I don’t remember what the weather was like on the morning of Friday, May 4 1979. Presumably, as a nine year old it was pretty much like any school day, so I assume that it was a fairly average spring day. However, as a slightly precocious child I do remember knowing that the day before had been a election day; our school was a polling station, which always caused a fair bit of disruption and I’d been aware of the foment surrounding the proceedings. My grandfather had died in January 1979 and I remember real concerns in the family about how, or whether, his funeral was going to happen. I even vaguely remember the March night the Callaghan government fell, watching the late news on my portable TV in the bedroom (also the place where I got a taste for Python and Spike Milligan’s Q).
What I do remember that day though, is coming home for lunch and, between watching The Sullivans and the lunchtime children’s programmes, looking on as the slight, blue clad frame of Margaret Thatcher walked down a sunny Downing Street, delivering her prepared homily based on the words of St Francis of Assisi. It didn’t seem quite as epochal an event to a nine-year-old as, looking back now, it so clearly was. This was, in fact, the day that Britain changed forever. And now that homily seems to me to be one of the most hollow and mendacious addresses in recent political history.
I wrote a few days ago about Cameron’s promise (or threat, if you wish) of a New Austerity. It seems apposite as the world we find ourselves in now has its roots in that day in 1979. It seems strange to think now that at that point, the rampant Thatcherism of the late 80’s was a long way off and that the first years of her government were fractious and frankly terrifying, played out as it was against the Soviet entry into Afghanistan and the events in Poland.
There were scores to be settled and enemies to be crushed. Of course, by this point the Labour opposition were too busy ripping themselves apart to be remotely concerned about the wider fight against an idelogical crusade hellbent on dismantling much that was good about Britain. The sad part of all of this is that some of what she did was actually necessary. Some privatisation was useful but it went tpo far. And yes, some union power needed to be curtailed but under the Thatcher government collective representation was utterly emasculated. Entire industries and communities were laid waste as the Thatcher juggernaut rolled over them. The social problems, the poverty (I refuse to call it that horrendous euphemism social exclusion), the decay of infrastructure, the drug problems, the breakdown of families had their roots there too. For all those who did very nicely of the 1980’s bubble there were many more whose lives were ravaged and broken by socio-economic policy experiment that seems like a brutal, rapacious brand of social Darwinism.
It was Thatcher who gave council tenants the right to buy. The Callaghan government had toyed with the notion. Even this had its problems. As more bought their houses, council stock was denuded and it became increasingly difficult for councils to maintain such areas properly. It also removed local authorities from housing policy and further eroded their political power, making them more dependent on centralp government and moving more power to the centre as time went on. Councils, which had been the source of much that was good about local services (like buses which were to be deregulated, badly) became increasingly impotent.
The cult of presidental politics in the UK pretty much started there too. Before Thatcher there did seem to be much more of a sense of collective responsibility. As the Thatcher era dragged on, however, the focus fell more upon the Prime Minister and fell away from those in the Cabinet. Parliament was used as little other than a rubber stamp for a rampant executive that enjoyed cataclysmic landslide wins in 1983 and 1987. Labour would repeat this folly after the wins of 1997 and 2001 and would, tragicallly, learn nothing.
The legacies of Thatcherism are manifold: some good, but many bad. It seems wrong somehow to celebrate that day 30 years ago when she first took the reins of office. What does seem appropriate, however, is to remember this day and give ourselves a reminder from history of the folly of electing those who make the seductive promises to give us exactly what we want.