In the mid-1980s, when the late Margaret Thatcher’s policies were in full swing, one woman marched tirelessly in solidarity with the miners’ strikes. She was a staunchly working class native of the North East, passionate and politically active in her defence of workers, heavily involved in the Labour party, and an absolute convert to the idea of replacing banks with community-led, democratically controlled financial cooperatives. In my childhood, she worked tirelessly to make these cooperatives a reality, even as a stretched single parent for whom ‘paid childcare’ was an entirely abstract concept. So why, when I started asking questions as a teenager, did my mother tell me that Thatcherite policies had done a lot for ‘people like us’? Why didn’t she instead describe a milk-snatching Iron Lady with an inbuilt hatred for the common (wo)man and a cutthroat view on unregulated capitalism? What was it that made her stop short of a satanic caricature, even after Maggie spectacularly trampled over everything my mother had ostensibly ever believed in?
The answer is complicated, which is surprisingly difficult to admit. This is because most of us have internalised that simple idea put forward by The Times moments after her death: that Thatcher was ‘loved and loathed in equal measure’. She was the Marmite of the political world: the figure you had to either hate with a burning passion or admire with the fervour of George Osborne remonstrating about your neighbour’s blinds. And when you attempted to suggest otherwise, especially in liberal circles during her lifetime, you were often met with incredulity and criticism-on-autopilot. In the aftermath of her death, a huge chunk of the left have essentially reiterated what Ken Livingstone boldly stated on Sky News: that Margaret Thatcher remains responsible for ‘every real problem’ in the UK today.
Undoubtedly, Thatcher got the ball rolling on a number of serious and persistent problems in British society. Her Right to Buy policy, for example, directly contributed to a council housing shortage and a continuing problem with homelessness. But to my mother, whose family were finally able to become homeowners, this policy also seemed to prove that Maggie looked out for those working class ‘strivers’ of modern Conservative rhetoric. The right-to-buy policy appeared to give them something that workers had been rapidly losing in the preceding few decades: social kudos. It felt like acknowledgement. For a while, this gifted sense of pride would serve as a convenient smokescreen to distract people from the reality of chronic underpayment and disproportionately levied taxes. Equally, many families did find that as a result of owning their own homes, social mobility became a newfound reality rather than a dismissed impossibility.
Small personal victories would not be enough to overshadow obvious repressive policies, such as those targeted towards the miners and the trade unions. But workers, particularly those involved with Labour in the North East, had been experiencing their own tensions with unionists: often, these could be as hard-nosed and controlling as the Tory leader herself, not to mention as nepotistic and anti-feminist. Young women in the council flats that they now owned began looking to Thatcher as a figure of inspiration, even as she dismissed ‘women’s libbers’, denied the existence of a glass ceiling, and professed no desire to change the gender balance in politics. She had still managed to change something, to play the system to her advantage. This can be possibly best summarised by an afternoon tweet from that marker of British sentiment, Geri Halliwell: ‘Thinking of our 1st Lady of girl power, Margaret Thatcher, a greengrocer’s daughter who taught me anything is possible.’
It’s doubtful that Thatcher would have found these words heartwarming. ‘There is no society,’ she once memorably stated, Wicked Witch-esque, ‘only individual men and women and families.’ So much for teaching Ginger Spice uplifting lessons about social progression, then. This position was manifest in everything she did, from tearing down communities to dismantling nationalised industries to refusing to appoint more than a single, solitary woman to her Cabinet. Her business was business, with perhaps a side of warmongering. As far as people went, her position was built around a total lack of empathy. She didn’t care what others thought (once famously professing that her ministers could talk all they want so long as they did what she said), she didn’t care if she lost friends or allies in her pursuit of power, and she refused to be a role model because of her sex or background. Amongst her often ruthless policies, many working class women - so often told to ‘act ladylike’, ‘become a wife’, and ‘beware of betraying your class’ (usually by going into further education) - couldn’t help but admire that attitude.
Now, in the aftermath of her unremarkable death - one which came, appropriately enough, not from an IRA bomb or a miner’s projectile but from within the brain that concocted her own controversial policies - we can hope to step back and see Margaret Thatcher for what she really was. There should be no shame in professing that her legacy is decidedly ambiguous; she may not have cared, but her very existence changed the face of British politics. It challenged enough entrenched attitudes and institutions to make a difference to people - particularly young girls - on estates across the UK. Perhaps she would be turning in her grave if she knew that, considering her disdain for the women who’d ‘unreasonably’ expected her support, and the poor in particular. But then again, the Lady’s not for turning.