Thank you, Margaret Thatcher – a perspective

It was very stormy last night, and the noise of the strong winds gusting around the house kept me awake for hours. As I lay there, desperately trying to get to sleep, I found myself reflecting on the events of the past week or so, particularly the death and yesterday’s ceremonial funeral in London of Margaret Thatcher. No wonder I couldn’t sleep.

Let me put on record straight away: I was no fan of Mrs Thatcher! Yet, I have to thank her and some of her policies for a very significant change in my family’s circumstances more than two decades ago. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I am child of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) that came into existence in July 1948, a few months before I was born in November that year. The NHS is one of our country’s iconic institutions – warts and all; its foundation was due to the foresight and vision of the post-war Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee. However, for most of my formative years, politics in the UK was dominated by the Conservatives: Winston Churchill from 1951, Anthony Eden from 1955, and Harold Macmillan from 1957, followed by caretaker Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home for just one year. It wasn’t until Harold Wilson’s General Election victory of 1964 that Labour became the government once again.

I voted for the first time in the May 1970 General Election (when the voting age was still 21) that brought Edward Heath and the Conservatives to power. I voted for a Conservative candidate in Southampton where I was studying at the university. If I remember correctly – and I’m afraid time has dimmed my memories – one of the issues that drew me towards Heath and the Conservatives was their strong support for membership of the European Community (how times have changed).

During the 1970s, Heath (and after 1974 Labour Prime Ministers Wilson and Jim Callaghan until Margaret Thatcher came into power in 1979) came up against the full force of the Trades Union movement, and essentially came off second best. From January 1973 I was working abroad in Peru and Central America and never experienced the consequences of industrial action – strikes – that affected the country and made lives miserable for millions of citizens. The Winter of Discontent of 1978-79 eventually led to the downfall of the Callaghan government, and Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory in 1979. And she would remain in Downing Street for more than 11 years until turfed out of office by ‘her friends’ in a palace coup in November 1990. By then she had transformed the UK. The power of the unions had been decimated, communities ripped apart, and the country put on a new trajectory, the consequences – both positive and negative – we are living with today.

Over the past week since her death there has been an abundance of commentary in the media about what sort of politician Margaret Thatcher was. On the other hand there are the many vibrant communities – especially mining communities – that were affected significantly and have never recovered from the changes that the Thatcher governments brought about. For them, Margaret Thatcher was and remains the ultimate bugaboo, a divisive but conviction politician whose legacy can never be rehabilitated. On the other, perhaps a majority of the electorate it has been suggested, Mrs Thatcher was the economic and military saviour of the UK, turning the country from being the poor man of Europe and also a military force to be reckoned with in the wake of the Falklands War of 1982.

However, conviction politicians often see everything in black and white. That’s not my style. I’ve always enjoyed the beauty of the myriad of shades of grey that is the real world. My politics are not right or left – so I guess that means they must be in the center some where. But where precisely? This presents a real dilemma come the next General Election scheduled for 2015. A plague on both (or all three) your houses. Do I vote Tory, Lib Dem or Labour? There is no party that brings together a consensus of views taking the best from the right and the left of politics. Forget the Lib Dems – almost a spent force. And don’t even think of UKIP. I feel like vomiting every time I see its leader Nigel Farage on any news broadcast.

I guess if I was American I’d be an Obama Democrat, but for many Americans I would be considered a hard-line socialist (proto-communist even), when most of them don’t understand what it really means to be socialist. And that’s why I find it paradoxical that New Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair became such a pal of and politically cosy with Dubya.

But I’m getting ahead of myself again. I returned from the Americas in 1981, about two years after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. And remained in the UK throughout the 80s and witnessed some of the best and worst of Thatcherism. Was she right to throw the Argentinians out of the Falklands? Undoubtedly. But unfortunately nothing has been done to achieve a lasting solution to the Falklands/Malvinas issue. Was she right to take on the likes of Arthur Scargill who was the president of the National Union of Mineworkers? Yes, for if she hadn’t we would have been in hock to such demagogues for a long time. But although we might admire some of her achievements, we should surely condemn others and their negative effects on society. The safety net was pulled away from under so many vulnerable people.

So why am I grateful to Margaret Thatcher? Here I run the risk of being accused of being a ‘reform NIMBY’.

I was teaching in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Birmingham from April 1981 to June 1991. Towards the end of the 80s the Thatcher government attitude and policies towards higher education was having an unprecedented effect on morale within the university system, and affecting the role of universities in society – something from which the system is still recovering in my opinion. In the late 80s I even participated in industrial action for the one and only time in my professional career, joining a demonstration or picket organized by the Association of University Teachers (AUT). I was there for only a couple of hours, then went home and spent the rest of the day preparing materials for classes later that same week. I lost a day’s pay since I had to own up to the fact that I had joined the AUT- sponsored action.

As the weeks went by into 1990 I was becoming much less comfortable within the university system, and couldn’t see that things were going to improve in the short term, let alone the medium or long term. And that’s when I thought about looking for another position elsewhere.

In September 1990 I received in the mail (from whom I have never discovered) a brief announcement of the position of the ‘Head, Rice Genetic Resources Center’ at IRRI in the Philippines. I applied, was interviewed in January 1991 along with two other graduates in genetic resources from Birmingham, offered the position, and the rest is history as the saying goes. I joined IRRI on 1 July later that same year.

So, indirectly, Margaret Thatcher was responsible for me giving up a tenured position at Birmingham, where I was about to be promoted, and move overseas once again to resume a career in international agricultural research. My family joined my just after Christmas 1991, and we went on to enjoy almost 19 years of happy work and life in the Philippines. Our two daughters, Hannah and Philippa, went through their high school education in Manila before moving on to university and graduate school in the US and UK respectively.

So indeed, thank you, Margaret Thatcher. As first woman Prime Minister your political legacy was always going to be secure. Some of your achievements made the UK a better place to live; others did not, I’m afraid.

Should she have been accorded what was, in most respects, a state funeral, and should the tax payer be saddled with the estimated £10 million cost? Given that her funeral was attended by dignitaries from around the world, it was always going to be a high profile affair; and there was always going to be a security cost irrespective of the funeral’s status.

She was one of the towering political figures of the 20th century, and I believe – despite not being one of her fans – that it was churlish of her opponents to react in the way that some did, while recognizing their inviolable right to speak out or protest.

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