Today sees the longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century – actually outserved by Tony Blair but that was the 21st century – finally laid to rest. I understand that there is to be a cremation and her ashes will be scattered in a favourite place so there will be no grave or headstone: maybe we can truly move out of the long shadow she has cast.
There is no question that Margaret Thatcher was an iconic figure, and her achievements were in many ways remarkable. First – and so far only – woman to be prime minister of the UK, a character who dominated the politics of her day in a way that hardly anyone before or since has. Hard, and some would say cruel, to her political colleagues but, by many accounts including some people I knew personally, kind and considerate to her non-political staff.
In her pre-political life, in many ways her background is similar to my own – coming from a family of small shopkeepers in the north of England, grammar school followed by a second in Chemistry at Oxford, and then went on to be a tax lawyer (passing, in her case, via research chemistry at Unilever where she apparently invited soft-whip ice-cream, although I suspect that story may be apocryphal) but I am glad to say the similarity really does end there.
I have never, in my life, had any sympathy for her political philosophy, although my own politics, such as they are, have ranged from soft left to the edges of (but not quite) the “One Nation” Toryism of her predecessors in office. I blame her for many of the ills of our society today. No doubt there have been, and will be, any number of biographies and documentaries on her life and work, so I’ll confine myself to a few simple observations.
I blame Margaret Thatcher for the road-building frenzy which we underwent 20 or more years ago and which her acolytes Cameron and Osborne are determined to inflict on us again. It all started with “Roads to
Prosperity” a policy which mercifully did founder although not until a
handful of the worst schemes such as Twyford Down and the Newbury Bypass were
built, and provide the focus for the resistance movement which ultimately brought
the plan down. It seems however that the
rust is being scraped off all those creaky old schemes and no doubt we will be
compelled to watch some of the worst – Bexhill-Hastings Link for example – built
before the resistance rallied around them calls a halt to the rest.
I blame Margaret Thatcher for her singularly crass remark to the effect that any man of a certain age who travelled by bus should count himself a failure. The stupidity of this remark can be well illustrated by the cases of individuals known to me personally through my work, senior executives in the City who, while coming from modestly comfortable middle class professional backgrounds, have amassed fortunes measuring eight or even nine digits who – yes – travel daily to work on a London Transport omnibus. Failures? Well, that remark has had a long overhang, through to Blair’s notion of a car-owning democracy and “Mondeo Man” and the twisted aspiration, addiction even, we (almost) all have to go everywhere, anytime, anyhow, in a private car.
Most of all I blame Margaret Thatcher for a host of policies and measures with many and widespread consequences but which in particular have done so much to make our roads dangerous no-go areas for non-motorists. Her assault on the labour unions (though notice that she never applied the same logic to professional associations such as the Law Society etc), however you feel about their one-time power and how they (mis)used it, did enormous damage to employment rights, especially for unskilled or semi-skilled workers. Certainly since then we have seen many welcome changes such as action against discrimination on race, sex, age and sexual orientation (though had Thatcher deceased earlier, I am sure she would have been spinning in her grave about the last – she was after all the architect of Section 28) but in many ways that simply means that all less skilled workers are oppressed equally into a form of quasi-bonded labour. Combine this with her policies for privatisation and deregulation, and the result, in the transport field, has been a toxic working environment which in my view plays the principal part in many if not most of those incidents involving cyclists and HGVs, pedestrians and buses.
Why? I don’t want to suggest that drivers of HGVs, courier vans, Addison Lee hire cars, buses etc should be relieved of all responsibility for their negligence or recklessness when this kills or seriously harms a vulnerable road user – far from it. However, you do have to consider the conditions in which they work – highly pressurised to perform, paid on piece rates, lacking basic employment protections as many are technically “self-employed”, in many cases saddled with much of the risk inherent in slack trade (AdLee drivers “lease” their cars, and then need to do enough trips to pay off the lease charge before they even start to earn a living for themselves) – creating what you might inaptly call “an accident waiting to happen”.
The obsequies will soon be over. Margaret Thacther - and your legacy - R.I.P.