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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. 


  1. It's a good article but a few things get over-looked when people say Thatcher should be thanked for breaking the unions hold.

    First you need to apreciate the job of a union is to protect their members interests. Yes a hell of a lot used their position to promote their own views and that was as wrong then as it is now. But no person goes on strike for the fun of it, yes those who have had no responsibilites at the time used strikes as an excuse but that was because they had little or no say or interest in the facts of a dispute.

    Second. You really do need to go back in history to apreciate the real reason why unions strike, far too many people assume and are lead to the assumption that it's because workers want more pay. That often not true.

    Agreements were broke by managment at the time simply because Thatcher wouldn't invest in industry. This was the reason for the car & coal strikes. Unions had agreements in place for their workers and at the time the managment was happy to sign off on their because it meant they got their way. She forced managment to go back on those signed agreements so what else could workers do but go on strike.
    For example, if you boss wanted you to change your lunch break from 60mins to 30mins you would expect something in return. Say you agree an extra few pound in wages ? you would be annoyed if they then turned arounand said rather then more money you will get less. This is exactly what happened to some.

  2. At fifty, I'm slightly too young to have voted in 1979 but, if I had, I would have voted for her, such was the power of that great Saachi advertising campaign.

    And yet, looking at those youngsters who are currently celebrating her death, I can see a generation that will be paying for some of Thatcher's appallingly damaging policies for the rest of their lives.


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