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Wednesday, 10 April 2013

A Passing Reflection on Margaret Thatcher

I don’t have a huge amount to say about the late Margaret Thatcher. I won’t be dancing in the streets, as some people are now that she’s dead - although I understand why they feel moved to do so. But I do wish she had never happened to us. I am convinced that her policies have had a malign effect on our country and that they are largely responsible for the thing that grieves me most today, namely, the great chasm that has opened up between the resources of and prospects for the poor and those of the rich. I think we will pay quite a price for that in the fullness of time. The last time we were so unbalanced it took two world wars to shake things up.

However…. Whenever the subject of Thatcher’s policies comes up in conversation I remember where we were when she came to office in May 1979. I was at the time a freight train guard and a member of the National Union of Railwaymen. I worked alongside drivers, who belonged to ASLEF, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen. I well recall the time, in the winter of 1978-79, when the drivers were going out on strike on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a scheme designed to inflict maximum damage on the scheduling of the network. I was walking to the depot for a Monday night shift when I bumped into one of them. ‘Are you out on strike again this week?’ I asked. ‘Dunno,’ he said. ‘I forgot to put the news on before I left home.’ It struck me as significant that, in a supposedly democratic union, the members were required to watch the main TV news at ten o’clock to find out whether or not their leaders had called them out. Maybe it wasn’t so very odd. Maybe that was the best way to do things with a large membership who worked a bizarre and complicated shift pattern. But I had had my own problems with union representatives in my factory days. The shop stewards at Rowntrees seemed to be doing little more than getting together with the management to make sure that people like me didn’t rock the (very cosy) boat.

What I also remember from those days was the number of people I worked with who admitted that, yes, they were going to vote for the Tories for the first time in their lives, who agreed that, yes, their parents would turn in their graves... but in their eyes Labour – and our own unions – were destroying the country. I also remember the trouble I had in reconciling my sympathies with the legitimate demands of the coal-miners and the vainglorious posturing of their leader Arthur Scargill, who seemed to have studied and adopted the body language of such demagogues as Adolf Hitler.

One more memory, of election night: May 3rd 1979. I was working a freight train to Newcastle, signing on at 1348h. It as a chilly spring afternoon. By the time we got back to York dusk was falling. The fields beside the river seemed a strange pallid colour, the result of the first May snowfall I’d ever witnessed. It seemed ominous. Within two or three hours of my arriving home they were already forecasting a Conservative victory.

We long ago recognised that Thatcher had won the war. Her policies have taken root, her ethos prevails. Labour has changed everything except its name. Her death is of little real consequence. Her legacy is what counts.