Following the death of Margaret Thatcher this week we have been treated to literally all kinds of debate, commentary, criticism, and praise – coming from pretty much exactly where you would expect. We have been subjected to the sycophantic worship from Tory MPs, right wing media outlets, oh and don’t forget her biggest fan – Tony Blair. We’ve had the predictable yet undeserved tributes (albeit with a pathetically feeble hint of criticism) from some of our finest New Labour frontbenchers and the neutral press. And finally, vital in the interest of fairness, we have had the unapologetic bashings, largely from independent bloggers, a small minority of left wing Labour MPs, and George Galloway MP. But what I have been very interested in is one question which has reared its ugly head all too often in the last few days. Coming from the average joe on the street, right through to high-ups in the government – ladies and gentlemen, I give you the proverbial neo-liberal argument saver:
“…well you were only a child when Thatcher was Prime Minister, so what do you know?”
And what a silly question it is.
I’ll first deal with the notion itself without the context in which it is being used. Let’s not understate this – adopting this stance in other public matters would firstly disable us from having any sort of foreign policy – after all, William Hague surely cannot have a legitimate opinion on the Syrian conflict without actually living there, what does he know? Iain Duncan Smith likewise cannot possibly have an legitimate opinion on what it’s like to live on benefits, without in fact living on benefits himself, what does he know? We can go even further – very few people have experienced first hand the ultimate evil that was Nazism under Adolf Hitler, but does that seriously mean that we shouldn’t teach school children about it? After all, they weren’t even born when Hitler died, so what do they know? Surely one of the most vital lessons in life is learning from our mistakes, and never forgetting the depths to which mankind can sink, and it is preposterous to suggest otherwise.
Now by no means am I comparing Thatcher to Hitler, and by no means am I saying that the entire population of the country would describe her leadership as a mistake from which we have to learn from, but a significant portion (by no means a minority) would. To them, the Thatcher years are considered as the darkest in recent times, and naturally, anti-Thatcherism is something they often feel obliged to pass on to their children, and rightly so.
Now let me put my cards on the table – I was only a child when Thatcher’s reign ended. Growing up in a 1990s post-Thatcher Liverpool I remember a vastly different place than I see today. Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe were lobbying for a policy of ‘managed decline’ in our city, and the aftermath of her callous attitude towards Liverpool was felt for many many years to come. This alone makes me unashamedly believe that I have more legitimacy in criticising Thatcher than say Barrack Obama has in praising her. You see this idea (which large parts of the general public have well and truly latched on to) where you need to have experienced Thatcher’s leadership first hand to be able to comment on her, only seems to apply to her critics. No one seems to turn the argument on its head and ask why when twenty-somethings pop up on TV voxpops to tell us how she saved the country by freeing up the financial sector, how she was a role model for women in politics, or how she was a no-nonsense leader of the British armed forces (all genuine things I’ve heard this week coming from people much younger than me) these people aren’t themselves asked “what do you know?” in regards to their age.
You see it’s because Thatcherism is still in force today that these one sided arguments are the norm. We are allowed to hear of how ‘Person A’ loved Thatcher because they got onto the property ladder with the Right to Buy scheme. But not from ‘Person B’ – who due to the inevitable affect the scheme had on council housing stock and affordable housing on the whole now has nowhere to live. We are allowed to hear of how Person A made a more-than-comfortable living in the newly deregulated finance sector, but not of Person B who lost their job in any one of the many industry sell-offs, when whole communities were confined to the scrap heap with literally no other option for work.
The idea that we should all learn from Thatcher, but only from the good, is perverse to say the least.
I really don’t need to be any older to recognise that supporting Apartheid South Africa and calling Nelson Mandela a ‘common terrorist’ was wrong. That supporting Pinochet and Pol Pot, two of the world’s most evil dictators was wrong. That enshrining Clause 28 into law prohibiting the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality while stating that “children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay” was wrong. That her imperialistic stance on Northern Ireland, which as well as harming our own citizens subjugated the Irish people to unthinkable extremes, the hunger strikes in particular being a product of an archaic stance on a situation that in fact needed radical change and a fresh approach, was again wrong. That her lack of sympathy for 96 football fans, many of them children, who died at a football match, as well as the role her government had in both the initial barbaric treatment of those fans, and the subsequent cover-up was wrong. It’s also worth noting that no matter how far you believe her involvement stretched in regards to Hillsborough, that she never apologised for it.
Thatchers death has been hijacked in such a way that only she would appreciate. We are in a no-win situation where to remind people of the pain her policies caused is seen as speaking ill of the dead, or wrongly trying to justify a legitimate political opposition to the current outlook on the back of the death of an old lady. But glorifying her record is seen as a fitting tribute, and justifying cuts to welfare, education, public sector jobs, and the NHS on the back of that is just fine, after all it’s what she did, and she saved our country (apparently).
The truth is that the shockingly unequal society of which Thatcher created is still the norm, and the subsequent reaction to her death has typified that in a way that even she couldn’t have hoped for.
But then again I was only a child when Thatcher was Prime Minister.
So what do I know?