Monday, 22 April 2013

30 years on, I’m still loathe to mention her name!

I tried not to write about her. You’ve all read, heard and seen so much about the woman, you doubtless need a break.

But I can’t help it. Thirty years later it still feels raw.

Being a hopelessly non-violent man who is generally crap at confrontation, there have been few people who’ve earned my hatred. It seems absurd to hate a distant dead woman, yet when I think of her, a raging anger inside me burns like acid through to the core of my soul and sense of justice.

I occupied the same space as her on two occasions, but the time I felt her presence most darkly and profoundly, she was physically far away.

As an 11 year-old in 1971, my Tory parents took me to a meeting where the then Education Secretary for Edward Heath’s government was to make a speech. She’d recently scrapped a programme of free milk for the under-7s, and earned a moniker that would haunt her entire career. Edward Short, then the Labour education spokesman, described her action as “... the meanest and most unworthy thing I have ever seen.”

Far too young and ambivalent to care about such things, I do remember my dad getting flustered and red in the face when a bunch of protesters started shouting “Milk Snatcher! Milk Snatcher!” from the back of the hall.

The next time I shared a space with the woman she was at the height of her power, at the Conservative Party Conference in Bournemouth in October 1986. Somehow I’d got a gig running a stall for the Glass Manufacturers Federation at all three party conferences that year. After a feeble gathering of Liberals in Harrogate and a hopeless and depressing Labour Party effort in Blackpool, the Conservative Party conference was doubtless the main event.

It was only 2 years after the IRA had bombed her hotel at the Brighton conference, so Bournemouth had been transformed into a military enclave. Snipers strolled rooftops, checkpoints popped up everywhere and it was all a bit intimidating. Yet nothing compared to the afternoon she made her conference speech.

The convention centre was vast but crammed with an atmosphere of electric anticipation. A half hour before her speech, I was sitting in the bar, watching the usually calm journalistic colossus Robin Day twitch and flit around like a schoolboy with itching powder in his pants. Geoffrey Howe and Malcolm Rifkind were skulking about the corridors, speaking in hushed tones, as if God might hear their conspiracies.

Predictably, the moment she appeared on stage the place went berserk. Even though I was standing as far away as is possible while being present, I still felt the tsunami of charisma that emanated from the woman.

“Mr President, this week at Bournemouth, we've had a most responsible Conference: The Conference of a Party which was the last Government, is the present Government, and will be the next Government.”

One could not fail to be impressed. Indeed, such was the force with which she filled the entire auditorium with her insistent middle class rhetoric, one started to use pronouns like ‘one’.

Having seen her in action, I better understood why, when hitchhiking around England in those days, I found hardcore Labour men who’d voted for her.

“I don’t agree with much of what she says,” a trucker explained to me, “but she’s strong and we need a strong leader.”

As I was being given a free ride to Bradford, I demurred from mentioning that Stalin and Hitler were also ‘strong leaders’.

So why do I hate her? Well, despite the fact that I choose to live in the West of Ireland, I do love the country of my birth, and just as if you watched a loved one have their legs and arms amputated, I hated the way she laid waste to two thirds of Britain to protect a minority who lived in the South-East.

People say she ‘Broke the Unions’, as if she’d mastered a mustang, when in fact all she did was strip the workers of rights that had taken centuries to implement. I believe that her driving force was revenge. She had to defeat the miners, because she felt ashamed of the way Edward Heath’s government had been defeated by them.

The day I most felt her presence, I picked up three men hitching at an M1 motorway service station. Of course I knew they were striking miners, on their way to picket the UDM stronghold in Nottingham, but more than that, we were all free men, living in a democracy.

As I turned off the motorway to drop them in Nottingham, we were stunned to see an ocean of riot police, stretching way beyond exit ramp, far into the distance.

My car was stopped and surrounded by police. We were brutally manhandled, loaded into a van and taken to a local ‘incident room’, where we were interrogated separately.

I couldn’t believe this was really happening in my beloved England. I was just a bloke giving a lift to a few other blokes, yet we were being treated contemptuously, like criminals.

She had the police and the press on her side. We had each other, but as the years went by, our rights shrank alongside our bank balances. In her efforts to support market forces, she poured contempt upon the people. Her legacy thrives here in Ireland, as we find ourselves once again financially enslaved to those very same market forces.

Thankfully, art loves adversity. The woman was the catalyst of much great music. My personal favourite is Elvis Costello’s bitter yet elegant masterpiece ‘Tramp The Dirt Down’, although I also love Robert Wyatt’s sublime anti-war song ‘Shipbuilding’.

Didn’t I mention her name? Well, I’ll let The Beat’s inspired song say it all for me:

“Our lives seem petty in your cold grey hands,
Would you give a second thought,
Would you ever give a damn?
I doubt it! Stand down Margaret!”

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