of defensive cynicism and defiant resignation.
I’d never worked at a permanent job until I came to Australia and, looking back, I was still a child. It’s unemployment that stunts your growth more than accepting benefits, and that’s why I say I didn’t grow up.
I’d left England by the time the poll tax made difficult lives impossible. Before the poll tax, domestic rates were calculated according to the value of the property a person owned, and renters didn’t pay rates at all. The so-called community charge replaced rates with a tax on every adult, forcing the poor and unemployed to subsidise the homes of the rich. Famously, the Duke of Westminster, who used to pay £10,255 in rates on his estate, received a poll tax bill for £417 – the same amount paid by his housekeeper and resident chauffeur.
Millions of people, including my brother, refused to pay the poll tax, and some went to jail for it. The demonstrations that became riots against the charge are often credited with bringing about an end to Thatcher’s Britain. But the country was never Thatcher’s Britain. She was Britain’s Thatcher.
She brought in government by nasty aunty, the cheeseparing matron who ruled the parlour with a clip around the ear, who preached hygiene, obedience and abstemiousness, and only gave out horrible lemony lollies. But her party was elected three times during her 11-year rule and, as much as she moulded social attitudes, she was also moulded by them. A large section of the British people – some of whom, I’ll bet, are now crowing over her death – wanted her.
It was those voters who betrayed the heroes of 1945, and dismantled their dream, and it was people like me who couldn’t show them a better way. So I drank a cold beer when I heard Margaret Thatcher had died and, like thousands of other paunchy old punks, listened to Elvis Costello sing ”I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down”. But I almost cried – I really did – because it was my Britain too, when I was younger. And now it’s gone.
MARK DAPIN | THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD, 13 APRIL, 2013