Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Margaret and Me

I'm in London on Wednesday. Not for Thatcher's funeral, but for reasons more mundane. That said I cannot let the jamboree pass without saying something, especially as I first became interested in politics under her reign. But not as a critic or an activist that stood with the labour movement. Quite the opposite, actually.

When I was 10, my junior school ran a parallel contest to the 1987 general election. Obviously, before then I was aware of such a thing as politics - of the blonde lady in Downing Street, of something called the 'Labour Party'. I have hazy memories of the Falklands War, the Miners' Strike and Spitting Image (I can remember this send up of McDonald's then advertising jingle). But I didn't really understand what it was all about until I asked my Nana about who I should vote for.

Nana was of the sort that many on the left find incomprehensible. A life-long working class Tory.

She admired Thatcher and fully subscribed to the view that her policies would ultimately benefit everyone, despite the short term pain. Labour on the other hand wanted to get in everyone's way, and had "made a mess" last time they were in government. Thatcher was a woman of action who had sorted out the unions and empowered council tenants by giving them the right to buy their own homes. In short, my Nana was an archetypal working class Tory supporter. They aspired to better things for themselves and their families and it was Thatcher who was clearing the way for them. The state, the unions, Labour: they were the real conservatives holding Britain and British people back. And at election time, she was one of the few in our former pit village who proudly displayed Tory literature in her bungalow's windows.

The conservatism she weaned me on was firmly in the bootstraps mould. I've never been one to doff the cap, and neither was Nana. She believed in taking the world as it was, rolling up your sleeves, and making your own way. It was your oyster if you worked hard enough. But also her conservatism had little time for bigotry. As far as she was concerned what you did was always more important than your background. She firmly believed education was the passport to a better life that was denied her, my granddad, mum and uncle and was properly chuffed when I became the first family member to go to college AND university.

Until shortly after the 1992 general election, I was a true blue believer. Thatcher bestrode the political stage as a colossus, and she exemplified everything my young mind valued: hard work, conviction, patriotism. To my mind, poor old John Major paled (or rather greyed) in comparison.

My politics are a million miles away from that now, but you can never completely eradicate your political DNA. Tiny fragments of it still kick around my head. The remnants of bootstraps conservatism helps explain why I'm very sceptical towards those who more or less see socialism as a service performed by them to liberate the lower orders. I am a big fan of mutualism, less so of 'nationalise this' panaceas. I don't believe in chopping up welfare, but it shouldn't work to disempower people who are forced to subsist on it. And I've always favoured the organising model for trade unions, though, of course, services have their place. In other words, my socialism is about approaching people as people in all their complexity - not drones who'll never know what's good for them, and therefore should be written off if they do not behave the "correct" way.

Sure, I came to hate Thatcher for the damage she wreaked on the people my younger self thought she stood up for. And I equally detest this foul, elitist, incompetent abomination of a government bent on deepening her legacy. She is expired, but her politics are not. Yet I cannot deny my history. Thatcher was the nearest thing I ever had to a political idol and even though I was incredibly young, an indelible mark remains imprinted on my basic politics. So no, I did not and will not mourn her passing. But I can't say I feel pleased that she's dead either.


Phil said...

You were a Tory at fifteen?

I am a big fan of mutualism, less so of 'nationalise this' panaceas. I don't believe in chopping up welfare, but it shouldn't work to disempower people who are forced to subsist on it.

Most socialists could say as much, without any debt to the Right (different people would cite Orwell, anarchism, working class culture, common sense).

I can't say I feel pleased that she's dead

It's a sense of relief for me. I'm glad to be seeing a day that she's not seeing; glad that I'm in the world on a day that she's not. Glad her life - or rather, the part of my life that she could affect - is finally over. It's not an uncomplicated emotion - feeling glad at somebody's death is a nasty, taboo thing, and it brings a sense of guilt and shame with it (for me at least). But I am glad.

Chris said...

I imagine some Hitler Youth members have similar feelings Phil.

This is why the ding dong the witch is dead analogy is so spot on in relation to Thatcher.

i learnt 2 things from Thatcher - that governments can directly cause crime and misery.

Now I live in Sheffield, in a former pit village and I have no hesitation in saying I am delighted the old bag/witch/bitch is dead and I hope she is being buggered by the Devil's horn as we speak.

That would make up for the breakdown the hideous hag caused my dad to have.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how much Thatcher was to blame for the crisis in British industry - according to Larry Elliot in the Guardian less than we may have come to expect. Certainly from a 7-year-old's perspective in 1974 it felt like the unions really were "holding the country to ransom" when the lights went out every night at 6.

I wonder if the very antagonism now directed at Thatcher illustrates why the Left failed - it had 30 years to work constructively with management, yet all it could do was put its own people out of work. Well done for that.

It is precisely because "working class Tories" grew under Thatcher that the Left gave up on class altogether and decided its mission was instead to save the world (NL's immigration "policy") and bugger the working class "that bigoted woman" in much the same way Hitler raved from his bunker that the German people deserved to be destroyed for not living up to his expectations.

Speedy said...

Phil, I just tried to post but wanted to use my pen name (Speedy) so if it comes up with my real name can you not publish it? I think i mentioned Hitler somewhere in there, so it should not be too hard to spot! I clicked on "name/URL" and expected it to come up, but it just sent it off, so I think it may have used my google address as i am signed in to gmail for work. Thanks!

Phil said...

I was a Tory at 15, Phil. I can recall my school folders at the time had doodles of John Major's soap box and glasses. Yes, I was very sad. But shortly after I underwent a total conversion. I can't remember what triggered it, but by the time I left school a year later I saw myself as some sort of socialist. It's a funny old world.

Phil said...

Your anonymity lives to fight another day, Speedy.

The dynamics of the 1970s were complex. THe strikes were possible because we had a powerful labour movement back then. But they didn't happen because we had a powerful labour movement. There's a great post over at Socialist Unity that puts the strikes of the 70s into their economic context, and argues they were a response to global inflation caused by Nixon's policies and the oil shock.

From what I can gather, the resentment that existed among sections of the labour movement to regular strikes was partly the desire for a quiet life, and partly a perceived lack of accountability on the part of trade union leaders.

Very quickly on class, I do think the far left have withdrawn into an 'identitist' conception of the working class, identifying it with either the most obviously oppressed or a sub-70s picture of a horny-handed son of toil. In reality, class is a relationship and not a fixed identity. It moves and changes constantly, which helps explain why far left dogmatists have such a hard time relating to it.

Phil said...

Lights going out every evening? I only remember a handful of TV-less candle-lit evenings in 1974 - to be honest I only remember one, and I thought that one was a lot of fun (board games!). I was 13, so unless I traumatically suppressed the true horror of the memory I don't think it can have been all that bad.

But the big stoppages were certainly something that couldn't go on - or rather, they were a sign that the way things were couldn't go on, and that some big and organised parts of the working class weren't going to let it. And so it came to pass - the way things were didn't go on; they pushed it till it broke. That doesn't mean they were wrong.