Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Margaret Thatcher and me

The Guardian this morning explains why “do not speak ill of the dead” does not apply to politicians. Even so the overwhelmingly right wing mainstream media are full of hagiography today. They have had plenty of time to get these puff pieces ready.

I am not going to do a sort of rebalancing act here. Though if I find anything suitable I will probably link to it. I will stick to my preferred format. Since this is my blog, I use it to record my thoughts and experience, since they are not expressed elsewhere much these days. The events I chose to focus on are those that  I was involved in. Not her worst crimes by any means – nor even, given the length of her rule and the extent of the damage she did, of very much significance perhaps. But they seemed bad to me at the time, and on reflection still seem worth noting.

One of the strongest influences on her political approach was her relationship with her father – a grocer in Grantham: a small shop keeper. Local authorities in general – and the Greater London Council in particular – were becoming concerned about the way that retailing in Britain was changing in the 1970s. Town centres had been identified across London, and policies were put in place to try to preserve and promote their diversity. They provided a broad range of social and economic functions – not just in terms of shopping but a whole range of public and privately provided services and amenities. They tended to support each other, and create a sort of local ecology of urbanity. The larger, chain retailers were seeking to increase their market share, and by adopting a model where their stores were larger, with extensive car parks and combined several functions would actually replace entire shopping centres. They also argued that such places were a better urban environment since they provided shopping without having to deal with busy streets and through traffic. They created a pedestrian realm which was safer and pleasanter than the traditional High Street, with heavy trucks and buses at close quarters to shop fronts.

In London, the boroughs were looking for ways to reroute the the traffic and make the shopping areas easier to use. But the retailers and developers were eyeing both large greenfield sites on the edge of town, usually with a motorway access nearby, or failing that some of the large areas of land being freed up by the modernization of the railways. These brownfield sites were more expensive to develop but were usually closer to where people lived – and could also be reasonably served by short diversions of established bus routes. Of course, none of this could be done on the fly: there had to be plans and a planning process. Data had to be collected and analysed. There would then be public consultations before the plans were finalized. The data source all relied on was the decennial Census of Distribution. This noted the location and style of every retail outlet – and calculated the total retail turnover of a given area. It was generally accepted that retail turnover was pretty much set for each area – and in real terms was not expected to grow by very much, except in areas identified to attract new populations (like the Docklands or Thamesmead – the former Royal Arsenal).

When someone proposed a major new development the borough impacted would consider the planning application, but if they decided to reject it there was a process of appeal. This usually resulted in a public enquiry – a quasi judicial process with witnesses, evidence and cross examinations. This is where the data came under direct scrutiny. The authorities had no ability to create a protective zone for established businesses, but they could question the need for the development and object to its location, usually based on the established local plan land use designation.

One of Mrs Thatcher’s “reforms” was to cancel the Census of Distribution. She said that small shopkeepers – like her father – had no time to fill in all these forms the bureaucrats demanded. Their time was valuable and their were more important things for them to do, so the burden of bureaucracy should be lifted from them. What that meant was that when Tesco or Sainsbury proposed to build a new large supermarket – or even a whole new out of town shopping centre – there was no longer any objective, reliable data on the impact that would have on established centres. Only the John Lewis Partnership went on record as opposing the decision – as most small shop keepers adored Mrs T and anyway had always voted Conservative. They resented local planning controls as much as any other business.

There are now very few traditional High Streets left in Britain. The only retailers interested in small shops are those run by volunteers for charities: payday loan sharks like them too. Stricter drinking and driving laws, combined with very low price alcohol in supermarkets put paid to the local pub – often the social centre of many communities. The Post Office saw its role shrink too.  The small shopkeepers that Mrs T so admired have been, pretty much, eliminated. But many of the people whose livelihoods have gone, and those communities that have seen their centres wilt and fade, continue to read the Daily Express and vote for that nice Mr Cameron.

Parenthetically (and regular readers will know how fond I am of parentheses) the whole thing about preferring real town centres to shopping centres – aka “malls” is spelled out here  with respect to what is now going to happen to Oakridge, Brentwood and Lougheed. We were just ahead of out time, that’s all.

The other huge impact her decision making had on me was the abolition of the Greater London Council. I have written about that a lot here. I got promotion out of that. Initially I was tasked with organizing the research that backed up the campaign against abolition. We thought that facts and figures, carefully collected and documented and clearly presented, would win the argument. I think they did actually, but that makes no difference if the person who you are trying to convince makes her stock in trade implacability (“The lady is not for turning” – “There Is No Alternative”) and she has a secure majority in the House of Commons.  So the GLC was abolished and I was recruited into the Civil Service in part to help clear up the mess.

That was also why I decided to emigrate to Canada. I did such a good job at Traffic Management, further promotion was offered to Water Privatization. There was never any convincing economic case advanced for the abolition of the Regional Water Authorities. They were very efficient indeed, producing plenty of clean water for homes and businesses at extraordinary low cost – as well as a variety of related services in environmental protection, public health and leisure facilities. So what would an Economic Adviser actually do?

