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The unforgiven

It is impossible to convey to outsiders or the young why Margaret Thatcher is loathed, to this day,

You have to be at least 40 years old to have voted for her as prime minister the last time she stood for election. The void shows in popular understanding. Probably even most correspondents in the Westminster lobby have no direct knowledge of her decade in power. They have only read about it in books, or heard stories from old men.

They weren't there and, just for once, being there was absolutely critical. If you never actually heard her at the Despatch Box shouting, "Never! Never! Never!" or condemning an entire section of loyal working people as "the enemy within", you cannot really grasp what those years were like. They were truly awful, and her malignant legacy soured all who followed her in public life, most dismayingly in the New Labour project.

Over the top? Then consider her nicknames at the time. The first, TINA, standing for There Is No Alternative, came from her own cabinet table. Then, the Iron Lady, Moscow's ironic compliment. She Who Must Be Obeyed. Attila the Hen. The Great She-Elephant. The verb "to handbag" was invented for her. Nobody would use such terms now, because they are sexist, but that is how politicians and the people alike understood her. Not that they ever said it to her face, only behind her back - a measure of the fear she inspired almost to the end.

In 1979, Thatcher was still rather an unknown quantity. Her time as education secretary in the Ted Heath government was remembered only for her abolition of free milk for schoolchildren over the age of seven, which earned her the sobriquet of Milk Snatcher. Thatcherism as an ideology was still a mad gleam in the eyes of her economic guru Keith Joseph. Everything changed when she turfed complacent Jim Callaghan out of office. Taxes were cut, public spending was slashed and the sell-off of state-owned industries began. The police and armed forces got big pay rises. Europe was served notice that the UK would pursue a doggedly self-serving line.

This was the shape of things to come, not all at once, but by degrees, when she was sure the first changes were irreversible. So, her first steps to put working people in their place - by emasculating their unions, under the employment secretary Jim Prior - were tentative. Then, she moved in her hard man, Norman Tebbit, to expose the unions to fines and seizure of funds. Initially it was the National Graphical Association in provincial Warrington, and then the miners across the nation - hated because they were credited with bringing down a Conservative government in 1974. In 1981, not being ready for the final confrontation, she body-swerved the National Union of Mineworkers. Three years later, everything was in place: coal stocks, police powers and preparedness, labour laws and a pliant hit man in the shape of Ian MacGregor, chairman of the National Coal Board. He soon discovered just how disposable were her instruments of power once they had served their purpose (a year after the strike he was out on his ear). The miners were only too aware of their fate.

It is virtually impossible to convey to outsiders just how much Thatcher is hated in the former mining communities. Indeed, hatred became common coinage in those unhappy days. The miners' detestation has scarcely abated a quarter-century later, long after they were crushed and their way of life destroyed for ever. There will be street parties in the pit villages when she dies.

Yet they were only the most prominent of her victims. Think of the countless steelworkers, British Telecom engineers, water industry employees, British Airways workers, civil servants, dock workers, railwaymen, National Health Service staff, council workers and all the other employees who lost their jobs in the years of priva­tisation. Those workers who now inhabit the twilight, insecure world of temporary contracts, agency work and sacking by text message.

Nobody ever "told Sid" (Thatcher's fictional, share-owning Everybloke) it would be that bad. Thatcher knew, and didn't care. Rejoice! Rejoice! In the same way, she did not care about the impact on "the little people" of her Big Bang in the City, which freed the bankers from supervision in 1986 and set building societies on the corrupt road to demutualisation and bankruptcy. There were no rules for the rich, only for the dumb fools who had to punch a time clock every morning: the people who travelled on public transport, whom she labelled as failures in life.

No wonder her own family was so dysfunctional. Inevitable, maybe, where such vaunting ambition and manic ideological zeal is at work. "I will roll back socialism for ever," she boasted. Yet she passed on a deadly microbe to society at large (the one she refused to recognise the existence of). Rampant individualism, the devil take the hindmost, beggar thy neighbour - call it what you will, it was a corrosive reflection of her own selfish value system. A politician who can take the train to Glasgow to hector the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on Christian morality has nothing to learn from others. She didn't just smash the moral compass. She threw it in the sea.

It is too easily forgotten that the Thatcher decade began in violence, continued in violence and ended in violence. In 1981, she faced down the IRA hunger strikers, ten of whom died, and brought Republican terror to mainland UK. But the streets were already torn by riots. Brixton went up in flames in April that year and disturbances followed most of the summer, in Toxteth, Bristol, Birmingham, Hull and Preston. In March 1990, countrywide protests greeted the fixing of Thatcher's poll tax, loathed for its inequity and culminating in the worst riots the centre of London had seen in generations.

Along with the resignation of the then deputy prime minister, Geoffrey Howe, over her hostility to Europe, this mayhem probably did for her premiership. It was difficult to turn either event to advantage, but she was not above exploiting violence for political ends. With her ratings on the floor in 1982, she sailed with gusto into the Falklands War and called the khaki election of 1983 to capitalise on Britain's successful military campaign. Winning that poll on a wave of jingoism, she unleashed a martial campaign against the miners that confirmed her, in her own mind, as a war hero in the mould of Winston Churchill.

Who now remembers these events? Or, for that matter, the Westland helicopter scandal, triggered by her duplicity? Or the resignations of one top minister after another, unable to take any more of her haughty self-absorption? Or the other hideous landmarks of that time, from the introduction of cruise missiles in Britain to the hounding of the Greenham women, from the nauseating billing and cooing with Ronald Reagan to the pompous assertion that she could "do business with" Mikhail Gorbachev, a man infinitely superior to her.

As the shadows darken over her mind and she nears death, there is a temptation - devoutly to be resisted - to engage in a cloying collective amnesia about the real Thatcher, and remember only her "good" points. First female party leader, first female prime minister, the Boudicca who restored Britain's place in the world - I can see the headlines in the Daily Mail now. Conservative grandees, with Tony Blair and even Gordon Brown in tow, will queue up to praise the greatest conviction politician of her age. All I ask is that her many offences be taken into consideration before judgment is passed.

Perhaps the last word should go to another woman, the actress Lindsay Duncan, the latest to play the part of Thatcher in a television drama. She says: "I loathed her and everything she stood for." Amen.

Paul Routledge was political diarist of the NS (1999-2004). During the Thatcher years he was labour and industrial editor of the Times (1969-86) and political correspondent at the Observer (1986-92), followed by a stint as chief political commentator for the Mirror

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Thatcher: 30 years on, the final verdict

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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