Driving Society Forward.
Mrs Thatcher and Holes in the Kitchen Floor
Glenn Rikowski, London, 22nd February 2007
I watched Newsnight on BB2 last night (unusually for me) and Breakfast on BB1 this morning (almost unheard of for me in the last 10 years or so). For the latter I was hoping to catch something about Liverpool's dramatic victory over Barcelona in the Champions League last night. No luck with that. However, on both programmes I witnessed various TV and print journalists and political pundits drooling over and eulogising the fact that Margaret Thatcher has had a statue erected in her honour in the Palace of Westminster (next to Sir Winston Churchill). Apparently, she is the first living politician to be honoured so.
Mrs T, or 'Thatch', as Ben Elton used to call her, was there for the unveiling, with her well-prepared speech including a couple of self-deprecating jokes. A shudder went down my spine. All the bad memories of the 1980s flooded back. The 1980s were a terrible decade for me and my family, as they were for millions of other people. Watching the old Gorgon receive such praise and veneration just was too much.
For me, it all started more or less as the Human Progress Scratcher wafted into her lair in 10 Downing Street. At the time, in 1979, I was teaching at Orwell High School in Felixstowe. However, I had a place to study for a PhD at Warwick University Department of Sociology, starting in October 1979. Now, one of the first things, the very first things, the Tories did when they got into power was to slash the budget of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). The SSRC (now Economic and Social Research Council) was the principal supporter of postgraduate research studentships, and I had a 3-year Quota Award, which included a full-time study grant. Warwick, as the premier department of sociology in the UK, had six of those going that year. Due to the cuts, two had to go. I had already resigned from my job: so I was faced not only with losing the SSRC Quota Award but also becoming unemployed too (at a time when the Tories were unleashing and stoking the worst economic recession since the Second World War). I sweated for a couple of weeks – but I was one of the chosen four.
You see, Thatcher hated the social sciences during that time. She had moaned about radical sociologists and so on in the years leading up to her becoming Prime Minister. She also railed against those, such as my friend Mike (now Professor) Cole in education departments who were teaching Marxism. Indeed, she mentioned Mike's radical teacher training course in her memoirs. For the Milk Snatcher, such doings had to be stopped! The cuts in the SSRC budget came on top of a general cutback in university funding. In the light of this and the millions of unemployed created by her government during the early-1980s, she should have not been really surprised when 364 economists wrote an open letter critiquing her economic policies.
My PhD research was on the recruitment of engineering apprentices in Coventry. I was conducting this research in the UK city that had the highest concentration of manufacturing industry. Thus, I witnessed how lives were shattered through the Monetarist policies coming from the Downing Street grotto. Massive youth unemployment, the substitution of paid apprentices with free labour coming from the so-called Youth Opportunities Programme, engineering apprentices losing their jobs: including the Alfred Herbert world-famous training scheme going doing the tube, with sacked apprentices carrying mock coffins through the city centre in protest. Whilst I was interviewing one engineering employer marchers on the national March for Jobs were slowly making their way past the plant. We both watched the procession briefly. The Specials, a Coventry band, got to number one in the charts with their 'Ghost Town', and I went to see a play at The Belgrade Theatre in Coventry called 'Risky City'; I forget the playwright. I was in the right city at the right time to witness the full force of Thatcher's economic policies.
Ruth tried to get a job in Coventry during 1980, but could not. My SSRC grant was insufficient to keep us both. So she went down to London, and managed to find employment. It seemed that the policies of Thatcher had forced us apart!
After my three years at Warwick, I had still not completed my PhD. I came under the 'old rules': unlimited time, unlimited words. The SSRC tightened up on that after the Thatcher cuts, attempting to make the PhD experience more efficient – in line with Thatcherite nostrums. Then I set out to get a higher education job, but there were none to be had. For a number of years, in the early to mid-1980s, there were few jobs in sociology departments (or in any other departments for that matter) due to the squeeze on higher education budgets. The few job adverts there were in the Times Higher Education Supplement were mostly for jobs in non-UK institutions. I realised that I was one of a whole generation of young researchers who had to face a dearth (or death it seemed) of posts in higher education. Of course, I heard of a very few cases of people getting jobs, or at least some part-time work in universities. That kept me going, but the situation de-motivated me, especially after getting rejections for jobs in further education colleges. Linking these personal experiences to Thatcherite economic and education policies became a perverse hobby for me during that time!
Ironically, from 1982-1985, I worked on a temporary contract for Coventry Local Education Department, in the Manpower Services Division, as a researcher. Thus, I was employed on monitoring and designing schemes for the unemployed in the city; mainly for the young unemployed, but also older unemployed workers through the Community Programme. During this time, I was also looking after Alexander, our first child, on my own, as Ruth still worked in London. Little was done on the PhD! A full-time job and looking about a baby-then-toddler (who went to childminder during the day) saw to that! I got increasingly angry with the Tories and Thatcher in particular. When the Great Miners Strike came along I hoped that it would sink the old bat and that the draconian labour laws she had brought in would be smashed, and the miners would score a marvellous victory. It was not to be.
I resolved to move down to London, and finish the PhD. But we found living in London very expensive. For the rest of the 1980s we lived in much poverty as I tried to finish it, whilst working part-time in various colleges and schools. At one point, in 1988, we had no car, no phone, no washing machine, no hot water (we used to boil it on the cooker in saucepans for baths), and no heating for the whole house – apart from one convector heater. We had holes in our kitchen floor; before the washing machine had given up the ghost it had flooded the kitchen, and we couldn't afford to get the floor fixed as it rotted. We had some old planks which had been left by the previous owner of the house to stop ourselves falling through the rotting floor, or into the holes. My hatred of Thatcher and her policies ran very deep during this period.
We also had two children by this time – and another on the way. Continuous rejections for full-time university jobs made my blood boil. It was during this time that I cursed Thatcher more than ever, and resolved to try to outlive her – so that I could piss on her grave! This potential delight was almost thwarted, twice. In July 1994, when I was working at the University of Birmingham (on a temporary research contract) whilst still living in London, I had a horrific car accident, when my car was hit by a coach on the M1. I thought it was curtains. I survived, but with a permanent back injury. I am reminded of the incident every time I wake up, as it takes between 30-40 minutes for my back to loosen up. It goes stiff when I queue, for example in Sainsbury's, too. In November 2005, I had another car accident on the M1; this time driving home from Northampton (where I work) to London (where I still live). Again, only through brilliant driving (as the bonnet had flown up and I couldn't see anything ahead, and it was dark and raining) did I manage to manoeuvre over on to the hard shoulder. I reflected on this, as I was clearing out the glass from the smashed windscreen, that once more my ambition of outliving Thatcher had almost come to nought.
Of course, not all the hard times (and the terrible music) of our experiences in the 1980s can be laid at Thatcher's door. But for me she was, and still is, a symbol of so much that went wrong for my family and millions of other people during those times. New Labour continues with many of Thatcher’s policies – especially privatisation, the Private Finance Initiative; and indeed in some ways being more pro-capital and pro-business that the Iron Hearted Lady herself.
We now have her statue stalking the Palace of Westminster; but worse, we also have her policies (especially in education) and her terrible legacy to deal with today and for years to come.
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