Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Winners and Losers: The Thatcher Years


Thatcher. One name that conjures up love or loathing. Her recent death has whipped up many of the old emotions about her. Those people outside of the UK have been surprised to find out how hated she was. No other British politician has ever really inspired these emotions as much as Margaret Hilda Thatcher does.

I've always had a fascination with dereliction. It stems from my childhood and the visits to my grandparents in the north east town of Hartlepool during the 1970's and 1980's. For years we used to pass the shipyard at Haverton Hill where huge ships towered above. It seemed biblical in scale to me as a six year old boy. Then one day the yard was quiet. Empty. Barren. The shipyard site was so huge that it didn't really fit any other purpose so it stayed quiet and empty until 2008. It could be said that I was politicised from then on. I saw the consequences to the actions. Thatcher didn't close the yard  - it closed in February 1979 - but the damage done through a lack of investment and re-development during her time in office haunts the area to this day. During my early student years I was able to see more of this derelict industrial sites around the north east town of Middlesbrough. I even got a pass from the harbour authority to photograph sites. These places and their workers had powered the empire, supported the country through wars and done exactly what had been asked of them. All it earned them was a quick, but totally painful end.  The workers, their families and the communities, like the derelict work places, were left to rot and decay after the industries were finally closed. No help. No investment. No compassion. No hope. No wonder there is still anger.

If you really want to see monuments to Margaret Thatcher's time in office then I would recommend having a wander around certain former industrial areas of the UK. The Midlands, South Wales, Scotland and the North East were just some of the places that found themselves in the firing line. All was definitely not equal in Thatcher's Britain. Far from it. A series of tough monetarist economic polices took an immense toll on many industries and their communities. Some areas like Hartlepool only started to recover after receiving serious investment from the European Union re-development fund starting in the early 1990's. It was true that the industrial decline had been going on for some time and that it was inevitable that many industries would close, but the real bitterness and hatred aimed towards Mrs Thatcher stems from how the closures were done. The fact that some militant unions had caused havoc in Britain shortly before Thatcher's rise didn't help matters. Maybe she saw the closures as dealing with two problems at the same time - killing two birds with one stone as it were. The end certainly came quickly for many industries but the communities ended up facing a damned existence. As a child growing up in Thatcher's Britain during the 1980's,  I saw the effects first hand as a wave of decay and disintegration set in. Chris Killip's images, featured the books 'In Flagrante' and 'Seacoal', look very familiar to me and reflect many of my childhood memories.

In the UK, the Conservative party is sometimes referred to as 'the nasty party'. They are often seen as cruel, harsh and lacking compassion. It is a reputation they are still trying, rather unconvincingly I might add, to shake off.  Much of this feeling stems from the Thatcher era and the political attitudes many Conservatives had during the 1980's. This radical thinking took its clearest form with the ruthless de-industrialisation of areas around Britain, a process that had been slowly happening for a number of years before the conservative victory of 1979. The new Tory government stopped the subsidies to certain industries and sped up the closure process. The idea was that the free market would fill the void left by ship building, steel works and other industries. To a certain extent this did happen but it took a generation or more for many towns to even start the slow process of recovery. Regeneration of an area is an extremely slow and costly process that can take decades to complete. The town of Consett in County Durham still clearly visibly bears the scars of the closure of the steel plant back in 1980 - even after years of  regeneration via Project Genesis. The heart was just ripped out of the town in one knock-out punch. Workers went onto the benefit system and mostly stayed there. Unemployment in Consett during 1981 peaked at 36%. It is still higher than the national average in the town over thirty years later.

The title 'winners and losers' for this post seems apt. There were plenty of winners in Thatcher's Britain. Many of those who venerate her, gained either socially, economically or both. She gave hope to some and snatched hope away from others. Those who lost out through no fault of their own  - through having the wrong job or living in wrong part of the country - understandably have a different view of the 'iron lady'. A great leader is someone who unifies a country rather than divides it - especially during a time of national crisis. Mrs Thatcher was certainly no Churchill. The North/South divide widened during her reign and still remains a major problem that modern politicians just don't want to be bothered with. When Mrs Thatcher was entering Downing Street after her 1979 general election win she said 'Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope'. Many would say that she failed on all counts; especially the last one. A friend of mine, at college with me in the mid 1990's, utterly despised Mrs Thatcher because of the experiences he'd had as a young man. His unemployment, and that of many of his generation, were seen as a sacrifice worth paying for the smooth implementation of various monetarist economic policies. Three million unemployed. My friend never forgave her for it. Hope? What hope???

Today the funeral, which is a state one in all but name, took place and there will be plenty of people praising the politics and vision of the late Prime Minster of Britain from 1979-1990. I won't be among them. I will be thinking of certain images created by Chris Killip and the Amber collective in Newcastle upon Tyne documenting the other side of Maggie's Britain. Martin Parr photographed the Britain Maggie wanted to see - Chris Killip did not. With the request to be respectful towards Margaret Hilda Thatcher often mentioned, it would seem that many journalists and politicians have forgotten that the Iron Lady had very little respect for large parts of Britain. Many parts of Britain certainly haven't forgotten her. They still bear the scars.

Images

  • Top: Wallsend, Tyneside - Chris Killip
  • Top left: Ship Launch at Haverton Hill 1972
  • Middle Right: Haverton Hill shipyard 1992
  • Middle Left: Disused Railhead - Middlebrough 1992
  • Bottom Right: Political posters - Middlebrough 1992

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