Having spent hours watching coverage of Mrs Thatcher’s death yesterday, reading everything from sycophancy to cruel abuse on Twitter, and the acres of analysis in today’s press, I was reluctant to put two fingers to iPad keyboard but here goes.
I never met Mrs T. However I own a signed copy of her collection of speeches and I did actually work for the Labour Opposition (press officer on 1987 election campaign – the one Campaign magazine commented on that Labour won the campaign but lost the election – and then Chief Press Officer) during her time in power.
In fact I joined the Labour Party in response to her 1979 election win.
So I got political with her coming to power as backdrop – though in truth it was racism and opposition to the NF that got me into politics.
But I never despised her, which was the popular Left idiom of the time (and judging by the outpouring on Twitter yesterday, still is). No. I admired her. I wanted Labour to have its own version. I even worked with him in the early days. Tony Blair.
Unlike a lot of the middle class lefties poking fun at Mrs T on Twitter yesterday, I grew up in Salford in the seventies. The backdrop was the decline and fall of the docks and Trafford Park industrial estate. My Dad was an Irish Republican and Trade unionist Labour supporter. But the decline of our city and his employment prospects were nothing to do with Mrs T, who was years away from power. He and many of his working class friends blamed the Labour government and the unions. Labour had become out of touch with them and their lives.
So he became one of the people who brought her to power. Working class, ex Labour voters, turned off by Labour’s inward focus and union paymasters, not natural Tories but rallied by Thatcher’s personal appeal and articulation of their ambition. We argued like cat and dog, but with hindsight just a few years later, I understood.
Cut to the early 1980s. I am a Labour activist in trendy, leafy Putney. Part of Wandsworth, one of the testing grounds for the “right to buy” council house policy. I am accused of political heresy for saying the policy is popular with disenchanted Labour voters we should support it with reservations. Largely by middle class Labour Party members who owned their own Victorian semis.
Then I went to work for Labour. I helped design and fight campaigns against the Thatcher Government. I thought most of her senior people were tossers. But apparently so did she. But I never despised her. I wanted a Thatcher of my own.
I remember the day she announced her resignation. Labour HQ was cock a hoop. They thought her passing meant a watered down and beatable version of her as replacement. They were wrong.
Cut to 1993. I am working with a business led charity, part of The Prince’s Trusts, promoting sustainable capitalism in places like Central Europe only a few years after the Wall came down. In most budding entrepreneurs’ offices I see a common feature. A picture of them with Mrs Thatcher in pride of place.
Mrs Thatcher was the most divisive figure of her time in the UK. She was wrong on many issues, most notably The Poll Tax and her destruction of the mining industry and many communities in an almost personal political war with Scargill. The Falklands War remains a divisive issue decades later. She was wrong on Europe.
But reading the comments yesterday, often from people who were in nappies in the 1970s, you would think that Britain’s problems began with Thatcher. They didn’t. Britain under Labour and Tory governments in the ’70s was a mess. The unions were out of control. Working class politics had not caught up with post-war working class aspiration. Unpalatable truth or not, Thatcher was the harsh, kill or cure medicine to the sickly British body politic.
Tony Blair is the first to accept that without some of the changes Thatcher made, New Labour would not have been the successful force it was for a time.
(Footnote to my personal story,; much missed Dad returned to being a Labour supporter after Tony Blair became leader.)
For me, Mrs Thatcher – for right or wrong – is the most significant British woman leader, along with Elizabeth 1st, ever. Indeed they shared some positive and negative traits. And both were woman trying to run things in a man’s world, taking men on and usually beating them at their own game.