I think it is fair to say that prior to Mrs T, the UK civil service was apolitical. Though the incoming Labour Government in 1964 was convinced of its opposition to some of its policies – so ably documented by Minister of Housing R H S Crossman in his diaries, later adapted for tv as the series “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister”. Indeed, we kept copies of the books in our top left had drawers for ease of reference, when some piece of political silliness needed to be stopped. But increasingly my masters were looking worried. Mrs T would swoop through the corridors with her staff – and the most Frequently Asked Question was “Is he one of us?” Your future depended on the answer.

To her credit I have to note that she was not so dogmatic as to scrap London Transport (though I credit Prof Christopher Foster’s timely history lesson on the state of traffic in London prior to the LPTB for that) or indeed British Railways, which she hated, never used but recognized was better run than the hodge podge of companies that emerged after John Major’s foolish interference. The Falkland Islands are also still British – after relatively modest loss of lives – and seem likely to stay that way. If you think the British Empire is – or should be – dead instead, well … then you’re A Wet, aren’t you. The worst thing she could call anyone. And,  she did make a conservative case for tackling climate change. Though she switched sides later.

I was mistaken in thinking that Thatcherism was a British phenomenon. The lurch to right was actually occurring everywhere. Interestingly in Canada, it became most noticeable after we elected a Liberal government, which published a Red Book which was mostly Keynesian in tone but then appointed Paul Martin as Minister of Finance, who ran the place like an offshoot of his shipping company. Perhaps those who think a Liberal revival under the Dauphin Trudeau would be a Good Idea should take second thought as it is not at all clear if he has any political convictions  – other than an insatiable lust for power and fame.

Mrs Thatcher had a long and very successful life in which she achieved most of what she set out to do. The consequences were, mostly, dreadful for ordinary people. But those who shared her husband’s priorities – he had a large personal fortune and not much to do as the result of his sale of Castrol – did Very Well Indeed. I am hoping that the current wave of leaks of personal information at least put a brake upon some of their worst excesses.  I would like to think that government of the people, by the people, for the people might once again replace government by corporations, for corporations. But I think far too many people are still bedazzled by the myths and legends those people create. When you read Mrs Thatcher’s obits, keep that in mind. She was not St Margaret and must not be allowed to become that posthumously.

I will leave the last words to the Guardian editorial writer

Her legacy is of public division, private selfishness and a cult of greed, which together shackle far more of the human spirit than they ever set free.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 8, 2013 at 11:40 am

Posted in politics

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10 Responses

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  1. It’s good to hear a clear-headed appraisal of Thatcher. I was a student in the UK for a short time during her administration, and while I was somewhat sheltered from the direct impact of her policies, I was not impressed, to say the least. I will not miss her or her views. At any rate, it’s good to contemplate that we’ve both outlived her.

    This definitely seems to be a season of political farewells. Despite all of the teary-eyed stories about Ralph Klein, he begins to resemble more than anyone, a sort of boozy Canadian Ronald Reagan; someone who appears will be remembered more for his friendship than good governance. Like Thatcher, I have no reverence for Reagan (or Klein). When these eulogies are repeated by the Evening News for days upon end, I’ll find myself gritting my teeth, but thankful that these people haven’t been active for some time already, and their impact, while unfortunately lasting, will eventually fade. At this point, I’ll be glad to outlive George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, although the fiascos and horrific suffering they caused will surely affect me for the rest of my life.

    David Drucker

    April 8, 2013 at 12:17 pm

  2. Copied from Facebook

    “From Billy Bragg, Calgary, AB, Canada, on the death of Margaret Thatcher:

    This is not a time for celebration. The death of Margaret Thatcher is nothing more than a salient reminder of how Britain got into the mess that we are in today. Of why ordinary working people are no longer able to earn enough from one job to support a family; of why there is a shortage of decent affordable housing; of why domestic growth is driven by credit, not by real incomes; of why tax-payers are forced to top up wages; of why a spiteful government seeks to penalise the poor for having an extra bedroom; of why Rupert Murdoch became so powerful; of why cynicism and greed became the hallmarks of our society.

    Raising a glass to the death of an infirm old lady changes none of this. The only real antidote to cynicism is activism. Don’t celebrate – organise!”

    Stephen Rees

    April 8, 2013 at 1:35 pm

  3. The obits of late show the unmistakable shift from traditional conservative to large scale corporatist that took place as the 1970s became the 1980s: Peter Lougheed to Ralph Klein to Maggie Thatcher. That Joe Clark could in a few decades morph into Stephen Harper shows the power of corporate propaganda. Those most affected by these changes have mostly given up on voting as they see all politicians as power hungry representatives of one special interest or another and don’t believe their vote can possibly change anything.

