My generous warm-hearted mother, who wouldn’t miss an opportunity to stuff you with dumplings and top up your glass, was a great fan of Mrs Thatcher: Margaritka, she called her, a name that was as familiar and intimate as if she was one of the family. Which in a way she was.
“She knows the price, you see, of things in the shops. Unlike these useless men,” said Mother.
She would nod slyly in my father’s direction, as he, apparently oblivious, grappled with some complex bit of tractoriana or disassembled the microwave.
“She knows what we women have to put up with.”
This was another veiled dig at my father.
“She knows what men are really like.”
This was a veiled dig at my husband, whom she was simultaneously plying with 40 per cent samohonka.
“She speaks up for decent hardworking people.”
This was a veiled dig at the family next door.
“Mother,” I said in a hoity-toity voice, because in those days I prided myself on having a wider vision, “It’s not just about our family, you know. It’s about creating a fairer society for everybody.”
“Fairer!” My mother snorted derisively. “When did fairness ever put bread on the table?”
My father looked up, screwdriver in hand, and gave me a sly wink.
So when I heard of Mrs Thatcher’s death yesterday, it was as though a member of the family had passed away. Not a beloved member – at least, not by me – but a querulous trouble-making aunty who sits in the corner and mocks all your efforts to rise above the petty selfish bitching gloating nose-poking finger-wagging inclinations that we all have. Mrs Thatcher’s phrase for it was “going with the grain of human nature,” and the policies she championed were popular to the degree that she tapped into those primitive impulses: fear and greed.
In Thatcher-land we were preyed on by scroungers (benefit claimants, pensioners, disabled people) , threatened by enemies within (workers who belong to a trade union), burdened by an unproductive public sector (teachers, dinner ladies, librarians – remember them?) stalked by terrorists (Nelson Mandela) strangled by bureaucracy (health and safety rules, employment and planning laws) , robbed by the Inland Revenue (as it then was), our very sovereignty at risk from the EU. She saved us from all that!
Then, as now, the world seemed a dangerous and volatile place, and it was easy to whip up fear at the drop of crocodile tear. At times it seemed that nothing but the dread of a sound handbagging stood between us and perdition.
The handbag was Mrs Thatcher’s symbol of femininity, and although she was undoubtedly a powerful and charismatic woman, she didn’t hesitate to use her femininity to get her way, much as my more traditional mother did. Indeed, some women have claimed her as a feminist icon, though I suspect that both my mother and Mrs Thatcher, would have been appalled by the idea. I guess it all depends on what you mean by a feminist. It’s true, she was big on standing up to men; but when did she ever stand up for women?
You’d never guess from her “ordinary housewife” front that Mrs Thatcher’s real genius was to initiate and preside over the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich since the Industrial Revolution, while pretending it was all for our own good. The handbag, heels, pussy-cat bows and over-coiffed hair were a disguise for a deeply driven ideological agenda, which, love it or loathe it, has now become her contested legacy.
Alternative ideologies, notably those proposed by local authorities and trade unions, which offered a collective vision of how we could look out for each other, got short shrift. And it’s her ferocious zeal that we remember. Selling off council housing was a hugely popular policy at the time; but then preventing the local authorities from using the revenue earned to build more public housing was sheer ideological vindictiveness, and the result is the housing crisis we have today.
“Taming” trade unions by forcing them to ballot was an important democratic reform. But now that trade unions have virtually disappeared as an industrial power, who is there left to speak up for the minimum-wage zero-hours-contract burger-flippers and call-centre drones who have replaced the proud steel and coal workers of yesteryear?
It seemed like a good idea at the time to sweep away the clunky smoke-stack industries up here in the north in favour of the clean shiny smoke-free financial sector of London and the South East. But now that we are importing fuel and steel, and bailing out our financial sector, it doesn’t seem so brilliant after all.
I expected to feel joy at the news of Mrs Thatcher’s death, because I certainly felt and anger and pain during her years in office. But death is the ultimate leveller. Now she’s become a mere mortal like the rest of us, I can only feel a common sense of human frailty. She was never one to admit to any weakness herself, yet it’s our recognition of shared vulnerability which was the foundation of the welfare state, that we created for all of us from the carnage of war. In life she began to dismantle it, and her successors are still at it. Yet in sickness and death, we witness the impulse of fellow-feeling that gave birth to it.
The tricky thing is to work out who have been the true beneficiaries of the Thatcher years. I would argue that it is the global elite, and corporations with their trillions stashed away in tax havens sponging Philpottesquely off our state provision, our education, police, health, pensions and benefits systems. But Mum thought the beneficiaries were people like her.
Fred Goodwin may have his millions, but when my mother died, she had £600 hidden in a tin under the lino, because unlike Mrs Thatcher, she did not have great faith in bankers.
Marina Lewycka’s novels include ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’