The Iron Lady crumbles to rust: Thoughts on the passing of Margaret Thatcher
By Ayom Wol Dhal
I grew up in London in the 1970s and 80s, under Thatcher. We first noticed her (long before she was Prime Minister), because she abolished free milk in schools for poor kids like me and everybody I knew. We called her ’Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher’. As a Dinka, I should perhaps have paid more attention to an attack on milk. However, as I personally disliked the quarter-pint of English pasteurised milk, which didn’t taste like the back-home milk with which I’d had no problem, I wasn’t too upset, to be honest.
Thus, her first claim to fame was as an anti-poor activist. She was a figure of hate.
She built upon this reputation over the years, snatching important benefits from those who needed them most. She destroyed entire industries, such as Northern English and Welsh coal mining, destituting the communities which had depended upon them for generations. Many of us marched against her (“Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Out! Out! Out!” was our cry, when I was a teenager).
She laid waste to the public sector, replacing crucial public sector infrastructural responsibilities with a private sector free-for-all. Professional water management in London and the Thames Valley, having begun in the 1600s, was privatised in 1989 under Thatcher, and has been owned, since 2001, by a German corporation and an Australian bank, which clearly have little local stakeholdership, but do have deep commercial interests. This is a direct corollary of Margaret Thatcher’s insanely doctrinaire, pro-private sector, sell-off-the-family-silver-cheap attitude. It is well to remember that it was under Margaret Thatcher that the deregulation of the banking sector began, a trend directly connected to the current financial crisis.
She prosecuted the ridiculous ’Malvinas/Falklands War’, on shaky, pro-colonialist grounds, the repercussions of which are still reverberating across the Atlantic Ocean. 957 people died over a period of 74 days, hardly a skirmish in global terms, but the conflict was exploited to maximum effect by Mrs. Thatcher. We the Thatcher Generation will never forget that notorious footage of her in a middle-aged-middle-class-lady-headscarf on a tank (in England far away from battle of course). Nor will we forget the racist rhetoric which the British press employed in support of this ’war’.
In a post-script which is particularly ridiculous to South Sudanese, the Falkland Islands conducted a comic (and essentially rigged) referendum this March, in which 1,513 British settlers voted to remain British. Racism writ large, and the persistence of the British Empire in one tiny corner of the world.
And as we’re speaking of racism and colonialism, let us not forget Margaret Thatcher’s deep and obstinate support for Apartheid-era South Africa, which was by then more or less a pariah state. It was the target of almost universal sanctions as a result of its unapologetically racist, brutal and exploitative system, which had bought a luxury life for the tiny white settler elite at the expense of the huge majority of black and brown people. For those too young to remember, perhaps only North Korea is somewhat comparable in terms of international notoriety (though very very different). Yet, while political prisoners were being tortured, killed or jailed, Thatcher was steadfastly and openly supportive of the criminal regime responsible. I boycotted apartheid gold for so long I eventually decided I just didn’t like it any more; meanwhile, Thatcher’s crass and rapacious cronies invested in sanctioned minerals with glee.
We hated her. And I probably hated her more than most of my generation.
And yet, and yet… the rise of the entrepreneurial private sector, under her sponsorship, has had long-reaching effects, many of them positive. I’m not talking about her sell-off of public housing, which has led to chaos and impoverishment, once more, for the most vulnerable (though it brought in plenty of dodgy cash for government).
No, I’m thinking of the impact of those deeply Thatcherite bodies (despite their liberal-lefty veneer), Virgin Records and the Body Shop. We who were there all remember the narratives of planning a world-beating business on the kitchen table. Anita Roddick and Richard Branson have served as a template for many, many entrepreneurs who were inspired by their examples. Many of them were from poor or immigrant communities, who persevered despite the usual difficulties of obtaining start-up capital. Many lives were bettered by the realisation that it was possible to jump off the daily grind and start something for yourself.
For high-achieving women, she was a model of sorts. She undoubtedly stormed a bastion of male privilege and power with singular strength of mind. She rose through class barriers which had previously seemed impenetrable, taking on ancestral, born-to-rule aristocrats (the Grandees), who despised people of her middle-class origins. She famously divested herself (through voice coaching) of her naturally squeaky, womanish voice in favour of deeper tones, more masculine and therefore more worthy of attention by those in and out of authority. She certainly displayed admirable single-mindedness in achieving her goals, such as they were. However, regardless of her status as a powerful woman, she appeared deeply unwilling to promote women to her Cabinet. Having climbed a hard ladder, she pulled that ladder up behind her.
She was a working woman of strong if inconsistent maternal instincts. The mother of twins, Carol and Mark, she notoriously favoured the boy. Daughter Carole is a fairly well-known media personality in the UK, and an open lesbian. Sir Mark, the second Baronet Thatcher, is not so well loved by the public, having developed a reputation for stupidity and moral laxity. During 1992, whilst competing in the Paris-Dakar rally (that prime pastime for rich white boys), he managed to get lost for 6 days, prompting the kind of public tears from his mother which she had never shed for the miners and other poor British people whose lives she had wrecked.
In a particularly notorious episode, Mark Thatcher was caught red-handed while attempting to change the regime in resource-rich Equatorial Guinea, with the help of a motley crew of South African and British ex-forces mercenaries. He claimed, during the resultant 2005 South African court case, that he was under the impression he had been investing in an air ambulance service to benefit needy African children… despite this touching plea, he was fined $500,000 and given a suspended jail sentence of four years.
All of us who experienced that period of history are infected by Thatcher. She was an enormous figure; icon for many, bete-noire for many others. When she was eventually assassinated (politically) by the very pretty-boys and yes-men she had promoted, she exploded into a million pieces. We all, like it or not, carry a shard of Thatcher in our souls.
So now she is gone, after a lengthy and demented twilight, long-bereaved of her beloved and allegedly hen-pecked husband. What do we make of her? I am told that street parties were held yesterday to celebrate her passing in a few places in the UK, including my former hilla, Brixton. The chant of my long-ago days of youthful activism has now become “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Dead! Dead! Dead!” This is going too far, one should not dance at the death of even a deadly enemy.
Ultimately and undeniably, Margaret Hilda Thatcher was a towering figure. She broke the mould of British politics, re-defining the class and gender barriers which were still powerful when she began her rise to power. She changed the expectations and aspirations of all British people, like it or not. She was a remarkable woman, a remarkable human being. We should all wish her bon voyage on this new journey of hers, and admit that we will never forget her.
Ayom Wol Dhal is an independent consultant specialising in the areas of media and civil society and is currently volunteering as the head of communications for the South Sudan National Reconciliation Campaign. All views in the preceding article are hers alone and do not reflect the policies or views of any organisation or body. She is based in Juba and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org