Maggie and Me
It was Mrs. Thatcher who first brought me to the UK.
Her Conservative Government’s cuts to university funding in the 1980s forced those institutions to become creative. St. Andrews University responded by tapping a population used to paying for tuition: the States. By signing a piece of paper promising that I could pay the princely sum of £3,000 a year (tuition, room and board!), I was in.
Arriving in Scotland as a teenager, in 1983, I was expecting a different culture, obviously. But not really understanding basic economics, market forces or the UK economy, I wasn’t prepared for how life in the UK didn’t look anything like it did back at home. The UK seemed, well, “socialist.”
Oddity number one: students had all their university expenses paid, and on top of that they got a grant—even the rich ones. Now this was supposed to be for books, but I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets when I reveal that for most it went on alcohol and cigarettes.
Next: telephones in private homes were not a given as even local calls were prohibitively expensive. Equally, electricity and hot water were carefully used due to the cost. Supermarkets would run out of stock leaving a predictable choice of onion, turnip or similar by the end of the week. When I worked in Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution, I braced myself for the much touted deprivation of Eastern Bloc Cold War living. To my surprise it compared favourably to the living standards of the UK of the 80s.
By 1987 I started to see the effects of Thatcherism as a new taste for capitalism took hold. When the government privatized state-owned companies, students snapped up the shares, flipping them for a quick profit. I even knew students who started “companies”: office cleaning services, etc. while they were doing their studies. I also started seeing parents start to buy property as investments for their children to live in, then to sell on. Voila, the Yuppie was born.
As a student in Labour Party-dominated Scotland, Maggie was the villain you loved to hate, just as Reagan and his unapologetic conservatism were evil incarnate to most students back home in the States. Unabashed in her conservative opinions (Nelson Mandela was a “terrorist”) and ruthless in her economic policies, you always knew where Thatcher stood. Bold and unyielding may have served her well in foreign policy, but applied to things domestic it looked down right heartless. By 1990, after two years of public fury in response to her Conservative Government’s Poll Tax, even her own party had had enough.
I don’t have the firmest grasp of economics so I won’t venture any speculation about the effects of Thatcherism on the UK today (that’s what every major media outlet is for), but it did make for some wonderful satire and good music.
As an American teenager/twenty-something living in the UK during the 80s, I was introduced to the satirical magazine Private Eye and the dry satire of Spitting Image—a popular television program featuring puppets performing topical close-to-the bone political skits that never would have made to broadcast in the US. One of my favorite lines, as an American blamed for everything Reagan did, came from a sketch written after Thatcher’s first visit to the States. “Darn nice lookin’ woman,” says Reagan as he waves her on to the plane, “pity I’m only screwing her country.”
Musically, as far as I was concerned, Britain was the place to be in the 80s. Without a doubt some of my favorite songs were direct responses to Margaret Thatcher and her politics. The fact that most of the songs celebrated her death 30 years before the fact is testimony to the deep hatred of her policies and politics.
The English Beat’s “Stand Down Margaret”, Elvis Costello’s “Tramp The Dirt Down” and “Shipbuilding” as well as others by Billy Bragg, The Clash, Morrissey and the Proclaimers (hey—I was in Scotland!) were on my mixed tapes, and these are the songs and artists I’ve been playing this week in my own tribute to Maggie.
Hard times and outrage make for a good soundtrack.