35 years since Thatcher: A trip down Memory Lane

THE IRON LADY, MARGARET THATCHEROn 4 May 1979, Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street for the first time. The sun that shone down on her on the steps cast a decade long shadow. The culture of selfishness, instilling a belief that there was something wrong with paying taxes for good public services, pervades today. In recent years, only the Liberal Democrats of the major parties have gone into an election advocating a rise in Income Tax, albeit a tiny one, to invest in education.

We seem to be embroiled in this cycle of underfunding our services, complaining about them and then underfunding them some more. I’m not saying that money can solve all the problems with public service delivery, but we need to appreciate that we can’t have Scandinavian quality public services on the level of taxation we currently pay. I would have absolutely no objection to paying a bit more to have the vulnerable, dispossessed, deprived people in our society properly looked after. Thatcher’s legacy puts scapegoating where compassion should be. Affluent individuals’ gain was society’s loss.

But 35 years ago, as an 11 year old, I felt rather differently. Five years ago, on the 30th anniversary, I ‘fessed up, in a post entitled My Shame, that those scenes on the steps of Downing Street quoting St Francis of Assisi had filled me with optimism.

To a young girl at that time, without knowing the details of what the parties were saying, it seemed very much that the Tories were the progressive lot, giving us the first woman Prime Minister – and surely, she would encourage other women to follow in her footsteps. 

Maybe it was being so badly let down by Thatcher that made me so sceptical of Blair, or maybe it was just that I was old enough and wise enough not to be taken in by him, but I never, ever trusted him.

When Thatcher recited that St Francis of Assisi stuff on the steps of Number Ten, I really did believe that she was going to make the world a more liberal and compassionate place. I always wanted a liberal world, I guess, but my mistake was trusting the wrong person to deliver it.

In the second part of my Thatcher: 30 years on series, I reviewed the results programme, which had been shown on BBC Parliament on the bank holiday. It was very different than they are today. It maybe shows why we needed someone like Paxman to emerge. Oh, and my crystal ball was playing up that day. Spot my dodgy prediction for 2010:

Scotland clung to Labour in 1979 like a security blanket against the bitter wind of the anti devolution Tories, which explains why that election was such a bad one for the SNP. Now that we have Holyrood, I doubt we’ll see a similar effect at the next election.

I cried when Jeremy Thorpe lost his seat. It seemed very unfair. 

Lost deposits cost the Liberal Party £40,000. Ouch!

There didn’t seem much attempt at fluffiness and friendliness from any of the politicians towards their interviewers – they didn’t hide their contempt, almost at being questioned, even by Robin Day and even the winners were downright rude on occasion. Keith Joseph more or less told Sir Robin to shut up and mind his own business at one point. They really did seem a world apart from the people. They appeared for the press when they wanted to – totally different from the 24 hour news cycle these days.

If I ended up disillusioned by one woman, another has been one of my political heroes. I don’t agree with her on everything. Nuclear weapons and equal marriage are major areas where I can’t say I stand with her. However, I have always admired Shirley Williams’ courage, wisdom and clarity – as well as her showing that you don’t have to be the best organised or the best timekeeper to get on in life. The third part of my 1979 reflections concentrated on her interview with Sir Robin Day.

She was interviewed twice – once before the votes had even been verified so she didn’t really know she’d lost, and once after her result had come through. She came across really well on both occasions, magnanimous in defeat to her Conservative opponent and speaking very warmly about her own team. She was also very politically astute about the reasons for her own defeat and very circumspect about the whole thing.

She got a few wee digs in, notably about the election of Mrs Thatcher not necessarily being a great development for women, but did so in a very engaging way and no doubt on very little sleep.

The interesting thing was that Norman St John Stevas, a Tory, being interviewed in the London studio, was full of praise for Shirley, saying she was one of the most honest and decent people in politics.

I hope you have enjoyed this little slightly self-indulgent trip down Memory Lane. I  know that many of you reading this will have been around during the 1979 election. What are your memories?

