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For International Women’s Day, I wanted to share something I wrote a few years ago about one of the great women of the 20th century, Margaret Thatcher.
That “Thatcher’s children” is still a term of abuse shows how Margaret Thatcher and the decade she dominated are still relevant. Conjured up by Eds Miliband and Izzard, ‘Thatcher’ is shorthand for greed and destructive selfishness.
But there’s a problem. If it was all so bad and she was so awful how did she win every one of the three elections she fought with large majorities? How did she win such impressive numbers of working class votes? Who on earth voted for her?
I didn’t, I was too young. I was born in 1980 in Sheffield in the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire, so called because its far left Labour council wasted its time on silly stunts like flying the red flag over the city hall on the day of Charles and Diana’s wedding while this once great industrial centre withered. My father, who worked in the steel works, was the son of an Irish immigrant and had grown up in a single parent family in the 1950’s. My mother’s father had never worked and as a socialist student and trade unionist in the early 1970’s she had been on exchange trips to Eastern Europe. Both of them voted for Margaret Thatcher.
My dad put it this way:
“When I was growing up in Sheffield in the sixties you had, on the one hand, the patrician Tories like Harold Macmillan, saying ‘Stay where you are lad, know your place, we know what’s best’. On the other you had the socialists like Harold Wilson saying ‘Stay where you are lad, the forces of capitalism are out to get you and you need us to protect you’”.
Either way the message was the same; stay where you are.
Maggie changed all this. She believed, and communicated the belief, that people could, through hard work and a willingness to take risks, improve their situation, that they were masters of their own fate. What’s more, there was no shame in wanting to do better for yourself and your family. By conquering double digit inflation, which had ravaged middle class savings and working class earnings in the 1970’s, and cutting taxes, allowing workers to keep more of the money they earned, she created the opportunity for individuals and their families to get on.
My family seized this opportunity. By the mid 1980’s my parents could see the grim prospects for Sheffield and, to borrow a phrase popular at the time, the three of us got on our bike and went looking for work. We ended up on the northern edge of London where we ran headlong into inner Londoners moving the other way.
These people who I grew up among had once lived in council properties and been tenants of the government. Then Thatcher passed the Housing Act of 1980 which allowed them to buy their homes at a discount reflecting the rent paid previously. Two million people in eight years took advantage of the scheme and, for the first time, were owners with their own capital and not dependents on government handouts. These were the C2’s, the skilled working class voters Labour had taken for granted, who grasped the Thatcherite ethos of opportunity and responsibility.
Individualism didn’t mean isolation. A lively group was formed by residents of my estate called HART (Hundred Acre Residential Team) who hassled the council over bus shelters and bins and organised a big community barbeque on the green by my house every summer. The ‘Big Society’ hadn’t been coined but we already had it. Eating hot dogs, listening to Chas and Dave, and moaning about Spurs with their neighbours, that is how I remember these people.
This might all sound a little ‘I’m alright Jack’. This was the decade of 3 million unemployed and areas like Sheffield devastated when Thatcher switched off the taxpayer funded life support systems which had kept zombie industries like coal and steel going. Where an ever increasing share of Britain’s ever decreasing wealth had been sunk in an unproductive public sector, Thatcher liberated it for the wealth generating private sector. That, not austerity, is the relevance for the UK today.
And working people benefitted. As the median income rose by 25%, foreign holidays doubled. The year before Thatcher cut taxes my family’s annual holiday was a day out in Castleton. After nine years of Thatcherism my dad could take me to France for a week. As state owned companies were sold off the number of shareholders increased by 266%. Thatcher did more to give workers ownership of the means of production than any left wing government.
The changes wrought by Thatcherism upset those “socialists” and “patrician Tories” my dad spoke of. For the socialists, theatre luvvie Jonathan Miller (St John’s College, Oxford) decried Thatcherism as the “anarchism of the lower middle classes”. For the Tories, Macmillan is said to have bemoaned a Thatcher cabinet that contained “more Estonians than Etonians”, a reference to upwardly mobile Jews like Keith Joseph, Nigel Lawson, and Leon Brittan who were so prominent in it. In 1990, after 15 years of chafing under the rule of a greengrocer’s daughter, the patrician Tories finally scraped together the backbone to do what the left had proved incapable of; they brought her down.
Left behind were the people who refused to know their place, who believed, as the popular song went, that the only way was up. On TV they were celebrated as Terry McCann or Del Boy or sneered at as ‘Loadsamoney’ by a privately educated left wing comedian. The people who voted for the ‘evil’ Thatcher in large numbers were not the well heeled likes of David Cameron or George Osborne who prompt cries of ‘Thatcher!’ now. The voters who really made it possible were the hard working, friendly, risk taking, optimistic working class men and women I grew up with who Margaret Thatcher helped to become middle class. These were Thatcher’s children.
John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.