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Thatcher Nostalgia Must Not Distort Historical Reality

Posted: 09/01/12 10:54

In Britain, over the last few years, a form of Margaret Thatcher nostalgia has been developing. The release last Friday of The Iron Lady, and the frankly disturbing promotional campaign that features images of Meryl Streep as Margaret plastered on buses and advertising billboards across Britain, has of course made an important contribution to this.

Writing in today's Daily Telegraph, for example, Boris Johnson argues that "nothing and no one has done more, in the 22 years since she was kicked out of office, to rehabilitate Margaret Thatcher". For Boris, The Iron Lady is the 'most important political film for years'.

But the truth is that Thatcher nostalgia has been present in Britain, underneath the surface, for far longer. In a 2002 poll conducted by the BBC, Thatcher was named as one of 100 Greatest Britons. One of Gordon Brown's first acts as prime minister was to invite Thatcher to take tea at Number 10. Then there was confirmation last month that Thatcher would be receiving a state funeral - the first prime minister since Winston Churchill to do so - though the plans were originally put in place under the last Labour government. Even the current leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, has confessed to being a 'Maggie fan'.

It is, of course, hardly a revelation that Thatcher was a popular leader, even if the enthusiasm from the Labour leadership is rather galling. Thatcher did, after all, win three general election victories. But it is important that the Thatcher nostalgia does not contribute to the re-writing of history. Thatcher improved many people's quality of life, particularly those in the south of England. But her policies also led to the lives of many others being ruined.

Thatcher is well known for her confrontations with the unions, particularly her hard-line and ultimately victorious stance against the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984. Whatever your political views on the dispute, however, the human tragedy of Thatcher's decision to close the pits in areas such as Yorkshire and South Wales should never be lost sight of. As an antidote to Thatcher, go and rent Ken Loach's Which Side Are You On?, a documentary from the point of view of the miners and their families, or buy No Redemption, a collection of photographs by Keith Pattison and interviews by the author David Peace in Easington, what was once a mining village in Durham. You will see that the dispute was not, as is often presented in the Thatcher nostalgia, simply one between radical, fat cat union leaders and the PM sticking to her guns. Thatcher's stance had devastating consequences for the livelihoods of workers, families and whole communities.

There are other, less well-known policies that had equally destructive effects on the lives of different communities. It is an irony that when Thatcher embarked on the hugely popular Falklands War in 1982, the 2,000 islanders she was fighting for no longer qualified for British citizenship as a direct result of Thatcher's Nationality Act of the previous year. Thatcher quickly made an exception for the Falklanders; the Act was designed to limit the entry of mostly black and Asian migrants from the 'New Commonwealth', and resulted in the break-up of many families as siblings, cousins and grandparents - many of whom already resided in Britain - no longer had the right to stay as a result of Thatcher's redefinition of 'Britishness'.

Then there is unemployment. Thatcher's was the first government of the post-war era to abandon a commitment to full employment. Unemployment was regarded by the Thatcher government as being 'a price worth paying' in order to keep inflation to a minimum. In 1983, the official unemployment rate had reached 13 per cent of the population. But this is only half the story. There was significant regional variation to the joblessness figures. In parts of the south, unemployment was barely half the national average. But in inner-city areas, and across cities like Liverpool, unemployment rates often approached 50 per cent. As was recently revealed, Thatcher was eventually persuaded not to 'abandon' Liverpool following the Toxteth riots in 1981. But for those living there - as in many other areas of the North and the Midlands - a sense of abandonment was all too real.

In the end, perhaps Thatcher's greatest legacy is the way in which her policies led to a fundamental division in the country. To those who were able to take advantage of Thatcher's decision to allow tenants to purchase their council houses, for example, or to Tory and some Labour politicians, Thatcher remains a hero. But to many others, like the group of retired coal workers who recently staged a protest against the screening of Thatcher in Chesterfield, she was anything but. As the Thatcher nostalgia reaches fever pitch, we must not allow it to distort the historical reality.

 

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