City Journal Spring 2014

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Claire Berlinski
Her Iron Road « Back to Story

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To Agent Orange:

Our paths may have crossed - I, too, went to a Job Centre in 1983, and got a job within a week, working nights. So it happened I attended college at that time, and had to support myself. I never was on the dole, even though I had to ration my food daily. In fact, it was good for me and my waistline.

"unemployment-fuelled riots in London (Brixton), Liverpool, Leeds" -

Oh, yes, the poor jobless people ... Funny I remember them as scum, the same sort of scum that would riot nowadays. Did "race" have nothing to do with the mayhem, perchance? As in, "race riots"? Yours is a funny take on recent history, indeed.

As for the unions, I remember them well. Especially for their "closed shop", which made me go from one company to the next with my CV in hand. Ah, but you are not a member ...

So much for your fluent poppycock. Vivid hate, all right, masquerading as personal memories of a little man.
@robert straschewski Familiarity with British popular culture may have cushioned your shock. Two of the most popular and critically-acclaimed British TV serials ever are: The Boys from the Blackstuff by Alan Bleasdale, about unemployed men in Liverpool in the 1980s, and their struggle to cope with being unable to find work; and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, which is about unemployed men in the Newcastle area in the 1980s who go to Germany to find work on building sites. The film The Full Monty was a national and international hit. Set in Sheffield in the 1980s, it tells the story of a group of unemployed men who try to make some money by becoming strippers. Pop acts such as The Smiths, The Gang of Four, The Specials and Billy Bragg came to prominence in the 1980s as an indirect consequence of Thatcher-fuelled unemployment, and their anti-Thatcher politics were typical of the growing indie scene. The (once) hugely-popular comedian Ben Elton became famous in the late 1980s not least for his anti-Thatcher routines, and in the burgeoning "alternative comedy" he epitomised, a strong anti-Thatcher stance was de rigueur. You may have heard of Richard Curtis, creator of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, etc. A one-time collaborator of Elton's he is strongly anti-Thatcher. I could go on. Suffice it to say that nearly all the British TV and film luvvies and other artistic types that Americans might be acquainted with will be vehemently anti-Thatcher.

There were unemployment-fuelled riots in London (Brixton), Liverpool, Leeds and numerous other major cities in 1981, two years after Thatcher's accession to power. In February 1982, according to the polling organisation Mori, her personal popularity had dipped below 30%, and her government's was lower still. A leadership coup was on the cards. General Galtieri saved her political career by invading the Falklands, and she was re-elected on the back of successful war, in which the Royal Navy depended on enormous help from the US, and which has cost the UK an incalculable amount of money in the thirty years since. Had the Argentines waited a year, the islands would have been theirs, and Thatcher would have been kicked out of office.

Thatcher was never wildly popular. Her share of the popular vote in the three general elections she won was 43.9% (1979), 43.4% (1983) and 42.2% (1987).

It's often said that Thatcher gave people the opportunity to better themselves by allowing them to buy their council house (in the name of a "home-owning democracy") and by allowing them to buy shares in the nationalised industries that she privatised. That she freed the economy by smashing the power of the trades unions. But of course, most poor people work for a living, as employees, and the unions, developed over a number of decades, were their best safeguard against poor conditions and low-pay. So when the unions were "smashed", wages inevitably fell, and conditions worsened. One-off dividends from privatisation could cushion and disguise that only for so long. The long-range consequences of all this appear to be: casualised, part-time work for a very large percentage of the work-force; no job opportunities whatsoever for anyone under 18; lower than living-wage wages; young workers being unable to afford to buy a house; consumers at the mercy of an oligopoly of over-charging fuel companies; a Byzantine and hideously expensive railway system; and more. The rich are much better off, of course, not just absolutely but relatively. According to Prof Danny Dorling of Sheffield University, whereas in 1979 (when Thatcher came to power) the richest 1% took 6% of the national income, now they take 15%. What a great legacy. (Though I suspect that most CJ readers find themselves identifying more with the super-rich than with the working poor. Much good may it do them!)

Thatcher, in the view of many who lived through her reign, devastated manufacturing industry, devastated the north and devastated the lives of many young people looking for their first job, as well as the lives of many who were terminally thrown out of work decades before they reached retirement age. She violently suppressed the opposition of the country's strongest and most totemic trade union, the National Union of Miners. She had an unmistakable disdain for the working class, and through her personal "semi-house-trained pole-cat", Norman Tebbit, proclaimed that unemployment was the fault of the unemployed, and that if they would only make a bit of an effort ("get on their bikes") they would certainly be able to find work. Insult to injury. Do you wonder that she is hated by so many millions?

Oh, and she was a personal friend and supporter of General Pinochet.

If I can add a personal note, I vividly remember being an unemployed teenager in the early years of Thatcher's first government. Walking round the local factories, asking if they had vacancies, and being told no. Applying for jobs through the Jobcentre, and getting nowhere. Living on "income support" of 17 a week, or whatever it was then. Scraping together a few quid to buy a book called "How to Survive Unemployment", which advised you, among other things, to re-use your teabags at least twice. Getting depressed, very depressed, and seeing Norman Tebbit on the telly assuring us all that if we couldn't get a job, it was our own fault.

Maggie Thatcher. A lot of people can't find a good word for her. But I can...



alpha, sympathetic female April 09, 2013 at 2:24 PM
Thatcher's DNA, upbringing and soul were destined to corral history, politics, economics, psychology, rationale, and intuition into a more uplifted people and system. She was one fine, refined and feisty lady who saw certain truths as self-evident and not subject to editing, polls, and expediency.

The UK has taken a step backward since she held elected office. In death, though, she may loom large in the electorate's consciousness and dominate its superego. Something about her is unflaggingly numinous and correct.

robert straschewski April 09, 2013 at 6:12 AM
wrd - I too am shocked (but not surprised) at the thrashing she is taking in the press. Described as a union buster, I've seen no mention how Arthur Scargill, a self-described marxist, was holding the country hostage. I was young and quite left during the beginning of the Reagan/Thatcher era, but moved to the right as I watched the two of them use logic and reason to counter empty rhetoric and personal insults.
I've been very disturbed by the vitriol on the left on her death. Conservatives would never be so vicious about someone's death. One can only hope that their disgusting display will turn others off from the left. If not, I fear that countries that are in the grip of socialism will end up in extreme violence when the money runs out.
stuart williamson April 08, 2013 at 10:04 PM
Our Republic's only hope is for the emergence of a woman - or man - of such strength and determination to halt the scourge of socialism.
No EP but Claire Berlinski's excellent book on Thatcher does. I thoroughly recommend it as an ex-politician on the liberal conservative side in Australia.
Neither article on Thatcher mentions that it was she who tipped off Reagan that Mikhail Gorbachev was "someone we can do business with". It was she who perceived that Gorbachev was not an autocrat, not cut from the same cloth as Brezhnev and his Soviet predecessors. Thatcher's perception set the ball rolling toward perestroika. Truly a great lady and a great leader.