Thatching is the craft of building a roof with dry vegetation such as straw, water reed, sedge (Cladium mariscus),rushes, or heather, layering the vegetation so as to shed water away from the inner roof. (Source – Wikipedia)
Some believe, on the other hand, that rather than protecting people’s homes from the elements, this Thatcher actually took the roof from over the heads of some of the the UK’s population. Whether it was her policy (or her Government’s policy) to do this through privatisation, demographic segregation, the Poll Tax or simply by rolling out the council house ‘right to buy’ scheme is open to debate. Whatever side of this debate you’re on, it’s as contentious and divisive as the self styled Iron Lady herself.
I grew up in the Thatcher era. I lived through the flickering TV images of ‘coal not dole’, bodies piled in hospital morgues and Leicester Square full of bin sacks during General Strikes. Power Cuts (which actually helped my late Mother’s cooking prowess!), the three-day week and the infamous winter of discontent are all stark memories of a Britain few younger than 30 would recognise.
Whilst colour TV was still in it’s infancy, Britain in the early eighties was highly monochromatic. Cities were coated in the detritus of industry, I recall Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham and Liverpool looking distinctly dower even on the sunniest day. Even our capital, London, had blackened Portland Stone buildings with ‘Big Ben’ seemingly coated in a dark chocolate sauce.
The cause of this soot had it’s basis in hard work. It was the status symbol of a nation that made things. Where glass towers, shopping malls and luxury condominiums now stand, chimneys, cooling towers and winding houses puffed, chugged and heaved blackened workers involved in heavy duty engineering and mechanical industry.
My home town of Walsall made Leather goods which were distributed across the world. Birmingham was famous for steel, jewellery, dunlop tyres and other heavy industry that littered the landscape from the Welsh borders to the green fields of Leicestershire. The mines of Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire stretched to The Potteries and to Coventry in the South. Parts of Telford’s Industrial Revolution were so dense, that The Black Country was named due to the levels of soot and carbon in the air.
So what happened to all this, and was it all Thatcher’s fault?
In my opinion, it wasn’t. If one studies the cracks that begun to appear in the early 70’s following post war optimism, we can see that our beloved Industry was falling apart. Coal, Steel, Car Production and Utility Industries were all beset by Industrial Action (strikes), where huge swathes of workers would ‘down tools’ for hours or days on end. At the same time, international crisis dominated the news and when combined with the laissez faire attitudes of British workers, this became a toxic combination that ate away at the foundations of British infrastructure.
You can also see, that as Thatcher came to power, other, previously unnoticed economies started to develop. The physical, political and economic world around us was changing and Britain was on strike!
Thatcher had little option to change the way we did things in the UK. Whether you believe these changes were correctly positioned or indeed whether they were the right things to do at the right time is a personal view, but I’d refer you back to previous blogs regarding ‘change’ and how best to deliver it.
She was a strategist, a thinker, a passionate believer in commerce and a patriot. On the other hand she was blinkered, opinionated and controlling. It’s alleged, if she didn’t get her way, she would ‘shut down’ with nuances in language that the media would pick up on in later years.
In order to get things moving, she needed hard cash. To do this, City Regulation and Exchange Controls were scrapped or reduced. Taxes were levelled. She knew that The Square Mile had to become the powerhouse of the UK.
In addition to cash, she also needed a motivated workforce. She set about a little known strategy to take on The Trades Unions, particularly in the Mines of the East Midlands and The North. To do this, she needed luck, stealth like tactics and secrecy, but most importantly she needed to stockpile huge amounts of coal – she instinctively knew what action her opponents would take. She was in for a battle!
Whilst what ensued later is well documented, the miner’s strikes decimated the Coal Industry. There are now less than five collieries remaining in the UK.
Whole communities across England, Wales and Scotland became wastelands. Whilst invisible trade boomed, buoyed by the ‘Big Bang’, traditional industries were beginning to creak and fail. The North / South divide was forming.
A similar divide was also forming more clearly in the media. Pictures of young, upwardly mobile city workers (branded Yuppies) drinking Moet and tapping their brick-like cellular phones dominated the right facing press. Conversely, the left leaning publications talked of the tales of woe in the Welsh Valleys, in Mansfield, Rotherham and Sheffield.
