Sunday, May 03, 2009

Sweet memories of '79

I bet you didn't think you'd see a headline like that today from a left-of-centre blogger. But just as 1979 turned out to be a seminal year in British politics, so was it a seminal year for yours truly, though for different reasons I hasten I add!

I was 16 at the time Margaret Thatcher came to power, and irrespective of what was going on in the world of politics, it was a great time to be alive.

I didn't of course vote in the general election, and neither did my parents, or at least not in persons. In fact they sent in postal votes as they were on holiday in California, having left me in charge of the house for three weeks.

I spent most of those three weeks revising for my O-levels, but I also found time to learn how to cook my own meals - the first flickerings of a love affair that has lasted ever since - and to watch a lot of snooker, the World Championships in Sheffield being then, as now, the main sporting interest on telly at that time of year.

It was the year of one of the sport's great fairytales - Terry Griffiths' amazing run from the qualifiers to the championship trophy, the first time this feat had been achieved. With no mum and dad around to send me off to bed, and with dad's bottle of Scotch providing liquid sustenance, I stayed up till 2.40am to watch the conclusion of Griffiths' epic semi-final encounter with Eddie Charlton, and hear him tell David Vine afterwards: "I'm in the final now, you know" in that lilting Welsh accent.

Later that year, I fell in love for the first time, something about which I'd love to write more, but I'm not Nick Hornby, and three decades on, it would be unfair to the lady in question.

And Thatcher? Well, I guess her coming to power did play a part in my political education. Up until then, I would probably have classed myself as an apathetic Tory, but it was only after seeing the impact of her policies on the country and the divisive nature of her rule that I realised where I really stood on the political spectrum.

There will doubtless be a great deal of bollocks talked over the next 48 hours about how Thatcher "saved Britain." To my mind, there is just as convincing a case to be made that in fact she ruined it, and since we may now be reaching the end of the neo-liberal consensus which she ushered in, I think it's important that this counter-argument is heard.

Neil Clark makes the case well in an article in The First Post, arguing that Britain had created a contented society that had managed to get the balance right between work, leisure and remuneration, contrasting it positively with the anxiety-ridden, job-insecure society of today.

He's right. Britain in the 70s wasn't all that bad a place to be really. And having grown up there, I think I'm in as good a position to know as anyone.

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Stephen Rouse said...

I think a key question for historians will be how far did Thatcher actually intend the social changes that her premiership witnessed?

There's no doubt that she regarded 1979 Britain as having gone seriously off the rails. She saw her mission as restoring a more cohesive view of society - possibly from her somewhat idealised recollection of her 1930s childhood, possibly even further back than that. In her memoirs she asserts that Britain's decline began around 1880. One of her warmest memories is her grandmother's tales of her own childhood in mid-19th Century Britain. It may be that this stern Victorian lady, with her lectures on self-reliance and duty, was a greater influence on the young Thatcher than Alderman Roberts, whose early Liberal sympathies have been airbrushed from Conservative hagiography.

Whatever point she meant to set the clock back to, Thatcher may very well have been sincere in 1979 about "may we bring harmony" (not actually the words of St Francis but itself a Victorian concoction). Her erratic friend Keith's monetarist notions would be a means towards this end.

Instead, she got the 1980s. She always seemed curiously out of step with a culture of wine bars and Paula Hamilton Volkswagen commercials. Someone of her Methodist temperament could not have been happy to learn that the pornographer Paul Raymond had become Britain's richest man - the ultimate in unintended consequences.

Another Victorian, Karl Marx, was first to point out that the free market, with its destructive effects on family and community life, was at odds with social conservatism. Early in her reign, Thatcher sacked Ian Gilmour for saying much the same thing. However, her premiership may come to be regarded as clinching evidence that old Karl, on this point at least, got it right.

Anonymous said...

Take care in quoting Neil Clark. His politics are extreme right-wing: hanger, anti-immigration and genocide denier. His article on the Iraq interpters is notorious.

Anonymous said...

You were just too young to appreciate the absolute mayhem the Labour Party wrought, then?

Andy said...

I too was a child in the 1970s. We lived in a council house with a 1950s pre-fab kitchen, wooden sash windows - which had ice inside in the winter, there was mould up the walls and the neighbourhood was frightening.

Anonymous said...

'To my mind, there is just as convincing a case to be made that in fact she ruined it, and since we may now be reaching the end of the neo-liberal consensus which she ushered in, I think it's important that this counter'

Paul,So if that's the case why did New Labour adopt her economic policies,her housing policies and did not reverse her trade union reforms????

Or is it just the inconvenient truth that doesn't fit your narrative?

skipper said...

Maybe a bit too simplistic to blame Thatcher for failure of world economy- I wonder if the system might not have worked OK if regulation had been more effectively and assiduously applied. New Labour, for embracing the approach so slavishly maybe deserve more blame than Maggie.