Bloody Compact Discs: Thatcher's Detractors Came From All Classes

Many of the Iron Lady's opponents were wealthy intellectuals who blamed her for watering down high culture.
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A carton of milk is seen after it was placed outside the home of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher after her death was announced in London April 8, 2013. (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

Margaret Thatcher died of a stroke this morning at the age of 87, but not everyone is mourning. Though she was revered by many, some Britons are marking the death of a woman who ushered in an era of austerity, privatization, and union-busting with a hint of "good riddance."

"Best news I have had all year," one said on Facebook, as Reuters reported. Another placed a bottle of milk on Thatcher's doorstep in the wealthy London neighborhood of Belgravia, a nod to her policy of scrapping free milk for elementary school children in the '70s. That move earned her the nickname "Thatcher the milk snatcher."

Thatcher was one of the most divisive figures in British politics in life, and in death her legacy remains controversial.

Liverpool Walton MP Labour Steve Rotheram told the Daily Mirror that she was "celebrated by big business and the rich and powerful," and that "her legacy for Liverpool and virtually every other city and town outside of the traditional shires and rural England, was one of acute misery."

Much of the disparagement of Thatcher is aimed at her tax-cutting and cost-reduction measures, which indeed led to massive job losses throughout England's north and an uptick in poverty rates across the country.

But Thatcher's core electorate wasn't composed solely of big businesses and the super-rich, but rather members of the lower- and middle-classes who dreamed of bigger houses and better futures. And during her time in office, much of the criticism lobbed at Thatcher came from elites who despised her "common" personality and her outreach to ordinary people. To them, her policies were dangerous because they were culturally -- rather than economically -- disruptive.

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Throughout her speeches, Thatcher often referenced the idea of individual responsibility paired with total upward mobility.

"I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand 'I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it' ... and so they are casting their problems upon society, and who is society? There are individual men and women and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first," she said in a 1987 interview with Woman's Own.

Thatcher lured middle-class voters by suggesting that through a deregulated market, they would be able to "improve their homes and their lives; to get gradually better cars, washing machines and televisions; to go on holiday in Spain rather than Bournemouth."

In the general election of October 1974, only 26 percent of the skilled working-class voted Tory, the Conservative party, compared with 49 percent who voted Labour. But in 1979, 41 percent of skilled manual laborers voted for Thatcher, and the same percent went for Labour. Over the course of her tenure, the classes' voting preferences evened out significantly.

Here's the chart, via the Economist:

economistchartthatcher.gif

Thatcher had a distaste for classes and collectives, preferring to emphasize individual freedom and ambition. As David Cannadine argued in his 2000 book, The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain:

"She attacked the trade unions, because they represented organized, collective, productive labor. She stressed the market, the public, the customer, and the individual, which undermined the language of social solidarity based on productive classes. She offered hope --in a way that Labour never had -- to the working and lower middle classes of escaping the constraints of impoverished expectations and irremediable subordination."

As a result, more people did become home-owners, entrepreneurs, and bankers. And more became unemployed, as well.

Britain's north was especially hard-hit, absorbing 94 percent of the job loss during the first decade of Thatcherism. From 1979 to 1993, the poverty rate in Britain tripled. In the mid-90s, a U.N. report found that Great Britain had the most unequal society in the West.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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