I grew up in London during the 1980’s — a Thatcher child if you will. My memories of the first female Prime Minister are not fond ones. When I started going to school we used to get fresh milk during break time — a result of the government’s effort to help poor children get adequate nutrition. Then all of a sudden, the milk stopped. “Maggie Thatcher Milk Snatcher” we used to sing in radical defiance to the Tory leader’s cost saving measures. I also remember having several friends with learning difficulties have their assistant teaching hours cut dramatically. The result? They never learned how to read.
So no, I’m not a huge fan of Margaret Thatcher.
Watching the reaction to the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from America has been fascinating to say the least. The media has largely painted the ‘Iron Lady’ as a titan of British politics, a controversial but revered figure who left Britain in a much better place after her 11 year rule. Wrote David Frum in The Daily Beast:
She promoted talent regardless of background and opened the way to an entrepreneurial Britain where acumen mattered more than accent. Thatcher was a woman of fierce principle. Yet – and here contemporary conservatives can take another lesson from her – she lived by facts, not theories.
There is no doubt that Thatcher was a hugely influential figure, not only at home, but abroad. While she made sweeping changes to the British economy and political culture, she did much to project British power abroad. Her invasion of the Falkland Islands and aggressive support of the United States during the Cold War helped redefine Britain as a military super power and a country to be reckoned with. Thatcher reveled in her persona as a woman not to be messed with. “I am extraordinarily patient,” she once said. “Provided I get my own way in the end.”
But while Thatcher’s image, carefully maintained by adoring fans, is one of power, success, and principle, the truth about her legacy is far, far darker. While conservative commentators like Frum believe that Thatcher lived by facts and not theories, the reality is that she was a hardened ideologue who ignored facts and ruled by theory. A proponent of Milton Friedman Libertarianism, Thatcher set about ripping up the welfare state in Britain and implemented market reforms that had catastrophic consequences for the economy and the British people. And these are not theories – these are facts. As Polly Toynbee writes:
When she [Thatcher] walked into Downing Street promising harmony instead of discord, only one in seven children was poor and Britain was more equal than at any time in modern history. But within a few years, a third of children were poor, a sign of the yawning inequality from which the country never recovered.
It was not only children who suffered. Thatcher’s economic reforms plunged the UK economy into recession as soon as they were implemented, creating levels of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression:
This actually happened twice under Thatcher’s tenure, and as Time Magazinereports, “GDP never rose by more than a couple of percentage points annually, even during the 1980s boom years.” All the while, inequality spiralled as the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Just take a look at this graph charting the astronomical rise in inequality during the Thatcher years:
When the realities of Thatcher’s economic policies are seen in graph form, it is incredibly difficult to argue that ‘she left Britain in a much better place’. She did not, and every economic indicator conveys that.
When asked what she felt her greatest achievement in power was, Thatcher replied, “Tony Blair”. In other words, Thatcher shifted the political landscape so far to the right that the Labour Party was forced to elect a politician who essentially carried on the radical conservative agenda of mass deregulation and privatization.
As a child of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and a teenager of the Tony Blair years, I think my assessment of the cultural impact of this agenda carry some weight. My recollection of Britain in the eighties and nineties is pretty vivid, and I was well aware of the rapid cultural changes going on around me. Britain was, in not so many words, a bit of a crap place to live. The food was horrible, the service culture atrocious, and there wasn’t a whole lot to do in terms of entertainment. A fantastic weekend for me consisted of going to a slightly run down and unhygienic public leisure center to have swimming lessons, then eating a plate of soggy chips (fries) with ketchup afterwards. My cousins would then come over and we’d watch horrendously bad television on one of the four channels available.
The area I lived in was solidly middle class. There were a couple of streets with some quite rich people, and some surrounding government housing projects that weren’t so well off. I would go to school and visit friends in both ends of the reasonably narrow spectrum. Although I was middle class, I don’t recall feeling particularly different to any of my friends who lived in the housing projects. While everything was a bit run down and there wasn’t much to do, it was a fun time to grow up. We played outside, did sports, had friends from a variety of backgrounds and didn’t think too much about money.
Then it all changed.
The area got nicer as coffee shops and fancy wine bars opened. Housing prices skyrocketed and many of my friends moved to different cities where their families could live better for cheaper. My area got noticeably whiter and richer, and my group of friends started to split according to wealth – the poorer ones went to the crumbling local state schools while the wealthier ones moved to fancy private ones. Crime then began to sky rocket – we had our car stolen from outside our house, several neighbors had their doors kicked down in the middle of the night and their houses raided, and street muggings spiraled out of control (my brother was robbed in our street, along with virtually everyone else I knew). If you were a middle class kid in the late 80’s and 90’s in London, you lived in a constant state of fear of being mugged or picked on by kids from the housing projects. And who could blame them? As the rich started to build custom driveways to park their BMWs and buy their kids Nintendos, the poor saw their wages stagnate and their benefits being cut. Growing up poor in the 80’s and 90’s in London was not much fun, and it created a sense of social alienation that tore what was once quite a cohesive culture apart.
To me, at least, that is what Margaret Thatcher’s legacy represents. I was the beneficiary of the new economic model imposed upon Britain during the 80’s. The value of my family’s properties boomed, my dad rose to the top of an industry that benefited hugely from deregulation, I went to private schools and had private tutors, we had foreign holidays and all my college costs were paid for. My dad worked incredibly hard, but he’d be the first to admit he was also in the right place at the right time. My life has been great, but the memory of what Britain used to be still haunts me. Whenever I walk around my neighborhood in London, I see faces from an era that no longer exists – a community that has been broken by economic division and the imposition of a culture of greed. We recognize each other and nod knowingly, saying silently – ‘I remember you and how it used to be here. It’s not the same anymore’. I look through the windows of my new neighbors whose lifestyles and aspirations are alien to me and everyone who grew up there.
And that is why Margaret Thatcher remains such a reprehensible figure to so many people. As Thatcher famously stated, “There’s no such thing as society”. She not only took away our milk, she took away our communities.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.