Why Did The British Celebrate Thatcher's Death?

by HollieT

It might be difficult for some to imagine why Margaret Thatcher's death will be celebrated in many towns and cities across the UK. Here is an explanation, not a justification.

The news of Margaret Thatcher's death has spread through the land of Twitter like some uncontrollable, raging bush fire. And whilst there are the usual condolences and expressions of sympathy contained within the 140 characters, which of course one would expect when a former prime minister dies, there are also tweets which, quite frankly, could only be described as celebratory.

It would be perfectly reasonable for individuals who live outside of the UK, and for some who live within the UK, to feel shocked and saddened by such behaviour. Moreover, perhaps we have to ask ourselves, what is it, was it, about Thatcher and her policies which have evoked such a strong reaction?

Margaret Thatcher: 1925 - 2013.

Margaret Thatcher. AKA The Iron lady
Margaret Thatcher. AKA The Iron lady

Margaret Thatcher, the Popularity Stakes and Social Class.

More than three decades after her election the country remains divided when it comes to Thatcher's achievements in office. Half of the country believe that she was the best thing since sliced bread, whilst the remainder of the country, to put it mildly, believe that this is codswallop. 

Many commentators argue that one's view of the late Mrs.Thatcher will be determined by your social class, and whilst it is reasonable to assume that your position in society will invariably influence your view of it, it is not entirely reasonable to suggest that the class to which you belong is responsible for the strong feelings of anger and resentment, aimed at one individual who is ideologically the opposite of yourself. After all, would the death of Micheal Heseltine, John Major or Ken Clarke evoke such a powerful reaction from the masses?

Perhaps then, we need to explore Thatcher's policies and how they affected  particular sections of society, in order to determine why the country remains so divided when it comes to the question of Thatcher's leadership.

The Impact of Thatcherism.

There are many communities within England, Wales and Scotland which would never, ever, elect a Conservative MP. Is this because of a deeply entrenched ideology? Well, possibly, but more likely due to a collective memory of the Thatcher years and what it means to be working class; as an immigrant, single mother, trade unionist, unemployed individual or gay man and woman, under a Conservative government.

Thankfully [some] in the Conservative Party have drastically altered their stance when it comes gay marriage and equality, but sadly not all. 

If we are to examine the effects of Thatcher's policies on communities we cannot move forward without mentioning the Miners' strike. The author has previously written about the topic in Class Conflict; Ideology or Social Experiment, so will only briefly touch on the issue here. 

During the strike the miners and their families suffered immeasurably. They had to rely on soup kitchens and the goodwill of others in order to feed their families. Many of their civil rights were withdrawn and a simple Google search will reveal a wealth of evidence supporting the claims that they were brutalized by the police and the state. 

Unfortunately when strike action ended the suffering did not. Almost three decades later many of those communities are reminded daily of Thatcher and her policies. They have yet to recover:

"According to the DETR, three quarters of the former coalfield communities were among the 20% of the most deprived regions in England, and the data collected from South Wales was similarly shocking. High unemployment, long term illness, poor educational attainments and the inevitable levels of crime, substance misuse and alcoholism which follow." ( HollieT. Class Conflict; Ideology or Social Experiment?) 

Thatcher on Immigration and Race.

Files released to the National Archives in 2009, provide some insight into Margaret Thatcher's views on immigration and race. According to the documents, Thatcher was concerned about the number of Asians coming to Britain, and Thatcher had voiced her concerns publicly. 

One of her most divisive statements however, was that immigrants should not be given council houses over "white" people. As a multi-cultural society, and during a period where the National Front were gaining some support, this statement was believed to, not only incense non-white British citizens, but also instill fear within those communities.

Make of that statement what you will. But also bear in mind that Thatcher held similar views when it came to the plight of refugees. Whilst Thatcher was willing to accept white Rhodesians, Poles and Hungarians who had fled their native land during periods of social unrest and political change, claiming that " they could be more easily assimilated into British Society", she adopted a completely different position when it came to the Vietnamese. 

The desperation of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat people, who were fleeing persecution from the communist regime, had prompted Lord Carrington to suggest that Britain take 10,000 refugees. The prime minister, on the other hand, had declared that there were enough people coming to Britain, and discussed the matter within the context of immigration.

