Thatcher didn’t just change England, she changed the English

From the archives: Maeve Binchy wrote about Thatcher's claim to have transformed Britain as she approached the end of her 10th year as prime minister

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in a British tank during a visit to British forces in Fallingbostel, some 120km south of Hamburg, Germany, in 1986. Photograph: Jockel Fink/AP Photo

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in a British tank during a visit to British forces in Fallingbostel, some 120km south of Hamburg, Germany, in 1986. Photograph: Jockel Fink/AP Photo


Ten years ago in England people rarely told you what they earned. Even advertisements for jobs gave only parameters and areas and hints. Not figures. Now it is not only acceptable but almost essential to say what you earn, to state your level on a financial ladder, your place in a monetary pecking order.

I didn’t realise this until three months ago when I met a man I had known slightly when he worked in a big advertising agency. He now does some “corporate image” work for a financial company. We met, as it happened, in the foyer of the Reuters building in Fleet Street which is where The Irish Times has its London office. I told him that I still worked as a columnist with the paper.

“Oh really?” he said. “What are you on?” When I said we were on the third floor, I was not being cutesy. I thought that was what he meant.

Years of not asking Londoners where they lived, were they married, and what they did for a living had entered my soul. I didn’t realise that the members of the Thatcherite generation constantly ask each other what they’re on – and they're not talking about speed or coke or uppers. They’re talking about how many K. And they say K without any inverted commas. Anyone on the way up will think that measuring your salary in “thousands” is like talking about the wireless.

It’s hard to know whether the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, is personally responsible for this huge conversational and cultural change in the people she rules. There is an argument for saying it would have happened anyway. People talk more about money in Ireland then they used to and she doesn’t rule us. Americans were always upfront about what they earned and thought that hard work and big earnings equalled virtue when the British used to think it vulgar to mention it at all.

And why should this new-found freedom or crassness – depending on how you approach it – be due to one woman and her attitudes? It could be something that just happened. The time was right. The tide was flowing that way.

But there is a stronger argument which suggests that Margaret Thatcher made the time right and that it was she who turned the tide in this direction. It was certainly in her blood and her upbringing. The daughter of a comfortably-off grocer, Alfred Roberts, who had himself once been very poor. Margaret and her sister Muriel grew up in a house where they had to carry in water for the bath . They were taught to regard comfort as something which came not as of right, but as something that had to be earned.

People who were at university with Margaret Roberts curse themselves for not having noticed her so that they could dine out for the rest of the century on stories of the PM as a young girl. But her sense of keeping her head down and working hard so that there would be jam tomorrow was so strong that she seems to have missed out on every other aspect of life in Oxford.

Thrift and diligence
From the word go she believed that hard work and thrift and diligence brought their own reward – not just feeling good but having lots of money, and that obviously you talked about it because it was the crown of your life’s achievement.

She believed all that while being a member of a political party whose top brass believed nothing of the sort. Those with inherited wealth in the Conservative Party, who did not recognise what was coming up through their ranks, never spoke of their assets. Occasionally they would lament the tax system, but only ruefully, as they might have talked about the weather. None of them would have dared to turn the whole thing about as she did. It might have looked a bit ungentlemanly.

Margaret Thatcher was never a gentleman about money. Before she became prime minister the top tax bracket was 83 per cent. This is what she went for bald-headed. In a voice that was much shriller in those days she cried out that this rate raised no real money for the country because anyone likely to be in that band would leave the country. She said it was only a symbol, a socialist symbol of envy. Instead she would have different symbols, symbols that showed that hard work, thrift, diligence and enterprise paid off. She would reward people who had been courageous enough to try to make money ... by giving them more money.

And the country bought it. I remember thinking at the time that she had chosen the wrong signal and was delivering an elitist message. What working class people were going to give the OK to abolish Super Tax? Surely they would see that the future for them must lie in the improvement of the public sector, in an increased commitment to health and education. Why would the great mass of ordinary British people vote for a system that would give huge tax reductions to those in good jobs when the majority of the population were in bad and poorly paid jobs?

I was wrong, of course, and she was right. And not right just once in a Britain weary of inadequate Labour leadership. She is right over and over. The poorest in the land will vote for her because she has made them feel safe. The unemployed have voted for her because she says earnestly over and over a phrase she once said in opposition which went down very well: you cannot look after the hard-up people in society unless you are accruing enough wealth to do so.

Making sense
It made sudden and immediate sense to those who have given her three staggering majorities. It made sense when she made her other great statement of philosophy: “We should not expect the State to appear in the guise of an extravagant good fairy at every christening, a loquacious companion at every stage of life’s journey, the unknown mourner at every funeral.”

Everywhere now there are awards for entrepreneurs, for breaking new ground, for hacking into an export market, for turning a company around. These are marked with ceremony and widely covered in the newspapers, rather like hunt balls used to be. It’s no longer “naff” to talk about making money. The circles where trade is looked down on these days are very small and rarified indeed.

In principle this has to be good rather than bad. To replace an order of drones with an order of worker bees has to be an improvement. In practice, however, it seems to have legitimised greed in a way that cannot be acceptable in any society.

The greed that is fast becoming a characteristic has gone hand in hand with the work ethic, and perhaps outstripped it. People at all levels of income work much harder in Thatcher’s Britain than they do in Ireland and than they did in Britain before she came to power. But somehow the great inherent value in that is hard to find. You don’t see a busy thriving land where people all pull together for the common good. You see nests of self-interest where those slaving on shift-work to be able to buy their council house are consumed with rage and distaste for their neighbours who will not do the same.

