Thursday, April 11, 2013

"Winter of '79"

There's only really one topic to write about at the moment over here in the U. of K.

Next week the nation (those of them who are interested) buries an old lady who ran things back in the 1980s. She's divided opinion sharply (and I mean sharply) pretty much since the day she came to power, and in death she seems to have lost none of her polarising fascination.

The media is awash with encomia and hatchet jobs in pretty much equal measure; social media is engaged in vast contest to see who can be most pleased at her demise; such was her stature (if that's the right word) that Parliament reassembled for a day this week, at vast expense, to perform a seven-hour panegyric in which one side lauded her to the heavens and half-seriously wished she was still in charge, and the other danced an intricate waltz in which it criticised her record without actually ever appearing to do so. Thirty years ago the very same party was calling for her head on a pike, and not entirely figuratively, either.

Newspapers have been filling pages with pictures of kids gleefully burning photos of her, in much the same way Middle Eastern folks occasionally torch an American flag. Now, most of the people in these pictures are clearly twenty-somethings, which means they were either not even born when she left office, or at the very most were still wearing onesies and clutching soft toys. By the time they became intellectually aware of the world around them they were at the fag-end of the Blair years.

So why are so many kids dancing on Thatcher's grave? Have they been sitting at their grandparents' knees, absorbing folkloric tales of one woman's malevolence towards an entire nation? Or are they just a bunch of try-hard hipsters getting in nice and early on the latest social trend?

And, to be honest, why is Margaret Thatcher being singled out for this treatment? Is it the sudden prevalence of social media? (If so, what's going to happen when George W Bush kicks on?) Or is there really something deep-rooted in the national psyche that continues to hold her in contempt for some dimly-recalled offences?

I hasten to add that there are entire swathes of British society that felt her lash good and proper: communities flattened by mass unemployment, entire sectors of the economy torched. But what slightly puzzles me is why everyone seems to believe that Thatcher emerged fully-formed, foaming of mouth and blazing of eye, to lay waste a Britain that was, at the very moment of her election, a paradise of plenty where everyone worked and everyone was adequately provided for. In other words, they seem to think she single-handedly demolished the country.

And that just isn't true. Britain was already in a bad way.

In 1976, Britain had to go cap-in-hand to the International Monetary Fund for a loan after inflation hit 27%. Unemployment was at a then-record; there were strikes in 1978-1979 that left uncollected rubbish piling up in the streets and fuel shortages; the Labour government even considered passing laws to restrict trade union influence.

And most of this before Thatcher even became leader of her party.

I make these points not from any love for radical right-wing policies, but from the suspicion that Margaret Thatcher, to a limited extent, has had a raw deal. She came to power and dealt with the existing conditions according to her convictions. The situation was already the situation. I don't care to speculate as to where we would be now if thing had turned out differently, but I think anyone who's passing judgement on her reign as Prime Minister should have a care and take into consideration the conditions that formed the context to her convictions and policies.

And, moving on belatedly to the music, here's another misconception. Most of the late-70s/early 80s politically-oriented musicians - your Billy Braggs, your Clash, your Paul Wellers and your Tom Robinsons, are all lumped together and considered to be musicians who came to prominence when they harnessed their muse in protest at the devastation that Thatcher's policies wrought.

But that's simply wrong. They were well on their journey before she even arrived. The Clash's "White Riot" was released in 1977, almost two years before Thatcher was elected. It was only the Jam's two last albums that coincided with Maggie's reign. Only Billy Bragg could reasonably be said to have made his reputation through his opposition to the Iron Lady.

Even Tom Robinson, who wrote a fair few inflammatory songs in his time, was largely done and dusted as a top-selling musician when the Conservative revolution began. And while I've always admired his music and particularly his lyrics, his convictions, none of Robinson's best-known songs can ever be attributed to a reaction to Thatcherism.

"Winter of '79" I particularly love because it's rooted in daily experience, in events and pastimes that everyone knows. Like the Jam's "That's Entertainment" or "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" it's a slice of real life from an industry that very rarely peddled reality. Like most of Robinson's work it's shot through with the sort of paranoia that agitators and activists all felt at the time, the nagging feeling that you were being watched, being tracked. In many cases, even today, it really isn't all that paranoid a notion, but nonetheless, with the distance of time and age, I sometimes find myself chortling and thinking to myself that he can't be serious.

The problem is, he was, and there are people who'll attest to the fact that it still happens today. Ask anyone who's protested against the extension of Heathrow Airport in London, or who have protested in the financial district, or during a G8 meeting. It doesn't require a swivel-eyed radical right-winger at the helm of the country to have surveillance squads checking on the activities of protesters. Maybe our experiences since 9/11 have made these activities more expedient, but they're not new and it's not just the conservatives that deploy them.


Russell Duffy said...

I cannot recall anyone PM who has really had vision. I am too young to remember Clement Atlee so my political recall begins with Harold Macmillan. Now he, much like good old Winston (he of the state funeral and savoiur of this nation) were true blue Conservatives. The Iron Lady was not. She will always, as your article suggests, polarise opinion.Elvis Costello once famously said he would not dance on her grave as he wouldn't want to dirty his shoes. As much as I admire the man as a songwriter I cannot help but smile.
Not one leader of my nation has ever led in the way I would like. Not one Tory nor even those of the Labour party.
I don't like Margaret Thatcher for reasons I shall mention later BUT, she did restore national pride with her decisive action with the Falklands conflict and she most certainly did make Britain a free market nation and a world presence again. The free market of course was inherited by Blair (a red Tory) who then took it one stage further hence the current state of financial crisis but again that is another issue.
With all politicians balance should be applied when judgements are passed.Thatcher wasn't all bad anymore than she was all good. She came to power at a time when Britain was down on its knees. She did not apply vision, if she had she wouldn't have closed the pits only for the next lot to open them again due to need for fuel, but she did react with authority and she did repair the economy BUT she did not love Britain; she did not even love England: she loved London and the South East and as much as I benefited from her methods those other Brits, Scots, Yorkshire folk, Geordie's and goodness knows who else suffered.
Thanks to Margaret Thatcher we are now the fourth wealthiest nation in the world. But never forget at what a cost.

PS. Another fine post.

Russell Duffy said...

PPS. The whole 'punk/new wave' movement was as much fuelled by a desire to be rid of prog rock as it was a political retort. Lydon made mention of how awful Callaghan's time in power was. Paul Weller and others wanted a return to the so called 'better times' of the sixties. The only thing that really was remarkable about that decade was the pill!

Island 41 said...

Thankful to read a piece set in context about the current, soon to be forgotten, cause célèbre.