Notebook

April 10, 2013 5:13 pm

The importance of not being Ernest

I feel the one thing you’re not supposed to about Thatcher: ambivalence, writes John McDermott
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during her St Valentine's day underground visit to Wistow colliery in Selby©PA

I was 11 when I first heard a good word about Margaret Thatcher. It came from my grandfather, Victor, who had limited patience both for words and for politicians. He was a coalminer and by 1994 he was beginning his own personal deindustrialisation. Ernest, his friend and fellow retiree, was round for tea and to argue about Arthur Scargill. Victor said Thatcher was right to stand up to the union leader. For Ernest, this was treachery. Not so, came the reply: “I’m a Labour man, I just don’t vote for them.”

This was a revelation. I was born in Scotland to two almost socialist parents, both of whom worked in education. I doubt they were swing voters. The fog of childhood is thick but through it I recall that Thatcher’s nastiness was simply assumed. It felt inherent, like the lyrics to “Yellow Submarine” and support for Heart of Midlothian, the local football team. Until I travelled south to Mansfield, my grandfather’s home town near Nottingham, I never thought of Thatcher as divisive. On the contrary: everyone seemed to think she was a piece of work.

Everyone apart from my grandfather. The Saatchi brothers would have loved him. Born in the year of the general strike, he became a miner just before the war. He worked hard and was promoted above ground. Management was the next step but he lacked qualifications, so he went to night school. After a day at the pit he would do his homework on the kitchen table while his daughter did hers. He obtained the necessary certificates and when Thatcher took power he was running a mine.

Then came the strikes. Since Thatcher’s death, many of the old conflicts have been fought again, rhetorically. Whether to hold a minute’s silence at football grounds, or what deference to pay the funeral cortege are portrayed as debates among classes or between north and south. Who divided whom, ask the newspaper columnists. I wasn’t born until the start of her second term but my own experience is that her influence fractured rather than split. She led to a myriad of divisions within communities and families. She – and her opponents – cut deep and far. My grandfather’s brothers and father watched him from the picket line. He organised coal deliveries. He also did his job and closed the pit. Whenever Ernest brought up those days my grandfather would say Thatcher wanted to defeat the unions but Scargill’s loss was self-inflicted.

My grandfather won. He received a generous retirement deal and invested it in the privatised utilities and the new funds available from the deregulated City of London, which to him might as well have been Hong Kong. He liked money – at least counting it. When he passed away, I found a sack of cheque stubs dating back to the 1970s. (My grandmother was the spender: her husband called her the Imelda Marcos of Mansfield on account of her shoe habit.) He was proud to have a share in capitalism.

I was and am proud of him. I miss him. But then I think about Ernest and that cup of tea. He had worked hard, too. Shortly after the war he left his home town in the northeast in search of work. But when the mines shut he did not do so well. Unemployment and ill-health followed. Ballroom dancing with his wife became painful. He was not the jealous sort. But it became harder and harder for him to come around for tea. Ultimately, Ernest lost.

It is embarrassing to admit but I feel the one thing you’re not supposed to feel about Thatcher: ambivalence. I dislike the left’s grave-dancing and the right’s hagiography. Britain needed to change. There were always going to be winners and losers, Victors and Ernests. To say she was divisive, then, risks banality. Still, as well as the schisms of class and place, the idea that one’s worth comes from one’s success also created a sharp moral break that has endured.

For my grandfather, his success was all that he deserved. It was the result of his effort, his risks, his sacrifices, his choices. People get out what they put in. His individualistic ethical system was Thatcher’s. This was why he liked her and why he distanced himself from the party of his friends and family. Thatcher’s ethics would soon become most of the country’s. The core views held by the rest of my family – work hard, yes, but do so collectively in pursuit of something more than material gain – became a source of nostalgia and anger. Meanwhile, at first unknowingly, I grew up as an adopted child of Thatcher’s Britain. And you can’t choose your parents.

john.mcdermott@ft.com

Related Topics

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

NEWS BY EMAIL

Sign up for email briefings to stay up to date on topics you are interested in

SHARE THIS QUOTE