A white Londoner can be caught in a feeling of scorn for his West Indian neighbours who do not work nearly as hard as he does. On the other hand he can feel envy and resentment for his other neighbours, originally from the subcontinent of India, whose families run the post offices, the newsagents and the grocery stores, who seem to work from dawn to dusk.

Taxi drivers who deliver bottles of Bolly and delicatessen sandwiches to the money houses late at night know that it will take a lot of graft before they reach that stage of an earnings ladder themselves. The young men and women in the estate agents’ offices who show clients the townhouses and apartments in dockland sigh at the thought of how many sales and percentages they will have to notch up before getting their own keys to these units of paradise living.

Self-reliance has been preached so often and with such a sense of virtue that it is now widely believed. At one end of a scale businesses note Mrs Thatcher's warm approval for firms like Marks and Spencer and they try to follow suit. They streamline, they expand with the aid of personally guaranteed loans, rather than asking for grants. When they fail, as they often do, they regard it not as having tried too much too soon too hopefully; they see it as an honourable defeat in a fairly wonderful cause.

At a different level the religion of self-reliance is also alive and well. There are long long lines in the outpatients’ departments of the hospitals, there are people standing in the waiting rooms at doctors’ surgeries because the 25 chairs provided are not enough. But there is rarely a complaint heard. There is a belief that if this is free, it must be waited for; it’s not a right or anything.

There was always the alternative of joining a private medical scheme. The fact that many people can’t afford to do so isn’t really relevant. They know it’s there as an alternative to all this waiting around. Ten years ago, in a Britain that grew up on the welfare state, only toffs and hypochondriacs went outside the system for private medicine. Today Mrs Thatcher, the great enemy of the handout, has made them see their national health system as some kind of handout instead of what it is: a brave and honourable attempt to look after the health of the nation by contributions from the nation.

The numbers of school blazers in working-class areas has multiplied a hundredfold. The prime minister has spoken movingly on the innate desire which lives in all parents to do well for their children: to get the Best for them. The Best is not the local primary, followed by the local comprehensive. The Best is fee-paying. Parents who don’t manage it feel a sense of having short-changed the next generation. The millions and millions invested in an educational system for the country h ave been forgotten. Its dream is not so much broken as ignored.

Under Mrs Thatcher Britain has become much more Americanised . There is no doubt that the slightly snobby, patronising glance that Britain used to give across the Atlantic is long gone. There is now full-scale admiration for America’s resources and the way it used them.

Travel to the States is inexpensive at the moment. You can walk into any travel agents and buy a return flight New York for under £200 – and for well under that if you root through the special offers and the bucket shops. The line for temporary American visas snakes long and permanent outside the American embassy in Grosvenor Square.

By the same token, interest in the continent of Europe has somehow waned. A recent poll showed that hardly anybody in the whole country could name a single member of the European Parliament. The old feeling that the Continent is over there and different and none the better for that is beginning to take over again.

The main discussion about the Channel Tunnel has been on how to sink the railway line below the ground so that it won'’t damage property values in Kent.

There has been little speculation about what it will be like to be able to get a train or take the car to Europe. Instead there is the fear that too many of them will come to England and clog the roads up further.

Patriotism is hard to define anywhere, never more so than in modern England. Flag-waving is for the National Front, or for lager louts, or for the day she sent the boys off to conquer Galtieri.

Yet the prime minister has given people a certain economic pride in being British that they didn’t have before. They are pleased that they aren’t laughed at any more as a nation that couldn’t get it together. The words “British disease” are no longer used with any conviction about a system in which orders cannot be met because of strikes and delays.

There are those, of course, who will say that she achieved this situation only by creating the greatest unemployment total the country has ever known. But oddly there aren’t many who advance this view. Not enough to make her feel shaky.

A much more prevalent opinion is that she is the woman who beat Scargill as well as Galtieri: the two were dangers, the two were vanquished. Not even the financial crash shook Mrs Thatcher or changed the style she has imposed on the nation. And some of the things that she had not managed to achieve, such as curing the terrible litter problems, have somehow slipped the net when it comes to criticism.

It’s hard to find a feeling of warmth towards her, there are no outpourings of love. Even the most toadying pieces that appear about her have to search for signs of a generous spontaneous heart.

Her relationship with her husband is about the only area when genuine affection can be sighted.

To give her credit, she has never insisted on phoney family gatherings with children from whom she is distanced.

There are ways in which she has outraged the sensibilities of ordinary people. She didn’t attend her stepmother’s funeral and said the sending of a wreath was more appropriate. Yet she is always quickly on the spot when some disaster happens or when cracks in morale begin to show. You can predict that the next night’s news bulletin will always show pictures of the prime minister, concerned and thoughtful and speaking meaningfully to cameras. She has shamed the royals and the opposition by being there and back before they have thought of attending.

She has made a generation feel much more confident than it used to feel. Rightly or wrongly, people believe that everything is now within their grasp. She could rule them forever if she remembered that she must now be seen to run the show entirely on her own.

The British have a history of seeming to like absolute monarchs, and then quite unexpectedly turning against them to topple them.

Perhaps a history teacher might remind Mrs Thatcher to think less about Elizabeth I and Victoria and more about the hapless Stuarts, who twice thought that they had it made and found they hadn’t. She is said to be a great one for learning from the past and putting it to good use.