During all this change, I watched as a teenager as some of my fellow pupils came to school in older looking uniform, in shoes that had ‘seen better days’ and who were clearly more withdrawn. The kids were under pressure from the reduction in the heavy industry of Birmingham and it’s surrounds, parents were being made redundant – the changes were now much closer to home.
So what was going on in Government at this time? Well, I believe there were more decisions, more effort and less contrition than in any government or coalition we’ve seen since. Maggie was ‘on a roll’ and whilst she looked bulletproof, subsequent general election results and the antipathy felt by the IRA resulted in some mental and physical knocks for The Iron Lady and her Cabinet.
At the same time, our relationship with world powers changed – but it had to. If you are over 30, think about your own life since Magie…
At this time, your delivery firms became ‘logistics’ providers – because no longer did the UK dig something out the ground, smelt it and make a car from it. It was cheaper to make headlights in France, car doors in Japan, plastics in China and tyres in Germany and bring them all together (on a Just In Time (JIT) basis) on a robotic production line in Milan. The Fiat Strada was the first car which used robotics but also used international logistics in it’s raw material sourcing.
Think about getting a phone in your home. In the UK, regulations and triplication often meant a phone line would take six weeks to install in the days of Buzby! Post regulation and with 80,000 fewer employees, the newly privatised British Telecom would install you a pug and socket in a fortnight – and a phone with a push-button! “Phones for the push-button generation” was their Saatchi-esque strapline at the time!
By the time Electricity, Gas, Phones and Airlines were all privatised, we’d become international, we’d also become a little more European (albeit with a small ‘e’). Stories about the length or curve of European bananas were abound, but Maggie managed this ridicule by pushing-back against bureaucracy – but at the same time, allowing the UK to become closer where it would assist with her agenda.
When you sit back and think about the change that the UK went through during Maggie’s reign, it wasn’t just significant, it was monumental. We know there were economic highs and lows throughout this period too, but recovery ensued and the cycle of boom and bust was created.
And there’s the legacy. Constant cycles in economic wealth which lasted until 2007 and many believe will last forever.
The communities which were built around heavy industry are, in the majority still surviving but as ‘dormitory’ towns where workers commute out on the morning and return later in the day after working in offices or shops – built atop rubble where steel foundries once stood. There are also swathes of mainly Male workers and their families in these areas that haven’t worked since and have brought up children that have also never worked.
The economic legacy of privatisation gives us a very 21st century problem now, with Rail franchises part stated owned, the electricity industry being so dissipated that we now face power cuts and water companies struggling to supply water in drought or protecting our coasts from erosion and floods – the international companies involved in the very veins that keep our country alive are attracted by the money, but spend it where there’s greatest shareholder return. As a shareholder, I’d approve in that strategy, but as a citizen of the UK, I’d like some surety that the power will stay on next winter!
So as I write this, I reflect on the highs and lows, the impact her government had on my family, but I also think about what I’m doing right now.
I’m typing on my Mac, made in China, bought via an MBNA credit card, which I obtained because the banking market was deregulated. I sit in a coffee shop where the furniture is is made in Europe but assembled 7 miles from my home. I live in a town which has high speed internet access provided by an international business and rely on a mobile phone made in China and on a network based in Hong Kong. I drive a German car, drive on extended and widened motorways, maintained by a French company.
At the same time, I listen to the news this morning and hear the hatred that remains for Maggie in large parts of the UK. Morally, I believe this is wrong. Margaret Thatcher is a person, a Mother and whatever we think of her politics, hatred is a very strong term and having a ‘death party’ is shameful.
I believe we all have a little to thank Maggie for. To do this though, one needs to sit down, depersonalise and rationalise your thoughts. We also need to overcome prejudices, sexism, political bias but most importantly we have to respect the past, but also move forward.
On thing is for sure, if I could bottle the vitriol and energy that I’ve heard and seen in the media since the death of Maggie, the country would soon recover from it’s current economic gloom!