The death of a public figure inevitably presents an opportunity for reflection. That person’s status as a private individual will also generate a feeling for many of understandable sadness. This occasion should not, however, be an opportunity to rewrite history, as attempted by many of those commenting on Margaret Thatcher in your paper last week. I recognise Margaret Thatcher’s unique place in political history as the first women prime minister, I do, though, most strongly contest the suggestion that she is Britain’s greatest peace time Prime Minister. That accolade must surely go to Labour’s Clem Attlee who rebuilt Britain after World War II and created a welfare state including a National Health Service, free at point of need. His legacy continues to unite our nation, in contrast to the memories of a turbulent and divided country under Mrs Thatcher’s leadership .
My memories of Thatcher’s election victory in 1979 were one of foreboding but little could anyone have predicted the wholesale carnage that she was about to unleash on our manufacturing industries and the contempt she would demonstrate for our public sector and those working within it. I was a secondary school student during the Thatcher period and have clear memories of the impact of under investment in our services. There were not enough text books to go round and those we shared, were battered and held together with sticky tape. Our classrooms were dilapidated and our nutritionally balanced school meals were done away with in favour of canteen systems that churned out fast food in the name of ‘choice’. I lived in the Medway towns at the time where the main employer was the historic naval dockyard which had provided work for huge numbers of local people for generations. We were told, during the Khaki Elections of 1983, ‘Vote Tory and the dockyard will remain open’ The election won, the dockyard closed, 7000 jobs that had been the mainstay of my town were lost along with three times the amount in support industries. In my home county of Kent, part of the ‘prosperous’ South East, another major employer also fell foul of Thatcher’s flawed strategy for industry, shortly after the closure of the Dockyard the Kent mines were shut and thousands more jobs were lost.
My other memories of those years include hospitals and schools on the point of collapse, the mentally ill thrown out of safe environments on to our streets in the name of ‘Care in the Community’, gays and lesbians were stigmatised in legislation. Our public utilities were sold off at knock-down prices, the legacy of that strategy sees us all paying over the odds for gas and electric today with as a recent Guardian article stating ‘ Big six energy firms accused of cold – blooded profiteering’ We have a telephone system without customer service and an overcrowded and fractured rail network delivering profits to shareholders and increased tickets prices to passengers.
I am sure there are others who will have memories of how people’s lives and communities were wrecked by worklessness as major employers were lost and nothing put in their place. There will be many people who have memories of difficult times that are hard to forget. There is one particular policy that has a pernicious impact that lives on in Horsham and in every part of the South East; the ‘right to buy’ which is perhaps Margaret Thatcher’s worst example of short-termism. Council tenants had for a long time been able to purchase their council house but through incentivisation Thatcher encouraged far greater sales of council housing and as a result of this policy, we lost in the region of 2 million council houses. Thatcher’s greatest crime was not allowing council’s to reinvest in new social housing and as a result we now are experiencing a housing crisis similar in scale to that experienced by the post war Labour Government in 1945. In a mixed economy affordable housing will always be required and this is something Thatcher failed to either recognise or understand. The direct result of her policy is that millions of families are now inappropriately housed with no hope of a decent home, while at the same time welfare payments on an unprecedented scale, are going into the pockets of private landlords who are charging exorbitant rents.
Some of your correspondents may find it hard to understand why others do not share their rose tinted view of the Thatcher years. Perhaps the examples given above will help to explain why rather than being our greatest PM, history written from many people’s perspective will remember her as the most short sighted and divisive leader our nation has endured.
Chair Horsham Labour Party
Clarence Road, Horsham