Bloody Compact Discs: Thatcher's Detractors Came From All Classes

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A carton of milk is seen after it was placed outside the home of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher after her death was announced in London April 8, 2013. (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

Margaret Thatcher died of a stroke this morning at the age of 87, but not everyone is mourning. Though she was revered by many, some Britons are marking the death of a woman who ushered in an era of austerity, privatization, and union-busting with a hint of "good riddance."

"Best news I have had all year," one said on Facebook, as Reuters reported. Another placed a bottle of milk on Thatcher's doorstep in the wealthy London neighborhood of Belgravia, a nod to her policy of scrapping free milk for elementary school children in the '70s. That move earned her the nickname "Thatcher the milk snatcher."

Thatcher was one of the most divisive figures in British politics in life, and in death her legacy remains controversial.

Liverpool Walton MP Labour Steve Rotheram told the Daily Mirror that she was "celebrated by big business and the rich and powerful," and that "her legacy for Liverpool and virtually every other city and town outside of the traditional shires and rural England, was one of acute misery."

Much of the disparagement of Thatcher is aimed at her tax-cutting and cost-reduction measures, which indeed led to massive job losses throughout England's north and an uptick in poverty rates across the country.

But Thatcher's core electorate wasn't composed solely of big businesses and the super-rich, but rather members of the lower- and middle-classes who dreamed of bigger houses and better futures. And during her time in office, much of the criticism lobbed at Thatcher came from elites who despised her "common" personality and her outreach to ordinary people. To them, her policies were dangerous because they were culturally -- rather than economically -- disruptive.

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Throughout her speeches, Thatcher often referenced the idea of individual responsibility paired with total upward mobility.

"I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand 'I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it' ... and so they are casting their problems upon society, and who is society? There are individual men and women and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first," she said in a 1987 interview with Woman's Own.

Thatcher lured middle-class voters by suggesting that through a deregulated market, they would be able to "improve their homes and their lives; to get gradually better cars, washing machines and televisions; to go on holiday in Spain rather than Bournemouth."

In the general election of October 1974, only 26 percent of the skilled working-class voted Tory, the Conservative party, compared with 49 percent who voted Labour. But in 1979, 41 percent of skilled manual laborers voted for Thatcher, and the same percent went for Labour. Over the course of her tenure, the classes' voting preferences evened out significantly.

Here's the chart, via the Economist:

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Thatcher had a distaste for classes and collectives, preferring to emphasize individual freedom and ambition. As David Cannadine argued in his 2000 book, The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain:

"She attacked the trade unions, because they represented organized, collective, productive labor. She stressed the market, the public, the customer, and the individual, which undermined the language of social solidarity based on productive classes. She offered hope --in a way that Labour never had -- to the working and lower middle classes of escaping the constraints of impoverished expectations and irremediable subordination."

As a result, more people did become home-owners, entrepreneurs, and bankers. And more became unemployed, as well.

Britain's north was especially hard-hit, absorbing 94 percent of the job loss during the first decade of Thatcherism. From 1979 to 1993, the poverty rate in Britain tripled. In the mid-90s, a U.N. report found that Great Britain had the most unequal society in the West.

"The combination of more factory closings and deep cuts in social spending left the city reeling," wrote Eric Schlosser in his 1998 profile of the city of Manchester. "By April of 1982 its unemployment rate was 32 percent. The greater Manchester area lost almost a fifth of its manufacturing jobs during the 1980s, and more than 125,000 people moved away."

Thatcher did eventually catch her fair share of flack from working people who were pinched by her privatization efforts. (Some even carried "Thatcher cards," which stated that they preferred the Prime Minister not visit them in the hospital should they become unconscious.)

But surprisingly, it was Britain's educated upper class who were some of Thatcher's harshest detractors. Geoffrey Wheatcroft described this resentment in a long profile of the Thatcher-loathers in the December 1991 issue of The Atlantic:

They resented Thatcher as an upstart. And they resented her because of her attack on their own cozy complacency as academic apparatchicks or 'members of the arts.'

The playwright Peter Nichols dismissed her supporters as taxi drivers and rich butchers. Lady Warnock, the philosopher who is head of Girton College, Cambridge, was more forthright still. The way Thatcher shouted people out was characteristically lower middle class, she said. Her clothes and hair were insufferable, 'packaged together in a way that's not exactly vulgar, just low.' And there it was. Margaret Thatcher is rather "common." The ancient, arcane class consciousness lingers on -- and in quarters that didn't know they are class-conscious.

Indeed, Thatcher did shake up traditional notions of what it means to belong to a class, and many people became much poorer as a result while others became much richer (In the 1980s, the gulf between Britain's top and bottom 20 percent widened by 60 percent). To Thatcher, the idea of class was aligned with its political near-antithesis: Communist ideology. As she explained in a 1992 Newsweek article, "Just don't call them 'new members of the middle class.' Class is a Communist concept. It groups people as bundles and sets them against one another."

This vision was at odds with many of Britain's traditionalist intellectuals, who felt the newly empowered, enriched masses weren't adequately upholding the cultural values of the old upper class. Wheatcroft continues with a truly hilarious description of what the keepers of British culture at the time thought of their nouveau-riche countrymen:

What did the minor poet Adrian Mitchell mean when he shrieked that 'Thatcher's vision is a little plastic credit card?' Thatcherism mean 'bulging plastic awnings...above unisex aerobic centers, sado-video centers and plonk bars. And it was under Thatcher that you were first offered Filofaxes, mangetout peas, jacuzzis and compact bloody discs.' That was it: consumerism, yuppie-dom...or to put it another way, more people than ever given money to spend and the freedom to spend it as they chose. The trouble was that too few of them spent it in the politically correct -- or culturally correct way.

Of course, that's a much more uncomfortable sentiment than the feeling of economic disenfranchisement experienced by the miners, labor organizers, and others who today say they "won't be shedding a tear" for Thatcher. But it's also a sentiment she ultimately defeated: She believed the place of government was to get out of the way and let the commoners compete in a race to the top. That's what the middle classes wanted in her time, and that's what they got, along with an unfortunate dose of economic inequality and bloody compact discs.

Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.


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