It was shortly after 9.15 on the morning of Friday 4 May, 1979. We were gathered for the first lesson of the day. Our teacher asked us, a class of ten-year-olds, what important event had happened in the news. My hand was one of the first in the air. ‘Britain’s first woman prime minister!’ What a fateful day that was. Later on, I watched the new prime minister deliver her speech to the crowd of journalists gathered in Downing Street. Although too young to really understand politics, I instinctively disliked her.
Thatcher’s election wasn’t my first political memory. That would be the infamous ‘winter of discontent’. Thinking about it now, I’m struck by the clarity of the sensory recollection: the chill both indoors and outdoors, images of power cut-induced darkness and flickering candles, the smell of paraffin and uncollected rubbish, the tangy taste of paper-wrapped fish and chips doused in vinegar and lemon. Hugging the warmth from the parcels of supper on the way home. But also the sound of raised voices — angry people on the news and worried parents. The sight of our elderly neighbour being carried off to hospital in a green army truck. The uneasy realisation that, despite my parents’ best efforts to make it seem like something exciting, there was a sinister side to this.
Over the next couple of years, I’d watch the news more often, silently troubled by the reports of the weekly unemployment figures. I kept my worries to myself, but also observed my parents closely, scrutinising their expression for any telltale sign that something was wrong. At first, the numbers on the news seemed distant, almost abstract. But then, friends’ dads were losing their jobs and, soon enough, my own father was made redundant from his factory job. I remember feeling afraid and angry when I saw that week’s jobless statistics on the News at Ten — that was my dad.
Spiralling unemployment. The Falklands War. The miners’ strike and crushing of the unions. Riots on the streets. Privatisation and the sell-off of social housing. All the awful, awful, political events that devastated communities and wrecked lives throughout the 1980s and beyond.
It was all about fear.
As effective then as it is
now as a means
There were small, mundane indignities for a gauche teenager too. Silently crouching on the staircase to hide from the council’s rent collector when the month was too long and the money too short. Queuing during Monday morning break for the special tickets that entitled you to free school dinners. It always felt like a humiliation, as did handing over the different colour ticket in the canteen. It meant everybody knew your parents had no job and no money. But one day, I caught myself and thought, ‘Why am I embarrassed to be in this queue? It’s not like my parents have done anything to be ashamed of. They’re in this situation because of what this government is doing to people like us. And it’s all deliberate.’ I suppose this was an early inkling of class consciousness, although I couldn’t put a name to it at the time.
By the second half of the decade, I was spending Saturday mornings selling copies of socialist newspapers and leafleting for CND. Because looming over everything — strikes and unemployment — was the ever-present fear of nuclear war. Although banned by my parents from travelling to the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, I joined my first major demonstration at Aldermaston, the US base, to protest against the nuclear weapons stationed there.
A General Election was held in 1987. My first time voting! But it soon became a series of disappointments. About to sit A-level Politics, I understood the unfairness of the FPTP electoral system; our local constituency was resolutely Tory and a vote for any other party was ‘wasted’. And anyway, Labour had dropped its opposition to the social housing sell-off, which even then I recognised as a huge betrayal of the working class and future generations. But at least the party had for now kept its commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament (although that too would be dropped soon enough). Another big let down was Labour’s environmental policy, as invisible as its local candidate. I’d already become vegetarian and was involved in the animal rights movement. So my first ever general election vote went to the Green Party. The candidate was a member of our local CND group and was opposed to the housing sell-off, therefore ticking two very important boxes. Unsurprisingly, he finished nowhere.
My dad and I had talked at length about the upcoming election. He was a big reader, especially on political issues, and was genuinely pleased to see me take politics seriously, even though he and I were on completely different pages politically. To be honest, we didn’t even occupy the same bookshelf. Despite everything he’d been through over the past few years — redundancy, unemployment, precarious work, more unemployment — as well as the resulting hardship, worry and setbacks for us as a family, he voted Conservative. It made no sense to me, although of course nobody wanted another winter of discontent, still a fresh memory. But then he’d echo the rhetoric of the Right, insisting that what was good for capital was ‘good for the working man’. Especially, of course, for a working man with the new burden of a mortgage (in other words, unprecedented, terrifying debt), the ever-present threat of redundancy and losing the family home through repossession. My father wasn’t fooled by the Thatcherite notion of a ‘classless society’. Nor did buying our council house convince him he was suddenly middle class. He saw straight through that BS. No, it was all about fear — as effective then as it is now as a means of control.
Today, when it comes to UK elections, I suppose I’m politically homeless. But the political foundations and hopes that shaped my teens — working class rights, decent, socially-owned homes, environmental protection and a world rid of the nuclear threat — have never diminished. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, my local CND branch carried out a poll of members. With the Cold War apparently over, did it make sense to continue our group? I spoke out against winding up the campaign so long as nuclear weapons still existed. It must be about thirty-five years since that I joined that huge protest at the US base. How horrific, how outrageous, that, right now, more than at any time since the eighties, nuclear weapons threaten the existence of life on this planet.
My dad passed away some weeks ago. Sadly, we were estranged over recent years as he remarried, relocated to Scotland and ‘moved on’ from his past. One of the many, many things I missed was our intense political discussions, him always with his cup of sweetened black coffee, me with my tea. I’d love to have quizzed him on his thoughts on Brexit, for example, whether he still believed in the so-called nuclear deterrent and where he stood on Scottish independence. Most of all, I often wonder whether he ever made good on his repeated threats to ‘never vote bloody Tory again’. Of course, it’s too late to have those conversations, and I’ll never know the answers. But I can definitely venture a guess…