Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Thatch Despatch

Hell's that way, save me a pew (2013) Kodakotype by Pants

Millions of us have anticipated this day and wondered how we would feel. The woman we only ever referred to by her last name is dead. In truth I feel nothing. It's just too late for celebrating. I departed Britain five years ago. Thatcher departed relevance in 1990. The manner of her ejection from power left little scope for further direct influence. We were grateful for small mercies. One day Godzilla in a pussy bow, the next - an historical curiosity. We can't so easily shed her, er, legacy.

Legacy is generally assumed to be a benevolent word. The OED's primary definition is 'an amount of property or money left to someone in a will.' Here in Australia, it's the name given to the organisation that helps the families of fallen soldiers. Then there's the apposite secondary interpretation - 'something left or handed down by a predecessor'. Consider the example given,

'the legacy of centuries of neglect'.

That phrase could have been written for Margaret Hilda Thatcher (1925-2013), except she didn't need centuries - a decade was enough. In 1945, Britain lay in ruins after six years of war. By sheer determination and with the collective cooperation of the people, it forged itself into a new welfare state. Fifteen years later, that project was complete. Now, more than twenty years after Thatcher merely removed its foundations and supporting beams, it has not been rebuilt. A Labour government, given thirteen years couldn't, (or perhaps wouldn't), fix it. I think it's fair to say that Thatcher was more destructive to Britain than Hitler was. Why? Because she achieved the one thing that Hitler couldn't - she destroyed the people's spirit.

Dementia is a terrible disorder but one could almost resent Thatcher for acquiring it in later life. The memories of all the dreadful things she did conveniently erased, she was relieved of the responsibility of self-critical reflection once her cannibalistic chickens had all come home to roost. Lists of her misdeeds and the permanent damage of her anti-social onslaught on the country she apparently loved so dearly are rolling out. It's a prodigious record which doesn't need to be regurgitated here. 

Instead, I'd like to make a couple of comments about one of the demolished foundations of the welfare state about which I do know a little something - social housing. When council tenants were given the right to buy the houses and flats for which many of them had been paying rent for a generation or more, I did not object. I was a council tenant myself by then and thought the principle sound. Working class people should have a place on the property ladder. The money that tenant buyers paid could have and should have been used to fund investment in new council rental properties - except that's not what happened.

The tenants who did buy initially were the ones with the best properties. They were also the best rent-payers. Very quickly, the most cost-effective housing moved into private hands leaving many councils carrying maintenance costs well in excess of the rents they were able to collect. At the same time all this was going on, Thatcher managed to abolish the Greater London Council, leaving one of the great cities of the world without a unifying authority. I'm still reeling from the shock of that. The GLC also owned many large housing estates. These were transferred to local authorities who did not have anything like the resources or capacity to deal with the management and maintenance of them. I was a tenant on one of those estates. The money collected from the sales of council houses and flats was frozen for about fifteen years. In that time, the cost of property in London quadrupled. Never again would it be viable to build social housing on a scale that would allow working-class families to stay close in the neighbourhoods in which they'd lived for generations. 

When Thatcher said, 'there's no such thing as society', she was wrong. There was such a thing when she said it and there will remain such a thing long after the memory of her destructiveness fades. I'm glad I lived in London during most of her reign. I know who she was. I lived under her tyranny. I can also say it was exhilariting to be a young person in that situation. You really want someone to kick against and she was certainly an inspirational adversary. 

The news of her death came in strange circumstances. I was watching Q&A, a political panel discussion here in Australia. Unusually, the show featured a panel of women. Germaine Greer was the star pull. Also appearing were Brooke Magnanti (aka Belle de Jour), Aboriginal opera star Deborah Cheetham and a couple of local journalists. Towards the end, the male host dropped the btw that Thatcher had just died into the discussion. It was taken up by the panel as a hypothetical. Perhaps they didn't realise it had actually happened? I switched over to our insanely inadequate at the best of times ABC News 24 and it was live-streaming BBC. She had indeed died and there was clearly no love lost. Grudging footage was offered by presenters who were demonstrably bored by having to continuously loop these scant offerings.

Make no mistake - as a grunt who had to live with the 'legacy' of her decisions, I hated her. But I did have a moment when I thought, hey, isn't she more than a footnote?