Thatchers impact on me

Listening in on BBC Radio London, and watching the social media around Margaret Thatchers death has been difficult. She was polarizing in life, and so in death. Billy Bragg, Morrissey both wrote long pieces on the effect, and impact of what she did. @ragtag aka Karl Roche a former IBM colleague posted a link to Russel Brands piece on Mrs. Thatch. in yesterdays Guardian.

Brand makes many good points, especially near the end when he says:

The blunt, pathetic reality today is that a little old lady has died, who in the winter of her life had to water roses alone under police supervision. If you behave like there’s no such thing as society, in the end there isn’t. Her death must be sad for the handful of people she was nice to and the rich people who got richer under her stewardship.

and

I do recall that even to a child her demeanour and every discernible action seemed to be to the detriment of our national spirit and identity. Her refusal to stand against apartheid, her civil war against the unions, her aggression towards our neighbours in Ireland and a taxation system that was devised in the dark ages, the bombing of a retreating ship – it’s just not British.

I’m not getting dragged into the venomous, partisan discussion about what she did and didn’t do for Britain. Unlike Brand, I am old enough now to understand what Thatcher did for me, and why. I can never say how, what, and where I would have ended up if she had not existed, because she did.

Margaret Thatcher was clearly a reaction to the post 2nd World War Britain. A country that lost half a million people in the 2nd World War, almost 1% of its’ total population. The devastation to London and the home counties was second only to those European countries and cities who had been in a direct battle. In post war Britain, everyone came together, great numbers of people came from the north of England, from the West Indies and from Ireland to help rebuild, to create the new communities.

Britain came into its’ own, united, social, and made great gains and great recoveries. I grew up in a town that housed some 70,000 people, that for the most part hadn’t existed 10-years before I was born, it was just a small town. There were six similar towns, all around London.

Britain had been at the forefront of many things, culture, music, art, while flower power didn’t start in the UK, it quickly found a home in London, we had the swinging sixties, The Beatles, The Stones, David Bailey, David Bowie, Roxy Music. Heck in 1966 England even won the Soccer World Cup. My generation had everything to look forward to, including not having to suffer from the dour and gray days of pre-war London, the Rachman like exploitation suffered by recent immigrants in West London, we lived in a relatively affluent suburb, with plentiful council and social housing.

We also had loads of job opportunities  both heavy industry and technical industry, administration and the emerging information society. Things were not perfect, many of the old industries were suffering from intransigence of the Unions; Industry and the Unions lacked the vision and competition to be successful in the new world order, driven by the emergent Japan and the other European countries buoyed by the US Marshal Plan, of which Britain had been the biggest recipient we were floundering.

For me though, the election of the Thatcher government in 1979, took me from the euphoria of the early 1970’s, laced with the frustration of the 3-day week, to wondering how, and what to make of myself. My parents took advantage of the Thatcher governments “gerrymandering” and bought their council home. The effect over the next few years was to fundamentally change the country, riots, no chance of social housing, little chance of private rental, soaring mortgage and interest rates, the “me” culture.

When I first met my future wife, Wendy. Our first home was a rental on the ground floor of a damp, Victorian house. It was super expensive, came with its own mold, wallpaper wouldn’t stay on the walls in the bathroom and the kitchen, because the walls were so damp.  The chances of getting a mortgage were no existent. We went to see the council, and were seriously advised that the best way to get any chance of a council home, was for Wendy to have a baby, and for us to live apart. I was astounded, speechless, angry.

We’d gone from the bright future of the late 1960’s, early 1970’s back to the 1930’s. Job’s were scarce, communities had been decimated, people were rioting on the streets. I managed to get a job with Canada Life Assurance in Potters Bar. I had no idea where it would lead, but it came with the possibility of a Life Insurance backed mortgage at preferential rates. 1980, we moved into a small, terraced house, built in 1896, and were paying the preferential mortgage rate of 15%. Yes, 15%, and when Wendy and I decided to start a family in 1982, and Wendy stopped work, my salary was barely covering the mortgage and bills, there was no real alternative housing.

It’s not that I felt anyone owed me anything, but it’s hard to explain, given I had not lived through a war, not been transported to a different country, not been subject to a family breakup, in fact to this day, I’ve never been unemployed a day in my life. But everything had changed.

And so it was when I got a phone call from a recruiter, a bank from NY was coming to London and wanted to talk to me. I went for the interview, and when on the same day as the interview, they offered me a job, I stopped at High St Kensington tube station and made a call to Wendy. “Where had I been?” – “what had I been doing?” – I would be home later and explain it all. I bought a babygrow for Ella before getting on the train and the next 4-weeks were a whirlwind, as we first made a decision to move to New York City, and then rapidly set about closing out our former lives in England.

I can say with all honesty, not that I’d ever met Mrs Thatcher, or because the British are bad people, but I couldn’t see how I’d ever get a fair chance in the UK. I’ve never looked back. I can’t say how things would have been different if Margaret Thatcher hadn’t been Prime Minister, because she was. What I do know, having been thinking about this a lot over the last few days, is that I made Norman Tebitt proud, I did what he extolled us to do in 1981, I got on my bike and rode out of town.  Maggie would have approved.

Many, if not all my core beliefs though are the antithesis of Mrs Thatchers’. I do what I can for others, I believe in a social safety net. I believe government has a role in setting and defining how we should lead our lives; I believe in a fair taxation system, where those that have the most, pay the most; I believe in a common, state funded medical system; I believe that workers should have the legal choice to organize to defend themselves against an exploitative employer; I don’t know if this was because of the socialist culture that I grew up in, or as a reaction to what I watched get destroyed, or just because, well they are the rights of a society.

For all that though, I can’t see what all the fuss was about, Mrs Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, did the job she was elected for. My American friends to this day don’t understand that in Britain we don’t elect the Prime Minister, we elect a MPs. they belong to a party, and the party MP chose their leader. Mrs Thatcher was for perhaps as much as 10-years, a leader.

My parents, their peers, knew what they were voting for and got it. Mrs Thatcher though never built anything that society wanted or needed, compared to those that had come before her, she’d never really passed any substantive, lasting law, except the 1980 Housing Act. Most of which followed, despite her ladies not for turning aspiration was either reversed, not implemented or superseded. In comparison with Clement Atlee, Mrs Thatcher never built anything, she just tore things down and sold them off. As Brand said “If you behave like there’s no such thing as society, in the end there isn’t”.

Author: Mark Cathcart

Formerly an Executive Director of Systems Engineering and a Senior Distinguished Engineer at Dell. Prior to that, an IBM Distinguished Engineer working for the Systems Group in NY and Austin. I'm currently "retired until further notice".

2 thoughts on “Thatchers impact on me”

  1. What a great perspective and one that I never appreciated. Here in the states, I saw Reagan and Thatcher being closely aligned and friendly. We went through a terrible economy in 1982 with interest rates at 12-16%. And then things went terrific afterwards….though who would have thought they’d go as low as they have, post 2008. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Jim. Yes, I’ve read lots of great generalizations about Thatchers impact, but almost all of them were simply amplifying or repeating generally spoken impact. I liked Russel Brands perspective, but it also make me think through mine, and write them up.

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