I still can’t quite bring the words together cogently to make any sort of intellectual reflection on the death of Margaret Thatcher. Unlike some of my friends and acquaintances, I can’t quite get the emotional distance that they appear to have attained. For me the enmity is still fresh, the damage done still an open (indeed freshly re-opened) wound. I put this down to two significant things: I grew up working-class poor and I grew up gay. Thatcher affected me materially and personally.
Growing up working-class poor is hard to quantify - but it’s different to growing up middle-class poor, very different. I grew up in a council house at the furthest edge of one of the oldest council estates in the UK. My mum worked part-time, perilously close to full time, but never quite there – meaning she didn’t enjoy full employee rights until she’d been working for some time. Money was always tight. I remember hiding behind the sofa from the insurance man and the rent collector; my piggy bank was frequently raided to buy food. As a child, noticeably when I was at primary and middle school, this wasn’t really an issue -everyone lived like that: my peers were all drawn from the same catchment area. Most people were from families that “got by,” or “made do,” or just plain struggled. It wasn’t unknown for kids to turn up at their neighbours’ houses to be fed when the month exceeded the money - it’s just what people did, no. Certainly, we “made do” and no more. Some people didn’t even manage that: we might have been poor, but increasingly, as unemployment rose, there were people with even less living in the same street. If it sounds picaresque or quaint, then I apologise: it wasn’t - we were just broke.
Secondary school exposed me to the middle classes for the first time. People who had more than enough (or at least their parents did) and brandished it your face, Harry Enfield “Loadsamoney” style, emblazoned with emblems and symbols of brands and labels; who believed they had a right to speak out, even if they had nothing to say; people whose expectation was to be the centre of everything.
More than the acquisition of things, this sense of ownership, of expecting success, of having a right to be heard (and to take part, and to take…) was the thing that seemed most remarkable. I never went on the school trips (unless shamefully-yet-discreetly subsidised), never took part in the French exchange (setting aside the cost, where would an exchange student have stayed? The box room at the back with no door, or my room with the rotten windows, the damp patch on the ceiling and a hole in the wall?), didn’t go to activities weeks, or after school clubs, I never learnt to ski, or paint or throw pots… and I certainly didn’t go on holiday. Anywhere. Ever. I felt like an alien. My experiences really could have come from a different world.
They might seem like small and petty things, but as I grew older these small divisions seemed to get wider. The differences deepened. Attitudes more entrenched. The haves and the have nots had far fewer common grounds. Doors were shut to neighbours kids at dinner time; the groups of young people that used to just hang out in the streets became gangs; those who struggled before, began to sink. Thatcher’s pronouncement on society felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy. It wasn’t true at the time she said it, but the focusing on self -and identifying any lack of wealth as being a personal failure and not the product of a distorted political system – made people believe it.
This doesn’t even cover the tiniest fraction of how it felt growing up working-class poor under Thatcher - but I can say that for me I saw the world of opportunities getting smaller, not greater. Society, community and working for the greater good were never dirty words to me - but the false belief of individualism and entrepreneurialism made it seem so.
Growing up gay is easier to describe: Section 28 made being gay at school a nightmare. Teachers - even if they wanted to - couldn’t teach about homosexuality without fear of prosecution (even though in the end no prosecutions were ever made under Section 28: the fear of prosecution in a profession already being assaulted on all fronts was far more efficient than any court of law). One of the insidious effects of this was that homophobic bullying went unchecked.
I can remember clearly several occasions where this affected me directly: walking home from school I was kicked to the ground and spat on by a group of girls and boys while being called a “fucking dyke” - the school’s response was to tell me to be less “different” and keep my head down. I had short hair and didn’t wear make-up. That’s it. At the time, I wasn’t even sure I was gay; I just wasn’t girly at a time when blue eyeliner and a spiral perm was the norm. On another occasion during a lesson (somewhat ironically, a social science one) a group of students in the same class started a ceaseless, insidious chorus of Tom Robinson’s “Glad to be Gay” just loudly enough for me to hear. It was an accusation and a sneer, not a protest anthem. When the teacher finally noticed his response was to laugh. Possibly most confusingly, a couple of teachers once pulled me from an assembly wanting me to speak with another student they suspected might be gay to offer support. Their reasoning was that they “couldn’t, you see? We might get the sack.” I had no support myself, was barely out to myself, let alone my friends and family and I panicked. I felt singled-out, terrified and wrong - and the expectation that I needed to be “braver” than these two grown men perplexed me - but this was the best they could think of. When I got properly “queer bashed” by some strangers when coming home from meeting friends it’s probably of no surprise to learn that I told no-one - after all, who’d be on my side?
The ongoing effect of this sort of isolation, victimisation and bullying is to make you doubt and lose value in yourself, make you think that you deserve it all. You internalise the hate. When that hate is sanctioned by government, you feel hopeless. These feelings linger.
Homophobic bullying in schools hasn’t necessarily got much better, but now at least it can be tackled. LGBTQ relationships can be discussed, taught, considered along with any other relationship; same sex couples can’t quite get married, but Civil Partnership at least recognises most of the same rights as marriage - and without Section 28 we could have got there much sooner, with far less damage to people’s lives.
I won’t mourn Margaret Thatcher’s death -without even taking into consideration the devastating deindustrialisation of the UK, the ripping apart of communities, the favouring of tyrants, the wholesale selling off of public assets, the kneecapping of the unions, the growth and growth and growth of greed, her policies hindered and damaged me and countless others like me - and I did my celebrating in 1990 when she was kicked out of power by her own party. I’ll save my energies for fighting the current lot of greed merchants, exploiters and false patriots.
May she burn or rot (we all do one or the other in the end) I’ll look forward to her becoming nothing more than a post script in history.