Mrs. Thatcher was reminded by Lord Carrington that the plight of refugees was quite different to that of the economic migrant, and that amongst the population there was general support for taking more Vietnamese refugees, he had received letters from the public requesting that he do so. To which Mrs. Thatcher replied "“ All those who wrote letters in this sense should be invited to accept one into their homes."

Within two years of Thatcher coming to power, there were no fewer than four riots, in all four cases the catalyst for the riots was linked to racial tension and urban deprivation.

Thatcher On The Family.

In 1987 Thatcher famously made her society speech:

"There is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families."  

Mrs. Thatcher was quite vocal when it came to the relationship between the individual and society, and was heavily influenced by American right leaning thinkers who advocated that the welfare state gave birth to, and nurtured, an underclass of individuals who were, frankly, irresponsible. 

The prime minister voiced her opinions about single parenthood and claimed, on more than one occasion, that many single women with children had become so in order to claim benefits and a council flat. 

In fact, Thatcher considered single parents to be a social and economic burden. Her values regarding the family were Victorian, some would say draconian, and she believed that only the conventional family should be recognized; not unmarried couples, however stable, and certainly not same sex couples. 

During a speech in Kentucky in 1998, long after her resignation as PM, Thatcher claimed that: 

"It is far better to put these children [of single parents] in the hands of a very good religious organisation, and the mother as well, so that they will be brought up with family values."  Thatcher also maintained that welfare provision to single mothers had exacerbated the problem, which indeed was the view she held whilst in office.

According to Jonathan Shaw, Senior Research Economist at the IFS, the number of children living in poverty rose from 1.8 million when Thatcher was elected, to 3.6 million by the time of her resignation.

Thatcher on The Unions and Workers Rights.

Mrs. T vehemently opposed any policy or practice which she perceived to be remotely socialistic. In 1976, during a television interview for Thames TV, Mrs Thatcher declared that "...and socialist governments do traditionally make a financial mess. They [socialists] always run out of other people's money. It's quite characteristic of them."

Thatcher was committed to the free market, deregulation (particularly where the financial sector was concerned) and the privatization of state owned businesses. Naturally such moves would result in conflict between the trade unions and her government. In attempts to counter opposition from the unions, Thatcher needed to diminish their power and membership. She succeeded. 

The prime minister's reforms during the early 1980's ensured that the unions' power to negotiate wages and working conditions were greatly reduced. Consequently, the balance of power shifted to employers and other reforms; including the length of time an individual had to work for an employer before taking them to an industrial tribunal for unfair practice, was extended. 

Union membership fell by more than 3.5 million during her time in office.

Thatcher has been accused by left wing commentators of crushing the unions by politicizing the police and using the state and judiciary for ideological ends. 

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The Nasty Party and Thatcher's Legacy.

Interestingly, the term nasty party was not coined by the left. It was Teresa May, a Conservative politician,  who in 2002 declared that  "There's a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us -- the Nasty Party."

It is widely believed that May was referring to the Conservative anti-stance. Anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-poor but pro-business. 

On reflection it could be argued that Thatcher's government were only about opposition; opposition to any group in society who were not a mirror image of themselves; white, mostly male, middle class and Christian. 

Perhaps that's why it is so difficult for individuals who do not belong to a minority group or particular class, to understand the vitriol which is directed towards Thatcher. To live in a society where the ruling elite are anti-you, can be very frightening indeed. But fear aside, to exist in a society where you are blamed for being you; financially punished and socially frowned upon, can have a very damaging and lasting effect.

Not surprisingly, the various groups in society who were directly and adversely affected by Thatcher's policies will often talk of how she hated the working classes, gays, immigrants; them. To those people her governance and her death are personal. Which perhaps goes someway to explain, but not justify, the hatred that they feel for her. Perhaps this is another of her legacies, she raised an anti generation.

Social cohesion, the glue which binds us together, comes with the understanding of, and tolerance for, people who are different from ourselves. Understanding nurtures unity, anti rhetoric does not.


