I’ve been surprised at how the death of Margaret Thatcher has triggered old responses and as her funeral fills the airways, might as well as note these reactions.

One of the things that struck me on arrival in Australia was that some aspects have a parallel universe feel but without Thatcher or the EU. The absence of the latter accounts for garish ice cream colours, inadequate food labelling and widespread use of pesticides; the former means that unions are still plentiful, have full negotiating rights throughout the public sector (with actual pay rises!), most services are in public hands and the cuts currently falling on UK are unthinkable here (though likely change of govt in September will test that hypothesis). That’s the good news. The bad news is the resemblance between current Labour party and the pre-Thatcher UK version. People often forget that activists like me joined to disrupt the cosy, corrupt union leader-councillor-developer nexus of the kind splashed across the front pages each day here. I guess the big difference is that now UK corruption is all on Tory side of the fence, with contracts being written by beneficiaries as everything passes into private ownership.  I also had some reflections on the fact that many institutions in Australia are run for employees not service users – impossible to access outside standard working hours, for example. I’d have defended that in the 80s, now not so sure.

Then Thatcher died and UK reverted to the kind of blanket triumphalism that was her hallmark, the sense that dissent must be deviant & that deviants must be excluded, punished and criminalised. Reminding me of the police forces stretched across the M1 to prevent miners or their supporters joining picket lines, the fear that filled the room in 1987 when she won again and all the black, lesbian, disabled and otherwise Othered friends watching knew they were in trouble. That was the watershed for me, the election that utterly destroyed local government, completing the transformation of that sector from active campaigners for local people to a small committee handing out contracts. We were at the Nalgo (now Unison) national conference in Blackpool, still fighting for workers’ rights, but somewhere knowing that the tide that kept us aloft through 1984-6 was ebbing, the moment gone. The libraries, nurseries, parks, small spaces that made big differences, gone. I remember arriving back to my flat in London and being surprised that there were still flowers growing in my garden; so profound was the sense of blight.

And looking back it seems we were right in our doom laden messages. The shift from collective to individual was fixed in that decade and has only deepened since, as is evidenced by the reframing of tax as theft, of education as a private advantage rather than a social good,   and personal satisfaction as the only respectable goal in life. And even though I chose to have politics rather than children, and even though I know there’s a price for that, I always consider one of my life’s great experiences has been involvement in collective action. I have walked many streets with people standing up for beliefs, giving up their wages to be heard, at a time when it took tens of thousands of such voices to break through the mainstream deafness. Or women gathering to oppose Cruise missiles at Greenham. Or on a smaller scale, low paid women going on strike in protest at the unfair dismissal of a colleague – and staying out in real hardship until it was resolved. You get to see such bravery. A couple of years ago, at the retirement party for the Nalgo branch secretary David Eggmore, I spent a wonderful evening with other activists from those heady times and realised how deeply I cared for the community we built then, and for each other.

At the end of the 80s I found meditation and moved away from the polarization of those years – the absolute right/wrongness of those politics – seeing them increasingly as aspects of the whole and letting go of my own rage, learning to accept the complexity and contradiction of contemporary life. Today, watching £10m cut from UK arts budget and spent on Thatcher’s funeral, that seems a cop out. No, let me re phrase: inequality has worsened, wealth has passed from the poor to the rich, power likewise;  the planet as well as the country has been corrupted (not due to her personally, just the movement she represented and which is being celebrated today). The younger me would have organised – not a protest at the funeral but some event drawing attention to the victims of those years. Now I see the futility of meeting noise with noise, and try to hold a space for reflection instead. It all unfolded as it did and is what it is. There is a loss, a continuing damage that can’t be repaired; I’m glad that when the lines were drawn I took sides; but I guess for me, too, the fight is over.

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