The days between the announcement of her death and her not-state-but-ceremonial state funeral on 17 April 2013 were filled with analysis of the so-called Thatcher Legacy. As I grew up politically in her time as leader of the Conservative Party, I couldn’t help but review her influence on me personally.
My first introduction to Margaret Thatcher was in September 1971, when I moved school, to Le Bon Sauveur Convent School, Holyhead. On asking why we didn’t get our 1/3 pint bottle of milk with a straw at break time at my new school, I was told it was because a lady called Margaret Thatcher said we could not have them anymore. The weak squash or water was no substitute.
I remained blissfully ignorant of her progress through the Conservative Party until the 1979 election. At the time I was on a school exchange, spending the summer term at a private school in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Paris (Notre-Dame Saint-Croix). Language learning in that school was far more advanced than in my own school. The English language class was conducted almost entirely in English, with a slot each week to discuss current affairs in the UK. I was asked to give an explanation of the key issues in the general election, and my prediction of the outcome.
In 1979 I had some confused ideas about the value of trade unions. In the winter of 1977/78 my father became a military Divisional Fire Officer. My grandfather had been a fireman, retiring as an Assistant Chief Fire Officer, so my dad had a lot of second hand experience of fire fighting, which was immediately put to use during the firemen’s strike. There was some resentment in the lower ranks of the military at the time, as they were being paid considerably less than firemen they were covering. The strike was in support of a claim for about a 30% wage increase, but eventually the Fire Brigades’ Union settled for 10%. This was the Labour Government’s limit on wage increases in the public sector. So the FBU appeared to have lead the firemen on strike, putting the public at risk, for no gain. I’m not even sure the firemen were paid strike pay.
On the other hand, my mother was a nurse. In the 1970s it appeared to me that governments of each political persuasion relied upon the dedication of nurses, and the no-strike policy of their major union, the Royal College of Nursing, to suppress their wage demands. Consequently, in my eyes the RCN was powerless to obtain improved pay and conditions for nurses.
However, the Winter of Discontent had settled the matter in my young mind; union dominance was going to be a key factor in the election, with the result that Margaret Thatcher would win easily. I wasn’t sure myself which side I was on. It would be the last election where that was the case.
My confusion about unions became more marked at secondary school. The school was just over half a mile from Westthorpe Colliery. The winding gear loomed over the playing fields, and in many a long rugby practice I used the pit whistles at shift change to keep a note of the time. In school history lessons I learnt about the role of unions in securing better pay and conditions for miners, and a school geography visit to a deep mine left a lasting impression about working conditions underground. Shortly after the visit I read Emile Zola’s Germinal for the first time.
Through local news, particularly Calendar on YTV, we were well aware that local miners spoke highly of the local Yorkshire NUM branch secretary. It was no surprise when on 8 December 1981 that branch secretary, Authur Scargill, became president of the NUM (an easy date to remember in my Marian devoted Catholic school – Feast of the Immaculate Conception).
However, it was clear almost immediately that what Arthur Scargill planned was a major national strike, to follow up on the success of the 1974 strike. It was also obvious that for pits like Westthorpe, a strike would be disastrous. Westthorpe had already exhausted its own workings by the mid-1980s. It was being used as an alternative shaft for miners travelling long distances underground to other colliery faces. Instead of a planned closure, which would also give time for miners to strip the mine of all plant and machinery (including miles of valuable copper cables), a strike would give the National Coal Board a cheap means to close it overnight. In my last year at school Margaret Thatcher appointed Ian Magregor to be Chairman of the NCB. Confrontation was inevitable.
I’d left school before the eventual miners’ strike in 1984/85, but whilst the bone-headed approach of Scargill had its inevitable consequences, I could never forgive a Prime Minister who chose confrontation to allow him to self-destruct the mining industry without any hint of a plan for the reconstruction and redevelopment of the communities that would be economically destroyed as a result.
Falkland Islands Conflict
I’d already become disillusioned by Margaret Thatcher’s ability to chose the confrontational approach during the Falkland Islands conflict. Why order the sinking of ARA General Belgrano when its threat status was unclear? HMS Conqueror could easily have shadowed it and if Belgrano did head into the exclusion zone, Conqueror could have attacked it when Belgrano’s intentions were clear. That’s what I thought then, and 8 years military service did not change my mind. I also thought that having made the decision to send the task force, the military ought to have been permitted to launch pre-emptive attacks on the Argentine air bases within range of the Falklands and to try to enforce a total blockade. At the time I thought a direct attack was being ruled out for diplomatic reasons, but subsequent reports of Operation Mikado show that perhaps this was being considered.
We don’t want the poll tax
What conclusively set me against Margaret Thatcher was the poll tax. At its introduction I was working in Scotland, which means I got to experience it a whole year earlier than England, in 1989. At the time I was a junior officer in the RAF. With almost no warning, the poll tax was introduced to the military. Many had thought that as military personnel have no choice about where they serve, those based in Scotland would be granted a military exemption from the poll tax until 1990. The RAF published new accommodation charges to take account of the deduction of the notional rates element that had been included in the rents for married quarters, messes and barrack block rooms at a very late stage, too. The charges were published in the same week the cheque-book-like paying in books arrived in the post. I had so many questions from my juniors about their poll tax liability that I called a number of meetings, simply in order to explain the poll tax and how to pay it, as well as to explain the new accommodation charges. It had not gone unnoticed by the junior ranks in 4-man barrack block rooms that whilst they would be out of pocket (the reduction in accommodation charges being far less than the poll tax), the station commander in his massive residence would make a significant saving. In fact, from memory, only senior officers in the top grades of married quarters benefitted from the change; junior officers and other ranks were out of pocket. This was in complete inverse to their respective abilities to pay the tax.
Not for turning
As with Margaret “The Lady’s not for Turning” Thatcher, so for me. From 1 April 1989, I conclusively turned my back on the Conservative Party. No amount of “Red Tory” or “One Nation Conservatism” will ever turn me back.