    Somehow that must be overcome. Somehow the non-voting half of the population must be shown that their numbers, now greater than the voters in some ridings, can make a real difference. A completely unknown party could, by appealing to just 40% of the disenfranchised, rival the established parties for majority government status. The Greens, already holding a chunk of the existing vote, would need to appeal to even fewer in order to move their leader onto Sussex Drive.

    The corporatists probably realize this, but believe their control of mass media will prevent anyone else from getting their message out to enough potential voters. Sadly they’re probably right.


    April 8, 2013 at 2:29 pm

  4. In 1989 I was working in a large architecure firm where a week of hard deadlines and round-the-clock overtime was “made up for” by the Friday afternoon happy hour. That was every Friday. My first six months there did not see even one day off. One Friday after several toasts to whatever and whoever, someone toasted Maggie Thatcher. I was one of the few who couldn’t move my arm to lift my plastic cup of cheap beer to my mouth on that one.

    About a year later that same firm put out the word internally that cutbacks were necessary and it was soon noticed that whoever was called into the managing partner’s office at exactly 4:00 Friday was never seen again in the firm. My 200 hours of as yet unpaid OT and the Friday sacking to me were linked to what Thatcher represented even in the professional world, and what the world would become with the Nineties Dot Com meltdown and the financial collapse of ’08 that was rigged by Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan alumni.

    But nothing killed happy hour quicker than the weekely 4:00 beheading.


    April 9, 2013 at 12:05 pm

  5. Here’s another take on Thatcher from The Automatic Earth.


    April 9, 2013 at 2:09 pm

  6. Or this one from Russell Brand

    There’s plenty to chose from

    Stephen Rees

    April 9, 2013 at 2:24 pm

  7. Our esteemed premier seems to thinq Margaret Thatcher “ . . .brought that country back from the brink . . .” Errr ummm . . . I don’t thinq so madam Premier. It teeters more perilously today!

    A brief insight into the shallow silly woman that lay under the bombast we saw in public was her speaking accent.

    Now I am born bred and educated Yorkshire. I know a genuine north country accent when I hear it: indeed I hope mine still survives.

    Margaret Thatcher boasted her Lincolnshire grocer’s daughter background and if she were true to her roots it would be evident in her manner of speech.

    It was not . . . 


    Instead she spoke with a supercilious high pitch, temporary-field-commission, accent that clearly marked her as nuevo. I wonder if she spoke thay way with her kids: as they laugh all the way to the scullery!

    One of the strongest influences on her political approach was her relationship with her father – a grocer in Grantham: a small shop keeper.” Actually her offensive personal deportment (I recognize the type: racing touts, bookies and other such upwardly mobile climbers) and class consciousness looks to me like she was trying to distance herself as far from her Grantham roots as possible.

    PM Thatcher was not the savior her admirers like to make us believe. She exacerbated the right/left political paradigm to the point of absurdity. 

That wasteful, tragic Falklands episode! She left the UK in profound disarray that persists to this day. 

    Thatcher was not entirely to blame for the inevitable and historic decline of the British Empire: all empires succumb. She was merely a product of decline: the me generation.

    Roger Kemble

    April 10, 2013 at 1:40 am

  8. It is well established in the literature that she took speech lessons to make her voice lower and thus more acceptable. It was common for her generation to eliminate any trace of local accent, no matter the origin. BBC English, or Received Pronunciation, was seen as a way of deflecting instant classification (“the way an Englishman speaks makes other Englishmen despise him”). She was trying not to sound like a grocer’s daughter from Grantham – but she never tried to pretend she was anything else.

    By the time she came to power, the Empire was already gone except for a few curios. Hong Kong and the Falkland Islands were simply two of the small number of minor remnants. Sinking the Belgrano assured her electoral success – and seemingly endowed her with a licence to be destructive. But her party dumped her.

    Stephen Rees

    April 10, 2013 at 1:29 pm

  9. It was common for her generation to eliminate any trace of local accent . . .“. I dunno about that Stephen, I am of her generation. I attended the oldest public school in the UK, Saint Peter’s School, York.

    My student-colleagues were sons of well-to-do farmers and tradesmen. We never talked high-pitched, Alvar-Lidell BBC, plum in our mouths.

    My dearest student colleague and life long friend’s family had been farmers in the East riding since the closures (200 years+ same farm). What with all the machinations brought on by that woman he lost his farm and ended up running a dry cleaning establishment in town (Scarborough): living in a semi-detached on Filey Road.

    Of course his loss cannot be laid on her doorstep but she set in motion that vicious dog-eat-dog, so uncommon to the Brits, that dovetailed with Reagan’s mindless optimism!

    I’m no Bolshi but right wing Thatcherism sure set the scene for the current debacle!

    Roger Kemble

    April 10, 2013 at 2:39 pm

  10. I am going to close the thread with this very balanced and factual appraisal from The Independent with a hat tip to Pete Quily

    Stephen Rees

    April 15, 2013 at 4:58 pm

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