Updated: 03/18/2014, HollieT
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frankbeswick on 04/04/2014

One of the unremarked social injustices of Thatcher's regime was the fact that while she ] she boosted pay for armed forces and police [often deserved] she shrank it for other public sector workers. The explanation. The police and the armed forces were to be her defence against the people. Public money, under her regime, was being unfairly distributed to suit the interests of the ruling party and class. How far does a politician have to go before you judge that they were evil?

NateB11 on 04/04/2014

This article reminded me why I'm glad it's not the 80s anymore. That's when we had Reagan and Bush over here and it was okay to be a backward bigot. I was about as happy about Reagan's death as many in the UK were happy about Thatcher's death.

frankbeswick on 09/08/2013

The coalition has not followed her interest rates policy, which was to raise interest rates to fifteen per cent and keep them there for years. I had my first mortgage just before she was elected and raised rates. I had years of the ordeal of trying to pay a usurious rate, while rich Tories feasted on the profits of their investments and argued that high rates were a good thing.

HollieT on 09/08/2013

Hi jptanabe,

Thank you! Living under the Thatcher regime was very unpleasant indeed for many of us. Her policies ruined lives and caused a great deal of suffering.

Hi Frank,

I was at school when Thatcher first came to power- I also remember how underfunded our school was, five of us would share a text book etc. I also had my first mortgage under Thatcher, the interest rates crippled me, as did the poll tax. As young as I was, I remember how our rights as workers diminished in just a few short years. She made life hell for ordinary people.

Hi John,

Yes, there was a definite campaign to silence those who had no interest in paying tribute to that woman. I fear that there will never be a thorough and balanced appraisal of her leadership whilst this govt. continue with her dreadful neo-con policies. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that history is repeating itself, with the current coalition going further than even she would fear to tread. It's as if she's still in power, sadly.

JohnTannahill on 09/07/2013

An email telling me jptanabe had posted a comment prompted me to re-read this article. At the time you wrote this, there was a definite campaign to "not speak ill of the dead." Those voices criticising her were being silenced and those praising her were being amplified. It was as if Thatcher's legacy was being carved out of stone and fixed forever at that moment. Now, months down the line, you would hope that a thorough and balanced critical appraisal might be in the pipeline. I hope so. We can't let the Tories have the final say in this story.

frankbeswick on 09/07/2013

As a Briton who is basically civilised and of good will, who isold enough to have lived through the Thatcher years [I am 63] I did not celebrate her death, but I did not mourn. She was an uncaring person with a narrow doctrinaire view of economics, who served the interest of the capitalists at the expense of the interests of the people. Her economic policy was to impose crippling mortgage rates and use unemployment to control inflation, both of which caused great pain, and she cared not a jot. For her, workers counted as mere chaff. To use her words of workers, "their function is to serve.." Wealthy people grew rich under her governance, while ordinary people were ground under and impoverished. Directors enjoyed high wage rises, while workers were told to take one per cent or so and be grateful. Margaret Thatcher was social injustice embodied.

I will not celebrate her death. The death of a saint is not a cause of sorrow, for the saints are heaven bound. Thatcher was no saint. I pass no comment on her final destiny.

jptanabe on 09/07/2013

Great article explaining how Margaret Thatcher managed to be so unpopular. I have memories of hating her as Education Secretary while a student in Scotland. I was living in the US by the time she became Prime Minister so didn't experience her policies directly then.

HollieT on 04/10/2013

Hi Mira,

Thank you. I haven't watched David Cameron to be honest. This country is rather split when it comes to Mrs T and her legacy- after writing this page I've tried to avoid the tributes. :)

Mira on 04/10/2013

I enjoyed this. I wish I'd seen the movie with Meryl Streep as well :). Also, I just heard part of David Cameron's speech in Parliament. It was rather interesting.

HollieT on 04/09/2013

Hi Sheilamarie,

I think that's where the division comes in, if you belonged to the group who Thatcher was pro, you were unlikely to be adversely affected by her policies. She was quite skilled when it came to pitting neighbour on neighbour, black on white, employed on unemployed. A trend we're seeing again in this country. But yes, I do agree that becoming anti another human being is not only undesirable, but unfathomable.

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