When Margaret Thatcher died on Monday, her policies, leadership, and legacy evoked strong reactions. Thatcher has been hailed Britain’s finest postwar leader; the person who single-mindedly transformed Britain’s society; the leader who “did the necessary” to remake Britain’s ailing economy. She fought an Imperialist war and she won. Thatcher was the first woman to become Prime Minister of Britain and, considering the current pool of candidates, she might continue to be the only woman to achieve that position for the next decade. Educated at the elite Somerville College, Oxford in the late 1940s, Thatcher believed she could reverse the postwar consensus that laid the foundation of the welfare state and the idea that all Britons should have the right to a certain standard of living. She was a committed capitalist and believed that Britain had strayed from capitalism–or at least her form of capitalism. Thatcher claimed only those who worked hard and pulled themselves up by the bootstraps should expect a good standard of living, that it was a reward, not an entitlement.
It is really hard to be neutral about Margaret Thatcher. “People call me a reactionary,“ she once said. “Well,” Thatcher indignantly continued, “there’s a lot to react to!” Thatcher had a plan. There was certainly a lot of reaction to the Thatcherite policies and the battles she chose to undertake during the eleven years from 1979-1990. She set her sights high and took on the IRA, the Argentine government, the unions, the unemployed, the elderly, the sick. So if you will indulge me, I’d like to remember Margaret Thatcher.
When I remember Margaret Thatcher, I remember when Irish prisoners at the Maze prison went on hunger strike in an attempt to regain the status (and privileges) of political prisoners, and she allowed them to starve to death. For 66 days the world watched in horror as Bobby Sands and his followers starved themselves to death. Thatcher refused to call the Irish nationalists political prisoners and called them terrorists instead. In May, 1981, Sands died along with nine others. Their deaths and Thatcher’s inaction smacked of the British inaction towards the potato famine all over again and galvanized support for the Irish Republican Army.
When I remember Margaret Thatcher, I remember The Falklands conflict. The Falklands conflict lasted two weeks in 1982. When a desperate military leadership in Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands—islands no Briton knew about or could find on a map – Thatcher waged an Imperial war that cost over one thousand lives, many, like those on the General Belgrano, just seventeen years old. The Argentine Junta collapsed but for the British leader, the war was a godsend. Thatcher won another term as Prime Minister.
There are other memories too, especially when she waged war on her own people.
I remember when Thatcher was determined to crush the unions—particularly the Miners and Steel Workers unions, and present them as a scapegoat for all Britain’s economic woes, sacrificing their livelihoods and communities in the name of Monetarist economic policy. Together, the coal miners and the steel workers had driven Britain’s first, second and third industrial revolutions. Thatcher received no international censure for sending the riot police to rain rubber bullets and tear gas onto striking workers. When she froze the union bank accounts, wealthy Britons applauded her tenacity. With their bank accounts frozen, the strikers could receive no strike pay. As the strike lengthened the strikers and their families starved. As the strike lengthened, miners and steel workers lost their homes. When it ended in defeat for the unions, the strikers had lost their jobs. Pits and steelworks closed and, in case anyone doubted the Iron Lady’s will, the workers watched as their former workplaces were razed to the ground. The seven miles of steelworks between Rotherham and Sheffield were replaced with Europe’s largest shopping mall, Meadow Hall.
The unemployed were forced to “prove” they were looking for work, they were “retrained” and “re-educated” and expected to fill in application after application for any and every job advertised even if it meant moving to another area of the country. In fact, that was Thatcher’s “sensible advice” to the unemployed – move to the jobs, don’t expect the jobs to come to you. As the wealthy grew wealthier especially in the southeast of England, those in the north took jobs as butlers, maids and housekeepers for the nouveau riche. Another Dickensian reminder of the nineteenth century.
Another cherished memory I have is how Thatcher expected the elderly to pay for their golden years. The elderly were not allowed to keep their homes but forced to sell to pay for their care in nursing homes. Countless families were faced with a dilemma–how to keep money in the family. As a result, children made promises to build “granny annexes” on their homes to care for elderly parents. The promises were hollow, once their parents signed over their property to their children, the elderly landless found themselves in nursing homes funded by the state. Thatcherite policies elicited a callousness that divided families and severed relationships between parents and their children. Margaret Thatcher did indeed restructure British society.
However, when I remember Margaret Thatcher, I especially remember how by the mid-1980s, Thatcher took on the National Health Service. She decided it should be run like a business and should make a profit. Hospital cleaning was privatized and so was the catering service. In order to cut costs and ensure profits, the cleaning staff and catering staff was halved. Hospital corridors and rooms received cursory attention and meals were only available a certain times when the kitchen was open. Nurses could no longer offer patients meals or snacks at any time of the day or night. Prices were put on each pack of autoclaved instruments, each pack of cotton balls, each bedpan, each sputum cup or receptacle for false teeth. Nurses were expected to “think twice” about using sterilized packs. The “clean” room began to resemble a grocery store.
Thatcher claimed that no-one should be expected to wait on a list for 6 months before undergoing a non-emergency operation. The NHS, under command from the prime Minister, now was expected to have lists that were no longer than 2 months. No extra money was given to pay for this. No new hospitals, no new operating theatres, no money for more beds or more operating room staff. Yet waiting lists were reduced to two months. It just took longer to get on a list.
And then Thatcher took on the nurses and midwives. Before the Thatcherite “reforms” the nurses and midwives of the NHS were paid according to their experience. When raises were given, everyone in the NHS—from the janitors to the administrators—received the same raise. This, Thatcher claimed, was wasteful. So, every nurse and every midwife was interviewed at length to ascertain the exact details of their work. There was a grading scale and each nurse or midwife received a “grade” based on the results of the interview. There was no extra money assigned to restructure the pay scales and as a result, in order to pay more to some less was paid to others. Not only did this restructuring re-order the pay-scales, it also created resentment and dissatisfaction within the workplace. Why were some nurses assigned a D scale and others an E? What made one sister a G and another an F? Why did midwives receive the same grade as an SEN? The results were devastating. British nurses and midwives left the NHS in droves, including me. What had been rewarding work where everyone received the same pay raises and worked as a team for the good of the patients had now become a competitive business where each individual worked for themselves.
When I remember Margaret Thatcher, I remember horrible conservative policies, but in the end, it was popular reaction within and without the Conservative party that ousted her from power and that is the sweetest memory of all.