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Eddie Sammon 4th May '14 - 3:44pm

    If socialists and many social liberals are so compassionate then why do they use extortion against the poor and the middle class to pay for their services? I can see the ethical argument to tax the powerful, but not the poor or the middle class.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th May '14 - 4:34pm

    I don’t like moralising, but there’s only so much one can take from the left before hitting back. I watched a bit of the program after seeing your blog post and I found some of it interesting. I used to be more pro Thatcher than I am now, which is probably a good thing I can say about Lib Dem influence.

  • Tony Dawson 4th May '14 - 6:03pm

    My recollection was one of incredulity and mild horror. How had someone who was basically rather ignorant (though clearly quite intelligent) and who had performed pretty poorly as a Minister, persuaded enough of the electorate to vote for her to enable an overall majority? She was pretty close to being the Nigel Farage of her day.

    The bigger disappointment, however, was the ’83 election.

  • Our constituency is proverbially slow at counting votes, so the sun was rising as the Tory was announced the winner – cue speech about a new dawn breaking etc. We had lost our second place to Labour: the Labour candidate hailed this as the start of the socialist revolution (actually he was a good friend of mine). The Liberal candidate had booked a room in a nearby hotel and we adjourned to lick our wounds, only to be gate-crashed by the very drunk Wessex Nationalist candidate. Although the next twelve years of my life were in many respects some of the best, ( starting a relationship, building a business, making a living, buying a house, having a child), Thatcher and the arrogant triumphalism of the Tories in government loom malevolently over it all, so that when I think about that period there is an ambivalence to my feelings. The Tory who was elected that day survived until 1992 and in a way epitomised the era: a smarmy, vacuous, selfish and grasping man who was eventually booted out by his own members.

  • John Broggio 4th May '14 - 8:44pm

    “their services”?

    I take it then Eddie, that you’ve never relied on an educated workforce or customer base to help you earn your crust, nor ever called on the NHS for anything, ever? Ditto police, fire & other services that keep this country largely very safe for the vast majority of people to go about their daily lives freely. Not to mention the roads and various other pieces of the (social) infrastructure.

    Because most people consider the above to be our (as in, the nation’s) services not our (as in, a few middle class chums) services. And as it may have passed you by, the middle class is widely held to be pretty powerful (and fairly rich), seeing as they encompass most journalists, MPs etc.

    Why should the poor pay? I think it’s something to do with the contributory principle, as espoused by a little known Liberal by the name of William Beveridge.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th May '14 - 9:15pm

    John, OK, I’m not against taxes on the middle class, which was just a simplified argument, my point is that there is an argument against high taxes so I find the moralising from the left about a culture of selfishness quite annoying. I like ethical debates, but suggesting people who don’t want to pay more taxes are less compassionate or selfish is not the way to go about it.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th May '14 - 9:47pm

    By the way, I am very reliant on public services and I would never advocate big cuts. I see myself as a moderate and just meant to make an anti high tax argument on the middle class with a greater emphasis on charity, not a no tax argument.

  • I remember phoning my Mum from University and saying it was catastrophic that Thatcher had won and her policies would create more unemployed people. I couldn’t believe that she quoted St Francis of Assisi, when she didn’t believe in bringing harmony (she seemed to hate compromise) and she wouldn’t bring hope only despair for the unemployed and those who would fear losing their job.

    @ Eddie Sammon – “and just meant to make an anti high tax argument on the middle class with a greater emphasis on charity,”

    In the nineteenth century charities did provide some of the service that are now provided by the state. The reason these services began to be provided by the state was that coverage from charities was not universal and some people couldn’t access the services they needed when they needed it. After Thatcher there are certain aspects of the welfare state that today couldn’t be provided by charities because of the hatred generated against some poor people.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th May '14 - 3:11am

    Amalric, but the state doesn’t provide universal coverage either because of global poverty. If left = compassionate and right = selfish then where is the argument for totalitarianism or anarchism? If these are not the left’s arguments then their difference with Thatcher is just sitting in a different shade of grey. Hardly a reason for hatred.

  • geoffrey payne 5th May '14 - 6:54am

    It felt like the country was run by a dictator. She cast a shadow over my life. It infuriates me that even today on economic policy the politicians dance to her tune. Our fraudulent voting system grossly exaggerated her popularity.

