Former British PM Margaret Thatcher’s death this week has not, it seems, provoked a sense in Britain or even around the world that the deceased can do no wrong.
The ‘Iron Lady’ steered Britain away from a failed post-war course. But the cost was division, bitterness and dispossession. She polarised; and the bitterness re-emerged this week to the point where the Telegraph apparently had to shut down its twitter stream.
Thatcher was not alone. Many developed nations, one way or another, had their ‘Thatcher’ in the 1980s. Including my country, New Zealand.
It was unsurprising. Thatcher’s brand of conviction politics – certainties based not on pragmatic understanding of human nature, but theoretical dogma – was on the rise around the world. It was of its time, framed in the ideological oppositions of the late twentieth century, the moment when the new generation got hold of the tiller on various ships of state around the western world and, probably unintentionally, steered their societies unerringly into a riotous exaltation of self.
On the back of it the eighties became an age of arrogance, of asserted certainties, of big hair, big shoulder pads, wedge-shaped cars, over-priced and under-sized food, greed, status, displays of power – and bad behaviour.
Was it any good for us? I was in my early twenties when New Zealand followed the Thatcher lead. There were winners, other young twenty-somethings around me who partied up large – for whom the display and assertion of power was an end in itself. The future didn’t matter. What counted was now.
And there were losers. Anybody over 40 was a has-been, unemployable – a dinosaur. Failures. Because they were old. Because they hadn’t made life exciting. Whatever.
Some of the young, selfish, upwardly mobile and badly behaved party animals in white shirts and wide ties crashed and burned in 1987. I don’t know where most of them are now. For myself, I recall it was hard to get work.
I survived; so did others who thought the same way I did. But it wasn’t easy. And every visit I made to my home province brought heartbreak; closures, derelict buildings, a sense of gloom – even as city office workers partied up amidst chromed, neon-lit bars with their revolting ‘goldfish laybacks’ (don’t ask) and Corona beer swilled straight out of the bottle.
With hindsight, I think that whole social mix of the eighties was symptomatic of its time, the antidote for the world wars that had dominated the first half of the twentieth century; a reaction to the safe, solid, protected, grey societies that followed. It made a selected few from a new generation into winners. But I cannot forget the way it also dispossessed. And the generation who had made that 1980s world possible – who had laid their lives on the line to defeat fascism and make democracy safe – were the generation who lost. A twentieth century phenomenon.
We’re well into the twenty-first now. The Cold War is long over. New technology is transforming the way we interact – and the way we can produce and earn. And yet, I have to wonder. It seems to me that the eighties, fundamentally, tapped into an aspect of the human condition. It’s always been around, one way or another, for our entire history. Sometimes society lets it out. And I wonder if that particular genie has really been put back into the bottle, even today.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013