“We’re gonna celebrate/ ’cause this party’s overdue… it’s the day after you.”
– The Blow Monkeys, Celebrate (The Day After You)
Only Thatcher could break a spell of writers’ block, eh? Twenty years ago this morning, I was studying for a media studies A-level at Kidbrooke School. Well, actually, we weren’t – the lesson was abandoned pretty early on when it became clear that something momentous had happened. In the days before the 24-hour news cycle, when all normal programmes on TV were cancelled, you knew something big was happening, right? We all sat glued to the box instead – after all, this was history in the making.
My clearest memory of that day – apart from that camera shot of 10 Downing Street seemingly being on for hours on end – is of my teacher, a gentleman called Roger Martin, announcing: “Douglas Hurd will be the next prime minister.” Of course, he wasn’t, as a quietly spoken man from Brixton won through and scores of newspaper scribes penned pieces about how his less-confrontational style was what was needed for the “nervous Nineties”. I bought the Standard and brandished it around as much as I could.
Two decades on, it’s still impossible to underestimate what a huge event Thatcher’s downfall was. Apart from Labour’s election victory in 1997, I don’t think there’s ever been a political event that’s meant so much. (Not even the last election, before you ask, it all still feels like business as usual.)
Thatcher took office when I was four, a few days after I started school; she quit a few months after I took the GCSEs her government had introduced. This abrasive, divisive figure was as much a fixture in my generation’s minds as the Queen – it was strange to think of the term “prime minister” being applied to a man. She would go on forever, wouldn’t she?
The riots of 1981, the Falklands, the miners’ strike, yuppies, open warfare with local government, the poll tax – she was responsible for the background noise which accompanied my upbringing. She had a direct hand in some of the louder noises which affected me too – privatisation (I’m the son of a gas man) and the teachers’ strikes which wiped out much of my first year of secondary school.
For me, this engendered a distrust of the Conservatives. Now those who found her an inspiration are in charge, there’s occasional flashbacks to that era. Whenever one of the more idiotic Tories says something dumb about the poor, it’s like suddenly being confronted with a bad childhood memory. It’s easy to forget just how uptight and nasty that government could be, especially when led by a woman who seemed to be more machine than human.
But she was as human as us all in the end, brought down by her own party, and shedding a tear as she left Downing Street. The political machine who overshadowed my childhood is now a frail old lady. Her passing will probably be one of the more awkward days to come in this country – 20 years on, she still divides opinion so sharply I can see a few black eyes on the faces of those who’ll decide to celebrate that day.
I sometimes wonder those younger than me see the New Labour years in the same was I saw the Thatcher years – as something to rage against – but Tony Blair never seemed such an all-pervasive presence as she was. At least with Thatcher, you knew whose side she was on – with Blair and those who followed him, there was no such certainty as once-cherished principles were torn up or forgotten about. There’s something to be said for sticking to your guns – which is why the imprint from those 11 Thatcher years will last longer than those 13 New Labour years, for better, or for worse.