This week we heard news of the passing of Baroness Thatcher – Britain’s first and so far only female former Prime Minister. Even as Britain prepares to hold a state funeral to honor her, opinions have been mixed. For as many have heaped praises on Margaret Thatcher and her time in office, just as many celebrated her passing with gladness as they still harbored bitterness against her and her policies.
I am not British but I did experience Thatcher’s Britain as I was a student there at that time. So what is my opinion of her? Well, I generally follow the adage “don’t speak ill of the dead” but recently, a fellow blogger did point out that to do that would really be an act of hypocrisy. So here goes.
At a personal level, Margaret Thatcher and her policies made life difficult for me. To start with, my University tuition fees would go up by as much as 300% and made my life difficult. I was very upset too when I arrived at my college in the University of London and was told on that first day that my college was being forced to merge with two other colleges. I chose my college carefully for its strengths and character and felt let down by this merger. Furthermore, this merger was being carried out on the basis of consolidation and weeding out the weaker economic performers. Yet my college which was both financially sound and visionary was sacrificed to pay off the debts of a more prestigious college – a bastion of the aristocratic classes.
But as i said, I am not British and so Thatcher’s impact on me may not be of much consequence to the average Briton. But I did see many consequences of Thatcher’s actions. Many of my fellow students lacked adequate housing. I had friends who ended up squatting in council housing that had been condemned. Many were stressed by the need to repay study loans.
I was there when the city streets of Brixton erupted into race related riots. I remember listening in on police radio transmissions and the panicked voices of police dispatchers as they tried to keep contact with their various police cruisers and units in the midst of the ebb and tides of the running street battles. You could hear the fear in the voices when one or another of the units failed to respond to the radio calls. I had friends who lived in those battlefield streets.
Many of my friends were studying nursing so I readily sided and supported those health workers striking against the closing of hospitals and cuts affecting the beloved National Health Service.
I was studying biomedical science and I know many of us were appalled when she unilaterally dismissed the scientific council that gave advice to the government and replaced them with just one scientific appointee of her choice. As I remember, this guy was an expert in geology or some earth science and he now gave advice of diverse scientific disciplines. No wonder, he would wrongly advise that the CAT Scan would not be of much importance to medicine. This was a pattern that we would witness again and again; she would dismiss those whose opinions or advice were contrary to her own beliefs. Her supporters say this showed her strength of conviction and confidence in her own beliefs. I tend to look at it as arrogance and pride and the lack of respect for opposing opinions.
I did not really directly experience the life and death struggles of mining communities as Thatcher fought the power of the Unions , although the violent clashes between the miners and the police were very disturbing to see on TV. However I recall that there was an overall sense of despondency amongst the general public. My memory of Britain at that time was a country that was rich in history and tradition – a great place for a student like me to explore and enjoy but not a great place to live and to build a life. Hope and optimism was on the wane.
Those are my own personal thoughts and memories about living in Thatcher’s Britain. Her conviction that she was always right is perhaps what I thought was her greatest failing which led her to implement her beliefs in a most divisive manner. Were those painful periods necessary to turn a declining Britain around? I will leave that to the historians to decide. As for me, I would not have voted for her then and I do not now.
Oh, and she did inspire a revival in political satire like the puppets of “Spitting Image”.