Monday, 8 April 2013
THE 80s, WINTER, THATCHER AND ME
Love her or hate her, and there usually is no in between, today is an historic day because it marks the death of former Prime Minister and fellow Lincolnshire Yellowbelly Margaret Thatcher who changed the face of Britain forever.
I wasn't a big fan of hers back in the 1980s when I was a struggling young single mum with three hungry kids. Not being from any of the mining or steel communities I don't carry the baggage of my forefathers like today's young 'uns and to be honest, I wasn't much of a political animal then either. My dad was a big Labour man and involved with unions and all I really remember of those dark days of my teens in the 1970s were strikes, black outs and empty shop shelves.I was just someone trying to make ends meet in very difficult economic times and she didn't do much to help people like me not dependent on benefits so much as having no other choice.
After all, with two young toddlers and a baby, and not much family support to enable me to go out to work, it wasn't as if looking for a job was an option. I could give line and verse about how their dad was more of a hindrance than a help but he's dead too and there's nothing to be gained by raking over his grave now.
If I cursed Thatcher at all it was in the winter of 1987 which was so damn cold there was frost inside the lounge door and icicles hanging from the windows. We could afford heating or food but we were rarely able to get both. Payday of £60 a week on a Monday, in what was known as Income Support, was the only day when we benefited from both. Clothes the kids grew out, broken toys, and furniture we could do without would add fuel for the fire to keep it going a bit longer but mostly we just snuggled under a big duvet that my mum bought us for Christmas one year. I'm sure my girls have many vivid memories of sugar butties I made to help fill them up and the hot jam drinks I devised when I couldn't afford fruit juice or squash. I know we all got sick of chip butties and egg and chips but I could rely on a sack of potatoes and a large tray of eggs lasting all week. Meat was the special weekly treat and reserved for Sunday dinner. Single parents were the target of attack back then and I remember Peter Lilley's offensive speech implying women got pregnant for council houses and benefits. I most certainly didn't and I didn't know anyone back then who did either including those widowed by the Falkands War. Most of us just fell on hard life circumstances and did the best we could in a critical and unsupportive age.
I never forgave her for privatising energy and utility companies either and felt privatisation was a bit of a con. After all, as nationalised industries we all owned them and they were affordable. People were persuaded to buy back in shares what the whole of the UK owned and year on year prices rose. Over the years many of those who bought into them sold their shares and its fair to say now that energy and communication prices are obscene. None are owned by British companies either. I was told that they were so run down that there was no other option but I can't help wondering now what might have happened, and how much income the Treasury would get now, if she'd invested in them instead of just getting rid.
The 1980s were the worst of times and instilled in me a fear of poverty that has never gone away even though, ultimately, thanks to Thatcher, times have been much better since. I set my mind to bettering my circumstances through part time education which is something I doubt I'd be able to do today. It was free back then to those who were unemployed or on benefits like my family and I even got childcare at a couple of quid a week with a creche tied to the college I attended. I got myself a weekly voluntary placement at a local newspaper with a view to getting a full time job two years later when my youngest was able to start school. Luckily for me it all worked out.
Thatcher was the one who introduced what was known as Family Credit. It was a benefit that topped up low incomes and I found myself on three times as much per week as I was on as a struggling unemployed single mum. I wasn't the only one who escaped the poverty trap that way.
When she resigned, the dogs of the Tory party (or the B'Stards as her successor John Major called them) moved in and pretty much devoured themselves to extinction in 1997 when Tony Blair's New Labour won. Suddenly education came at a price and my hopes that my kids could go to University, as I'd been unable to, were dashed as Labour introduced tuition fees - something the New Conservatives under David Cameron and the Coalition with the Liberal Democrats were then able to build upon and price even more out of bettering their circumstances. With it came a barrage of bureaucracy, professional CVs and mostly paranoid background checks, which meant that the days when you could walk into a firm and ask for a chance to prove yourself were over. You now needed the background papers to prove you could prove yourself - not easy when you haven't worked for a decade or more.
Labour also appeared to extend the Family Credit basic system to a complicated array of tax and child credits that appeared to be offered as bribes for votes. Who doesn't remember the "money with your name on" TV ads? Two years earlier I became self employed after qualifying as a journalist and I recall the year Labour came in they changed the tax system which meant I paid twice in one year. Under the Tories you paid retrospectively. Under New Labour you paid in advance. I recall my tax bill that year in two parts was a whopper and the same as Lord Levy paid. He was the man who donated much to the Labour party. There was a big stink at the time because his tax bill for a multi-millionaire was so low compared with "hard-working families" like mine.
Two of my daughters, and latterly my son who I had with my husband who I met soon after I began work at the paper, found vocational positions which have now given them well paid professional careers. One of my girls is now a stay at home mum who doesn't work because she has one disabled child in school and another who's only a toddler but she is in a better position than me due to having a supportive partner who works even though he's on a low income. As they are on some form of welfare, I despair at today's "benefit's scum" rhetoric and still believe that there but for the Grace of God go each and every one of us and it appears to me that compassion and tolerance are being replaced with condemnation and intolerance.
I hated Thatcher's council house sales policy even though I benefited from that too. I resisted buying ours until it became apparent that all the houses in our street were bought up by new council tenants as the old ones died off. My husband made me see that it was never going to stay in the hands of the council so we had to buy it and do what my parents had never done for me - leave something behind for the kids to inherit one day. Labour's shame was that they didn't do anything to replace lost stock and the homelessness situation didn't really improve. Worse still they privatised that too by selling off much that was left of the stock to privateers in Housing Associations.
I can't say like many others that Mrs Thatcher was the best Prime Minister this country ever had, neither can I say like others that she was the worst. All I can say is that I am sure she did her best in line with she believed was best for Britain. I'm not convinced that was Tony Blair's New Labour's mission nor am I convinced that David Cameron is thinking solely of putting the country to rights as much as he seems to want to punish the poor, the broken, the beaten and the damned because he can and scapegoats for Labour's mishandling of the economy are needed.
I promised myself that I wouldn't be political on this blog but, as I said, it is an historic day and I just can't resist putting in my two penneth worth for what it's worth. Love her or hate her, she will be remembered long after people forget who David Cameron or Nick Clegg ever were, and struggle to name one New Labour cabinet minister - even the many women who wouldn't be there if the pioneering Thatcher had not paved the way first.