The Milk Snatcher
In 1975 I remember marching, as a scuffy undergraduate, to Parliament calling for Margaret Thatcher’s resignation as Minister for Education. I carried a banner which read “Thatcher The Milk Snatcher”—one of Thatcher’s first forays into re-aligning the British state was to propose ending the distribution of free milk to English schoolchildren. Such was the emerging neo-liberal agenda of the “greatest peacetime Prime Minister.”
Denying milk to poor kids was one of the first of her many acts to save England. It would not be the last. Soon she would become the leader of her party and then Prime Minister. Her first years leading the country led to massive unemployment as she embraced monetarism and the gobbledygook of right-wing economists. Very quickly these policies pushed millions into poverty. Unemployment reached levels not seen since the Great Depression. She went on to embark on a ridiculous war (the final broken spasms of a dying empire) in the Falklands. It made her enormously popular. It killed a thousand-plus young men and women. For a short while the press loved her. Strong. Fearless. Not for turning. But turn she would—first on the nationalized industries that worked for the collective good, then on the unions. Like Reagan she targeted those who worked to help the disenfranchised and the powerless. Nowhere was this more dramatically illustrated than on her decision to eradicate the mineworkers’ union. The mineworkers were her air traffic controllers. In two years she destroyed the oldest, this most radical group of workers and, along with them, an entire way of life. She unleashed the still considerable power of the British State on the families and workers and communities that had done more than practically any other group to build the wealth of England and support the absurd class so ably illustrated in Downton Abbey. There is really no coal-mining left in England now—and for the men (it was mainly men) who spent their days deep underground, eating coal dust and risking life and limb, the only thanks they got was abolition of all they had worked and lived for.
Yes, this was the great prime minister. Her ideas and values would turn Britain back into a society of massive inequality and class privilege (it has never recovered). Her policies would create a land of plenty for the few looking down on a massive underclass who were without help and without hope. Above the poor there would emerge a grubbing, paltry plutocracy, rife with corruption and self-importance: brokers and bankers and charlatans who turned much of England into a casino. She famously claimed that there was no society, just collections of individuals yet she oversaw a massive growth in state expenditure…for the army, for the police. Her mania for the market would rip the guts out of collectivism and roll back the state. Like her pal Reagan she would certainly leave her mark. But for many it has become a stain. It is little comfort to the thousands and thousands who lost their jobs and their lives, for those who lost the England they were proud of (and one so endearingly captured in Danny Boyle’s opening of the Olympics in London), and for those who died on a tiny island in the south Atlantic, that she is now eulogized for as a great prime minister. I, for one, will shed no tears nor miss the last gasp of a dying empire uttered in the hectoring tones of the grocer’s daughter from Lincolnshire. She took away the milk and with it, human kindness.
John Wooding. April 8, 2013