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Marmite Margaret

Maggie Thatcher's radical agenda that divided the United Kingdom was also the political revolution of lower middle-class England. Farrukh Dhondy writes.

columns Updated: Apr 13, 2013 00:51 IST
United Kingdom,Margaret Thatcher,Ted Heath

The ad for the sticky yeast-extract spread Marmite says "You either love it or hate it." The slogan could have been applied to Margaret Thatcher, the ex-PM of the United Kingdom, who died at the age of 87 last week.

I was more in the 'hate' camp than in the other and the memories of joining demonstrations shouting "Margaret Thatcher: Milk snatcher!", "No Poll Tax!" and "Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out!" are still fresh.

The first of these slogans was coined when Maggie as Ted Heath's education minister decided to scrap free milk for poor school children. I was a school teacher at the time. The other slogans were the clarion calls of the miners and other unions who fought and lost long and hard battles against her administration. In the end it wasn't the unions and the 'hate' camp that brought Maggie down but after her very unpopular attempt to impose a 'poll tax' on families for local municipal services by counting heads in a house, a measure that was weighted towards victimising the poor, her own party revolted and threw her out.

Thatcher divided the nation with a radical agenda. The 'hate' camp called her names that lefties resort to with more venom than justification. She was labelled a fascist, racist and sexist, even though she was Britain's first woman prime minister.

My membership of this camp was wholehearted as was my opposition to her policies, which she sold to the nation with the exhortation: 'There Is No Alternative'. In her term of office this insistence was abbreviated to 'TINA' as the justification for every measure her government passed. Even so my quality of 'hate' was tempered with what I thought were the origins of her convictions and policies.

Margaret Roberts, as she was born, was a grocer's daughter from Grimsby. She was a lower-middle-class meritocrat who did well at school and went to Oxford to study chemistry. She married a man who was a senior executive in an oil company and they had two children. She worked her way up in the misogynistic Tory party and got where she was through courage and clarity of purpose.

I saw her policies not as classically Tory or classically capitalist, but rather as the political revolution of lower middle-class England. It was this class of shopkeepers, secondary managerial cadres and clerical staff who had for a generation and more observed with overbearing resentment the growing confidence and strength of the unionised working class. Through collective bargaining strength some sections, for instance workers in 'the print' who worked the newspaper presses notoriously got to a position where the industry was very generously, some would say over-manned. The canard about this largely night-shift industry was that three workers were hired for the work that one of them did while the others slept or took the shift off.

Rupert Murdoch had bought the Times and other British titles and was resolved to do away with the print workers' 'Spanish practices'. Thatcher was resolved to put the powers of the state behind his determination. She did and despite months of industrial disquiet, the Murdoch new-deal prevailed. An important section of the organised working class had been defeated.

Thatcher then significantly took on the miners. Britain could buy cheap coal from Poland and didn't need its own coal mines. Energy for industry could be cheaper if British mines were shut and whole communities of miners in the north thrown out of work. It was a long and bitter struggle, but Thatcher and the interests of capital won hands down. The mines closed and whole communities were left jobless and virtually destroyed.

So did the textile mills of Yorkshire and Lancashire throwing thousands of Asian migrant workers, mainly Mirpuris from the Pakistan side of Kashmir, out of work. Thatcher's policies closed steel mills and other manufacturing plants.

It was a fact that large parts of Britain's manufacturing sector couldn't survive in the globalised world without subsidy or without high tariffs on imports from places that had cheaper labour and Thatcher saw no reason for affording that subsidy or raising those tariff barriers. She turned her attention to giving the banking and financial services sector a boost and making it central to the prosperity of the Britain she envisaged.

There were other populist measures. She sold off the 'family silver'. Selling off the state-owned housing estates in which the urban working class live at knock down prices to their tenants. The state, she argued, had no business being a landlord.

She sent troops out to hold the Falklands, which had been claimed by Argentina as islands adjoining their mainland. The subsequent 'war' was touted by the popular papers as a reminder of Britain's role as an imperial power. It bestowed on her the mantle of Boadicea.

Her legacy can now be seen as not all that glorious. The closing down rather than reform and rebuilding of the manufacturing sector has left Britain reliant on the dealings of financial services - a sector of the economy which imploded in 2008 and is now struggling under global pressure.

Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London

The views expressed by the author are personal

Barkha Dutt's column Third Eye will appear on April 27

First Published: Apr 12, 2013 20:57 IST