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