  • Fiona White 5th May '14 - 8:18am

    One of the many things I can’t forgive is her refusal to allow the money from the sale of council houses to be used for building new social housing. Look at the impossible situation many people find themselves in when they want somewhere to live. She believed that once people owned their own homes they would always vote Conservative and she had no interest in the rest. Before her, the one-nation Tories, although patronising and patriarchal, at least cared about those who needed help.

  • Thatcher was the reason I became involved in politics. I wasn’t worried about her policies which I mistakenly regarded as reversible. I was worried about her effect on the nation’s values and I believe that I was right. Her philosophy inherited from Alderman Roberts her father was one of the importance of self-reliance. This became corrupted to justify self interest which is the flavour of politics today. She has much to answer for.

  • Simon McGrath 5th May '14 - 10:04am

    Always amazed by the idea that Mrs Thatcher in some mysterious way made people more selfish. She didn’t. Pre Thatcher Britain was not some sort of communal ideal, it was a nasty, dirty strike ridden place – the ‘sick man of Europe’. She made many things worse of course but much of the change – like to end of our low value manufacturing was the result of the rise of India and China .
    Public spending rose under Thatcher and as we all know rose ceaselessly under Labour.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th May '14 - 1:05pm

    Simon McGrath

    Public spending rose under Thatcher and as we all know rose ceaselessly under Labour.

    As I have pointed out many times, there are strong demographic reasons why public spending has risen. Perhaps you could tell us what the rise in life expectancy was over these periods, this being the principle reason.So long as we expect health care to come through the NHS and there to be a state pension which people can live on, we WILL see public spending rise, it is just silly to try and blame that on whoever was in political control. Of course, if we don’t want to pay the taxes this involves, we can instead end the NHS as we know it and end state pensions. I don’t see much call for that, however. If it were done, we would still have to pay for health care and pensions, only privately rather than through taxes. So arguing as if the tax cuts or lack of tax rises will just give us money to spend on luxuries or business investment without taking into account these extra costs is also silly.

  • @ BrianD – perhaps the idea that everyone should be self-reliant led to the view that society shouldn’t assist those who have problems relying on just themselves.

    @ Simon McGrath – “it was a nasty, dirty strike ridden place”. It is a trade unions role to protect and enhance the interests of its members. However some strikes were political and called without a ballot in favour of a strike but not all were. In Britain there is no tradition of co-operation between owners and workers and so workers had to strike sometimes. (Even in nationalised industries there was often a lack of co-operation.) Once there was a large pool of unemployed people the owners have taken advantage and hence we have low pay, something that the trade unions didn’t allow in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

    @ Eddie Sammon – “but the state doesn’t provide universal coverage either because of global poverty”. When I used the term “universal” it was about coverage within a state, of course a state does not provide the same services to people living outside of its boundaries. I would argue that anarchism would be a terrible thing to live under, while I oppose totalitarianism because of the restrictions it imposes. I didn’t say that the left was compassionate and the right selfish. I think the point is that if things were left to charities the charities would have less money than the state to provide the services because not everyone would donate their tax reduction to charity.

  • @Simon McGrath I remember the post war years and the consensus which existed pre-Thatcher. It was anything but nasty. It was made nasty by the Thatcher nasty Party. History will show that it was a country short of innovative industrial management.- no Brit cars, motor bikes ships etc .which is the reason we now make so many cars for foreign companies – the very same British workforce who were blamed for our problems. Her deregulation led ultimately to the crash brought about by the creed of greed she shared with Reagan. The neo-liberal agenda so beloved of the right including the small state is in the process of being challenged by Pickett.
    @Amalric My point was that the self reliance ( a worthy way of life) espoused by Alderman Roberts was corrupted to mean self interest.
    I always aspired to pay high taxes because of what was left and, thanks to the educational and employment opportunities provided through (not by) the state I was able to enjoy doing that. Wouldn’t it be good if our younger generation could be in a position to say that?

  • Eddie Sammon 5th May '14 - 4:48pm

    Thanks Amalric. I understand the argument that not everyone would donate their tax deduction to charity, it is just whether less tax resentment among the middle class would boost productivity and therefore boost the value of the pound, so fewer pounds wouldn’t matter. 🙂

    Best wishes

  • I was under no illusions when Thatcher was quoting St Francis of Assisi on the steps of No 10. Within a couple of years I was heading abroad as were many others.

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